05/23/2013 12:18 EDT | Updated 07/23/2013 05:12 EDT

How Your Digital Footprint Can Hurt You

sherlock holmes silhouette in studio on white background
sherlock holmes silhouette in studio on white background

Consider this: anyone, complete strangers included, can tell a great deal about you via your digital footprint; that is, the trail you leave behind when you share updates, post pictures or check into places via social media. It's very likely you're broadcasting what you look like, where you work, where you've been, who you know, what you like to do, and of course, your opinions on a variety of topics.

As the amount of information shared and consumed online continues to grow -- this is something to pay attention to... as it can either really help, or really hurt your reputation, your personal brand and if you have one, your business.

I've seen business owners and personal contacts tarnish their reputations with a few words or a few clicks, not fully realizing the power of the digital world we now live in. Every picture you post, every status or page you like, and every update you share is essentially announcing to the world who you are, permanently.

Over the past few days alone, I've witnessed two pretty major gaffes take place in my network -- both of which were unfortunate and completely avoidable. In the first instance, a business owner publicly called someone out on Facebook in regards to an extremely personal issue, complete with profanity. In the second incident, a professional who works for a major energy company 'Liked' what could be considered an inappropriate public photo. The action showed up on the feed of everyone who followed them.

Think for a moment of the potential repercussions. Before I do business with or consider hiring anyone, the first thing I do is find their social media profiles and find out what they're all about. Do you swear? Stop. Are you overly negative or regularly posting inappropriate things? Don't do it. Published words, and any online actions for that matter, can easily be misinterpreted, so be careful about how you may be coming across online. Whether it's the language you use or the tone of what you say, every word you type, every action you take online is essentially what you are broadcasting publicly, and permanently.

At the same time, you still want to have a presence. So avoiding the online and social space entirely can backfire too. Many companies, including my own, use search engines and social media to dig up information about potential candidates. What are we looking for? We're hunting down information to potentially validate your resume, to find out if you walk your talk and to learn more about you, as a person. Also, when I'm looking to use the services of another business, especially a business which is tied to a personal brand (as today they essentially all are) I do the same thing. I expect and know that potential clients of mine do the same when trying to find out more about my business.

It's critical now, more-so than ever, to educate our employees, colleagues and especially children, that what they say or do online is permanent. It can be a great opportunity for you to build your brand or prove to be the easiest method of self-destruction. Maybe it's time to do a personal digital analysis on yourself? You may be surprised at what you find... looking from the perspective of an outsider.

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