Our Take: Fatally Visible

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Digital dirt on your professional image needn't involve one of the big four career-bombs: beer, marijuana, foul language, or unclothed flesh.

It needn't even involve using your blog to vent at a past or present employer. Instead, an unwary professional can soil his image even by planned appearances in well-regarded, mainstream media outlets.

You remember digital dirt. It's a catchy expression for unprofessional remarks or photos attributed to a person or appearing on a Web page in association with that person's name. Before embarking on a job search, career experts advise scanning the Web for mentions of your name and doing whetever possible to remove any compromising material that turns up.

The rub is that potentially compromising material can appear in perfectly respectable venues. The media's eagerness to put a human face - actually, a great many human faces - on the recession has spawned a particularly insidious version: "Laid Off and Looking."

That's how The Wall Street Journal titled a series of blogs launched by the newspaper in December 2008, using unemployed managers from Wall Street and Main Street as guest authors writing under their real names. A stint as a Laid Off and Looking blogger brings instant visibility and association with the Journal's strong brand identity. However, visibility can be a mixed blessing.

When Fame Can Hurt

Here for instance is what one WSJ guest blogger wrote while narrating the bittersweet finale of her job search: "I painfully began to recognize that looking beyond my comfort zone at less desirable career paths might be the only way that I gain employment before 2010....Instead of continuing to pursue the career change that I had thought business school would enable, I began to apply to ... duplicates of exactly what I had been doing prior to business school."

The woman, Ann Reynolds, had landed just such a job - which also happened to be situated in Texas, while she'd hoped to live in New York. Like other WSJ bloggers who became re-employed, Reynolds is astute enough to paint her new career cup as half-full rather than mostly empty. Yet, I find it hard to imagine her new employer - or even a prospective future one - being in any way comforted or impressed by her highly public admission that she settled for a "less desirable career path." The firm that hired her surely knew about her WSJ connection and read what she had to say there. So, what am I missing?

Other WSJ blog alumni have written that they appreciate a new job's short work hours, and a "less competitive and high-strung culture." (This was written about Bloomberg, which left me even more puzzled.)

Other Self-Defeating Ways to Get Visible

The Journal is hardly the only major media outlet running human interest stories that zero in on disrupted career paths of individual professionals hit by the financial crisis and recession. I remain mystified how Bloomberg News, the New York Times and others regularly succeed in persuading such people to consent to publish their names. In the worst case, a professional who publicly admits having settled for a job she isn't passionate about from the get-go can end up looking as bad as "Cisco Fatty." (That's the handle used by a California graduate student who dissed an internship offer from Cisco in a widely read tweet.)

Nor is telling your personal job-hunt saga to the media the only risky way to get visible. Back in March, I cautioned against grabbing for public attention in ways that could undermine one's professional image. When it comes to in-your-face advertising tactics like the resume-on-a-T-shirt, one man's go-getter is another man's buffoon. Indeed, eFinancialCareers users commenting on a December 2008 story about getting attention in a tough market were quite right to give the thumbs-down to tacky gimmicks like sending a stress ball or a bundle of play money alongside your resume. Even the ubiquitous social-networking site declaration that "I'm looking for a job in XYZ" can do more harm than good if stated in a way that conveys the individual lacks confidence in his career prospects.

So if the thought of having a moment in the spotlight makes you glow all over, ask yourself: Am I shining... or radioactive?

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