(Last Updated On: 09/02/2017)

Most people take a “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” approach to job seeking. We emphasize the details, stories, and anecdotes most likely to get us hired and exclude anything that won’t.

It’s a good strategy, except for one thing: “what they don’t know” is shrinking every year.

In 2011, US News reported that 90% of prospective employers will check your social media profiles before hiring you. Many will check before they even decide to interview you.

In other words, all those Facebook photos of you doing keg stands might be a bigger problem than how long your resume is.

Today, I’d like to lay out a three-point plan for cleaning up your online reputation at the most important time: before you apply.

Phase #1: Social Media Lockdown

I believe the safest bet is temporarily shutting down all social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) during your job search. If they can’t find anything, they can’t hold anything against you. They can’t draw unwarranted inferences about “the company you keep” based on what your friends post. They can’t assume you’re a drug addict because Skins UK is listed in your “Favorite Shows” box.

That said, if you insist on keeping your accounts open, you ought to restrict viewing of those accounts to friends only. Here is a detailed, screenshot-filled tutorial Wired.com developed on doing this to your Facebook account. Follow similar procedures for Twitter, MySpace or any other services you belong to. This ensures that no strangers can find you…hopefully. There have been reports of employers “bypassing” friends-only settings by finding Google Cache versions of your profile. Just saying.

Phase #2: Polish Your LinkedIn to Perfection

LinkedIn is an exception. Even if you follow the nuclear option that I advocate, you want to show up on LinkedIn. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, a LinkedIn profile is an opportunity to market and position yourself, rather than just spouting off your opinions or goofing around with friends.

Take a professional photograph of you looking groomed and nicely dressed. It’s not expensive: your local Walmart can take one for around $20. Your profile doesn’t have to sound boring and stuffy, but it should portray you as an intelligent professional with something to offer the world. Make sure the only job experiences you include are relevant internships or professional positions, not the minimum wage jobs you worked in high school. If possible, seek out references from past colleagues and superiors to “decorate” your LinkedIn with social proof of how awesome you are.

Phase #3: Register a Professional Email Address

Finally, if you have not already done so, register a respectable-sounding email address. “BigBootyGirl1986@hotmail.com” is fine for emailing your sorority sisters, but hiring managers will be put off by that faster than you can say “not interested.” Instead, follow a simple “first initial, last name” format, such as jsmith@gmail.com.

Small, thoughtful precautions like this are what Ramit Sethi refers to as “high-competence triggers.” They show that you understand the game being played around you and are consciously signalling this to others. Here is a video about some other high-competence triggers to incorporate into your career search.

“When in doubt, leave it out”

If you insist on neither deactivating nor locking down your social media accounts during a job search, I am not very optimistic about your prospects. However, you can mitigate the worst damage by honoring the “when in doubt, leave it out” principle. Before posting anything, ask yourself if this is likely to offend a hiring manager.

For instance, if you just sent out a bunch of applications, is now really the best time to post that incendiary political rant about Obama? Does that popular “Successful Black Man” really belong in your photo albums? Think about it. Your hiring manager might not find these things nearly as enlightening or hilarious as you do.