05/09/2012 07:29 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

Ask Judy: Will Photos from the Past Ruin My Job Prospects?

Q: I had a great time during college -- perhaps too good of a time. Even after I graduated, I continued the fun as a mature and grown adult. Even though I worked in a fairly conservative firm, I figured what I did in private, was just that -- private. Recently, I was laid off and have been looking for a similar job in the same field. I had been with my prior company for over a decade and now that I'm unemployed and looking for a new job, I'm a little nervous that some of the "fun" I had in the past may affect my future prospects of employment. I have heard of potential employers doing an Internet search before hiring someone. What if some compromising photos of me show up? Does this even matter? How do I explain myself? Do companies have the right to use this information against me?

A: You have to keep in mind, whether they have a legal right or not to use that information; it's a fact of life that "presentation matters." A potential employer can and will hold such information against you even if they never publicly reveal the reasons for their judgment. In fact, even though it wasn't the "official" reason given, a friend of my son found out that Facebook photos showcasing some of his less than ideal behaviors most likely prevented him from getting further in the interview process.

While prospective employers may not hold it against you personally, the job market is such that they have their pick of qualified applicants and employees that represent the company in a positive light. Why wouldn't they go for the person who could do the job as well as you could, but who is unencumbered by photos that might embarrass their company?

It's good that you're thinking proactively about this. While you are searching for a job, it is a good idea to be on your best behavior. You might want to consider the different privacy options available on various social networking sites and enable them. Furthermore, if you know that there are some pictures of you out there that you don't want getting public attention, then ask those in your network to remove them or at least remove identifying information such as pictures you have been "tagged" in. Another more drastic measure you might want to consider is engaging professional help in "sanitizing" your online identity and consulting with companies that help clients manage their reputations in the cyber sphere.

If the issue does come up, either at a interview or once you have a job, be straightforward about it: say you were younger then and didn't show the best judgment in allowing photos to be taken, but something like that would never happen again. You needn't apologize for having had a good time, and I highly doubt that's what an employer would expect, but you can show you've learned from the experience and that you are exercising more discretion and are more aware of what you share about yourself online (and what your friends also share about you). You also might want to turn the tables a bit and respectfully ask how they found such information and if this is a practice they routinely engage in. This will give you some insight into exactly what you are signing up for if you choose to work for such a company.

Once you are employed, be smart about when and where you express yourself online. There have been recent reports about companies increasingly asking applicants for Facebook passwords or requiring as a condition of employment that they have access to employees' social networks so that they can be privy to online conversations and to confirm histories. I'm not sure how widespread this practice is, but the general consensus is that a potential employer has no right to require this information and such demands are unfair and may even be illegal. Keep in mind though that you may be waiving some of your privacy rights when you access your social networking sites on company computers. This is because some of these companies have made it clear that online activities are monitored (check your employee handbook) and as such, it is perfectly legal to view online communications and postings. The takeaway here is that you need to be careful not just about what. you post, but where you are posting it from.