You were absolutely qualified for that job. Experience, education, you name it.
So why didn’t you get it? Did you do something wrong on your resume? Write a really terrible cover letter? Blow the interview? Or was it the endless pictures on Facebook of you with a martini glass in your hand?
The maddening thing is, you usually don’t know what tiny misstep or colossal blunder cost you a job you know you could do with your hands tied. But it can help to know that you can up your odds against losing out via the simple act of monitoring your public image.
In a way, says Paul Cecala, a career coach and director of program development at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the internet has made us all public figures. That means we need to monitor our public image as scrupulously as a Hollywood agent or a PR firm monitors that of a client in the public eye. The truth is that employers are almost certainly looking into who you are beyond your resume, and where they are looking starts with your social media profiles.
Cecala presents “Background Checks and References — What Are Employers Learning About You?,” a free workshop, on Friday, February 2, from 9:45 a.m. to noon at Princeton Public Library. Visit www.psgofmercercounty.org.
Cecala grew up in Morris County, where his mother taught school for a year and his father worked in computers in their early days. His father started in the computer room of a pharma company and eventually sold computer parts. Along the way, he claims to have invented the type of envelope that tears open along three edges. Cecala says that he can’t prove the claim, but he can’t disprove it either. And it’s more fun to think his dad actually did it.
Cecala himself had no wish to work in envelopes. Not unless there was mail in space, which is where he planned to be in the 1980s. “I wanted to become the next great space shuttle pilot,” he says.
He attended the Florida Institute of Technology, working his way through school in the mail room and at Tastee Freeze. He made it as far as his associate’s degree in aviation management and flight technology before realizing the “hardcore physics” and mathematics and everything else that went into being an astronaut was not worth it to him. So he switched his major to psychology. He earned his bachelor’s in the subject in 1985 and got his pilot’s license because he might have given up on the shuttle, but not on being up in the air.
With his degree and aviation background he set to work in corporate aviation sales for about 15 years, including a stint in aircraft charter sales. Essentially, he says, when his company didn’t need to use the planes, the planes were rented out to wealthy people for charter.
The years in the business were good to him, he says, but after a while Cecala felt the “need to get out of a 24/7/365 kind of world.” While at his job he found he enjoyed doing talks and presentations and education and training, so he changed fields and started working in higher education. But not as a teacher. He instead found that he enjoyed helping students through the often oppressive task of looking for work.
“I fell in love with the job-search process,” he says. “I really liked interviewing and resume writing. I was intrigued by the art and science of the job-search process.”
By the early 2000s Cecala had worked in for-profit education and at One-Stop Career Centers in Morris County, helping the unemployed find work. He also started his own side business, a consulting firm, Cecala Career Consultants, that ran formally until 2014, though Cecala still counsels job seekers on his own. In 2012 he became the coordinator of career and professional programs at the County College of Morris. He joined FDU in November.
If there is one thing Cecala knows after all this time, it’s this: At bare minimum, have a LinkedIn profile, because employers large and small start looking for you there. About 75 percent of HR executives go to LinkedIn first, he says. And they had better find the you that you want them to find when they start digging.
It’s easy to lie, and that’s why companies are looking so hard. Thirty-odd years ago, when Cecala entered the workforce, it was enough for any job hunter to have a freshly typed resume and a photocopy of his degree. But because credentials and education and work history are so patently easy to fudge, companies can spend quite a lot of time verifying who you are these days.
The methods companies are using range from the simple, like a credit check, to the involved, like investigators talking to your neighbors and former coworkers to make sure you are who you say you are.
There are, he says, about 10 levels of backgrounding employers can fall back on, and the bigger the company — and the more important the job you want — the more rabbits they are going to pull out of their hats to vet you.
Small companies might not do much, if anything, to look into the background of a low-level or entry-level applicant. But executives will absolutely get a deep background check. Companies, Cecala says, want to ensure that the people they are entrusting their names to won’t be the type to besmirch those names. Speaking of which:
Don’t be surprised if you didn’t get that simple cashier’s job if you have bad credit. Those credit checks employers do have a simple logic behind them, Cecala says. “The thinking is, if you can’t handle your own money well, how can we be sure you’ll handle ours well?”
The same logic holds up for driving history and criminal background. Companies want to be able to rely on people they hire, and if you have a history of being irresponsible or impulsive, it could be a serious barrier to you finding work.
Backgrounding is nothing new. Employers have been looking into applicant backgrounds for decades. The difference today is that the internet makes it really easy to dig up information about a person.
Something to keep in mind is that, by law, companies cannot hold anything in your background against you to the degree that it keeps them from hiring you — unless they disclose what they found and give you a chance to explain. But if a company tells you they found something troubling, Cecala says, “What’s the first thing you’re going to ask? ‘What did you find?’”
And that can lead to a whole host of issue, legal and ethical. So, Cecala says, companies often fall back on a legal loophole that puts them in the clear — they can just say they found someone else who fits the job better and leave it at that.
How can you protect yourself? Cecala’s advice can be boiled down to one word: behave. In his own business, he routinely advises people to never leave the house without being dressed at minimum in business casual attire because “you never know who you’re going to run into.”
The same attention to good behavior should be maintained online, he says. Like it or not, people are judgmental, and if HR people see your duckface photos from bars posted all over Instagram, they will draw conclusions about your behavior, and they might not be the conclusions you want drawn.
Think of it less as lying or rewriting history and more like updating your image. At the same time, be aware that simply not being online will not save you, especially if a millennial is the hiring manager, Cecala says. Millennials communicate via the internet all the time, they are extremely comfortable with social media platforms, and will often, he says, wonder why you’re not on them. In other words, it might look like you’re trying to hide something.
So as simple — and, to older-generation workers in particular, as ghastly — as it sounds, you owe it to your job future to have a positive public image, especially online.
“You’re going to have to suck it up,” Cecala says. “There are enough candidates out there.” Meaning, if a hiring manager doesn’t like what she sees, she will just move on to the next candidate. The one not playing beer pong with his bros on Facebook.