By Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder

A decade ago, job searching was still a fairly neat, straightforward process. A job seeker applied for a position and was asked in for an interview, references were checked, and an offer was extended. The proliferation of social media over the past several years has added a layer of complexity to the hiring process, creating more virtual hoops for job seekers to jump through before hearing, “you’re hired.”

Besides the websites specifically geared toward professional networking, most people use social networks for personal reasons – connecting with friends and family, sharing photos, and gathering and disseminating interesting information. However, while job seekers may view their postings as personal, any public profile is fair game for employers, who increasingly use these sites to gauge whether a candidate will be the right fit for their organization.

In fact, according to a new CareerBuilder survey, 43 percent of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates, up from 39 percent last year and 36 percent in 2012. Based on the survey, this trend shows no sign of slowing: 12 percent of employers don’t currently research candidates on social media but plan to start.

The employers who are already searching sites aren’t impressed with what they’re finding, which has potentially serious implications for job seekers. Fifty-one percent of employers who research job candidates on social media say they’ve found content that led them to not hire the candidate, up from 43 percent last year and 34 percent in 2012.

What employers don’t want to find
What makes these sites so appealing – the freedom to speak one’s mind in an open forum and instantaneously share photos and information – is also what can end up costing you a job. Photos from your friend’s bachelor party may appear innocent enough to share, or that off-color joke may seem too funny not to post, but those types of actions can come back to haunt you. Forty-six percent of employers say they’ll pass on candidates who posted provocative or inappropriate photographs or information, and 41 percent will reject job seekers who posted information about drinking or using drugs.

Other social media discoveries that have turned off employers include job seekers who bad-mouthed a previous company or fellow employee (36 percent); had poor communication skills (32 percent); made discriminatory comments related to race, gender and religion (28 percent); and lied about their qualifications (25 percent).

How to get your online presence in professional shape
While especially important for active job seekers, all working professionals should keep the following tips in mind for ensuring their social activity is employer-friendly:
•Pump up your privacy settings: Most social networking sites allow users to customize their privacy settings so they can control who sees what. For instance, you may be able to set up your profile so that only your “friends” or “followers” can see what you post. You may also be able to restrict others from posting information to your profile, as well as monitor posts you’ve been tagged in so nothing goes up without your approval. The good news is many job seekers are already taking such measures to avoid over-sharing with potential employers. Nearly half of workers surveyed only share posts with friends and family, 41 percent have their profile set to private and 18 percent keep separate professional and personal profiles.
•Think beyond social networking sites: While cleaning up your profiles is important, your online footprint may extend beyond those sites, and everything you do on the Web is searchable. Forty-five percent of employers use search engines such as Google to research potential job candidates. If you don’t know what’s floating in cyberspace that might get you into trouble with potential employers, do some digging to see what social media “dirt” comes up when you search your name.
•Use your social presence for good: Being active on social media can actually work in your favor if what employers find piques their interest. One third of employers who research candidates on social networking sites say they’ve found content that made them more likely to hire a candidate, while 23 percent say such content directly led to them hiring the candidate. In fact, employers say they’ve hired someone based on their social networking presence for reasons including: they got a good feel for the job candidate’s personality (46 percent), the job seeker’s site conveyed a professional image (43 percent), and the candidate received awards and accolades (31 percent).

So, use your social media presence as an opportunity to showcase what makes you unique, well-rounded and the type of worker an employer would want to hire.

Rosemary Haefner is the vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. She is an expert in recruitment trends and tactics, job seeker behavior, workplace issues, employee attitudes and HR initiatives.