How To Save a Job Search From Those Pot-Smoking Selfies

By Janet B. Gerhard

Meg was interviewing for her dream job one day when out of the blue, the question came: “Those pictures of you on Facebook smoking pot—that was pretty recent, right?”

Pretty recent, alright. A few months back, Meg was at a party where everyone was smoking pot. Meg and her friends decided to try a few joints. Then they recorded the moment for posterity and shared it with 1500 of their closest friends on Facebook.

It probably didn’t help that the job Meg was now interviewing for was with a rehab provider. (Find out how people are finding freedom from pot and other drug addictions at FHE Health.) Still, Meg was learning the lesson that in the brave, new world of Big Tech, one off-color tweet or compromising selfie could come back to haunt her. In the worst-case scenario, it might even cost her that dream job.

How to Keep a Compromising Selfie from Hurting a Job Search

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As damaging as one compromising selfie might be, there are things you can do to keep it from taking a serious toll on your career aspirations. For starters, it’s important to know how not to make the damage any worse than it already is. Listen to the “adult in the room” when you are considering whether to put anything more on social media that could come back to haunt you. For example, an effort to fix the situation, by lighting up that Twitter account with an explanation of those pot-smoking selfies, may only make things worse.

This approach—of listening to the adult in the room before impulsively sharing—is also an important takeaway for future interactions on social media.

Tips for Cleaning Up the Damage After a Social Media Mishap

If this advice goes unheeded and “the adult in the room” was impossible to channel, here are some tips for how to clean up after the mishap and before the damage worsens:

1. Consider if there may be other content or material that could come back to bite you

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As negative as visual reminders of bad behavior are, bullying and negative political posts are equally as harmful and self-sabotaging. Making negative statements about colleagues and management can be perceived as insubordination. It can also suggest some unflattering things about a person’s character: that they can be mean under stress, for example.

Because of the fragile political environment that we find ourselves in today, it’s often a good idea to keep those discussions in person with close friends. I am not advocating self-censorship but exercising good judgment with any post is key.

2. Un-tag or ask to delete friends’ posts

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If an unbecoming photo lands on social media from a friend’s post, “un-tag” yourself as soon as possible. It might also make sense to call your friend and ask them to delete the photo in its entirety.

Some people may feel uncomfortable making this ask but consider that many of us would do the same with a bad picture. Maybe we don’t like our smile or the way our clothes fit. Don’t be embarrassed to take control of postings.

3. Delete any problem photos on your page

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If you posted the content and are now regretting it, do not delay in deleting the photo as soon as possible. Check to see if the photo may have been shared. If it was, make some calls to delete the photo from those accounts as well. (Remember that it could be worse—at least you are not having to report an STD.) Just explain that you are in a job search and are seeking to clean up your profile. From my own experience working with people who are in these circumstances, I’ve found that friends are very willing to help with this initiative.

4. Remember privacy is hard to ensure

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Even if you believe that you are covered with your privacy settings, anyone can take a screenshot and forward the content. Rather than take privacy for granted, assume that everyone can see everything.

Photos of drug use or other compromising behavior can also be damaging when a person’s credentials or other certifications hang in the balance (within a certain timeframe that they must report to work).

How to Manage the Remaining Fallout

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While the above tips can help with the clean-up, there may still be information on the Internet that can’t be untagged, deleted or removed upon request. This may require building a good defensive strategy, so that you can be prepared for potential inquiries in a job search or interview. Try the following:

  • Google yourself to see what is out there and be willing and prepared to have an honest conversation about it.
  • Have a response ready for when you get a question about those pot-smoking selfies or another problematic post. You might say something like, “I am aware of that post, and it does not reflect my current values or behavior. Since then, I have sought to improve my lifestyle, because I am a life-long learner and believe in learning from my mistakes.”
  • In other words, do not be evasive and untruthful. Most managers and HR professionals understand that our life and experiences are a work in progress. Without denying the post, use it to illustrate personal and professional growth. Do not get caught in a lie. It will be the end of the hiring process for you.
  • Most applicants, particularly in safety-sensitive positions, will be required to submit to a drug test. Do it willingly but understand that certain drugs, including marijuana, can stay in the system for over 30 days. If the drug test comes back positive, you may ask for a split test which precludes the diagnostic facility from making a mistake twice. If that test is also positive your interview process will be over. Science doesn’t lie.
  • Personal social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter do not have the same professional look and feel as LinkedIn or Indeed. But when posting illicit or illegal behavior, try to adopt the litmus test of professionalism.

Protecting That Dream Job/Career Moving Forward

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Ultimately, those who are serious about protecting a job search or career need to remember that in an age where Smartphones are everywhere, almost anyone can get caught in a photo that goes viral. A sudden episode of road rage or an angry tirade in a restaurant can become an instant sensation around the country.

In a similar vein, some people who like to document everything need to bear in mind that pictures of that party on the beach when they called in sick can become an employer’s cause for discipline or termination. Exercise care when deciding whether to take a sick or personal day on the beach. Let the cell phone stay in the bag and forgo the red solo cup. (It usually says “alcohol” to viewers.)

Finally, remember the cardinal rule that once you put something out there, it is often out there to stay.

Janet B. Gerhard is Director of Public and Community Affairs for the national behavioral health provider FHE Health and a consultant to unions on mental health and addiction treatment.

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