After graduating this spring from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., when Joseph Cadman began looking for his first career-track job on Capitol Hill, he quickly realized that in the competitive environment of Washington politics he needed all the help he could get. So he hired a headhunter to help with his job search. As a first step, before focusing on Cadman’s résumé or his interview skills, the consultant analyzed Cadman’s social media presence.

They beefed up his LinkedIn profile. “He made it look way more professional,” Cadman says. They took pro-quality, suit-and-tie portraits in front of the Capitol.

Next, Cadman spent several hours cleaning up his Facebook feed, deleting the photos that made him look like a student instead of a political-operative-in-waiting. “I didn’t have anything crazy, but these photos from school didn’t project the right image,” he explains.

Whether you’re looking for your first job out of college or are looking to change gigs—follow Cadman’s lead and take stock of your social media presence.

Online Privacy Advice

According to a survey released by CareerBuilder, an all-time high of 70 percent of potential employers use social media to screen candidates, up from 60 percent last year. The employers often don’t like what they see. Fifty-four percent of employers who check social media found something that made them decide not to offer an applicant a position.

But that doesn’t mean you should abandon your online activities. Forty-four percent of the employers in the CareerBuilder survey said that what they found on social media had actually helped a candidate land a job offer. And many others were leery of candidates with no web presence at all.

How do you turn these realties into an advantage in your job search? First understand your rights. Then use these tactics to boost your online image. 

No 'Shoulder Surfing' Allowed

Federal and state laws restrict the kinds of data that employers are allowed to glean from your social media accounts and what information they can use in making hiring decisions.

For instance, federal antidiscrimination laws bar employers from considering age, health status, race, and religion when evaluating candidates. These details are out-of-bounds to an employer, even if they come up in an interview or are revealed by a Facebook page.

“A string of birthday wishes might reveal an applicant’s age,” says attorney Philip Gordon of Littler Mendelson in Denver, who has written extensively about privacy in the workplace. To avoid being accused of illegal behavior, many larger companies insulate in-house HR teams and hiring managers from social media searches by farming the work out to consultants.

The rules—and a fear of lawsuits—are also why some companies, or departments within companies, completely avoid using social media.

Job applicants enjoy additional protection in 25 states with laws governing how potential employers may use social media. Many of these laws prevent employers from asking you for a social media password or forcing you to accept a friend request. Some states also prohibit employers from trying to get around these restrictions by requiring you to log in to your account on-site while a manager looks at the results while you sit there, a practice called shoulder surfing.

Yes, those things really do happen.

A word of caution: Although HR professionals might be scrupulously careful about following these regulations, hiring managers might not follow—or even know about—the laws governing social media, according to Jennifer Lake, president of the National Human Resources Association and vice president of People Resources at Goodwill of the Finger Lakes, in New York state.

If an interviewer pushes for more access to your social media accounts, Lake suggests asking why they’re interested. “You’re trying to find out what the gap is,” she explains. “It’s okay to question their request in a professional way.” 

If the company continues to insist, you might think twice about whether it's a place you want to work.

“You’re looking for the right fit, too,” she says. 

What Employers Look For

Beyond the legal restrictions, employers want to find out everything they can about potential hires—and they say social media can be a powerful tool in that quest.

What do companies look for? First, they want to find any red flags. “If an applicant is doing drugs, expressing racist or sexist sentiments, or even trashing a former employer, that information is fair game,” Gordon says.

Employers also want to determine how the candidate will fit into the company’s culture.

“There’s no such thing as too much information,” says Glenn Murphy, a partner at Bamboo Talent, an executive search firm in New York City. Murphy recalls reviewing one executive candidate’s Facebook page and reading a number of posts about being stressed over deadlines. The recruiter quickly decided that the candidate wasn’t well suited to a fast-paced startup environment. 

But social media can also help a candidate. For example, Lake looks carefully at applicants’ connections on LinkedIn to gauge their involvement—and interest—in the not-for-profit world. 

“If there are two equally qualified candidates,” Lake says, “having connections with thought leaders in the field could easily make the difference.”

Here are six tips for making social media help your chances of landing a job:

1. Google Yourself

The first step is simple: Search yourself. But don’t do it with your own computer, which might not yield the same results as the machine in HR, because yours is loaded with your own cookies, accounts, and caches.

Instead, borrow a friend’s computer or even go to the library. Enter your name into several search engines, and while you’re looking at the results, imagine that you’re a potential employer. “Think of the most conservative person you know, and try and imagine how they’ll react to anything that pops up,” Lake says. And because a single embarrassing picture is worth 1,000 ill-chosen words, remember to do an image search as well.

For anything that you can’t delete, Lake says, be prepared with a brief explanation in case an interviewer asks you about it.

2. Lock It Down

After step one you might be surprised at how much a potential employer can see without having any of your passwords or being linked to you on any social media platform. So boost your privacy settings.

That’s what Cadman did as he began his job search. For instance, Facebook allows you to keep Google and other search engines from finding your profile. And you can even change the tagging of past public posts to make them visible only to your friends.

Of course, you might not want to do all this if you use social media for professional networking and personal branding. Just make sure you’re comfortable with everything that’s visible to the public.

3. Think Before You Comment

While you might be reasonably careful about what you tweet or post on Facebook, it’s easy to get carried away when commenting on a hot-button article. And that information is available to potential employers.

On many sites, comments are searchable. Further, the Disqus platform, which handles comments across many websites, allows a potential employer to see dozens or even hundreds of your replies.

This collection of commentary is supplied with little or no context, so your angry, joking, or sarcastic reply to a poster who provoked you could seem far worse on its own it did in the original thread. “These aggregating services will pull sound bites that can be quoted way out of context,” Lake warns.

4. Check Photos Where You're Tagged

Even if you’re super-careful about what you post, your friends might not be quite as vigilant. “Even if your privacy settings are locked down,” Lake says, “when you’re tagged in a photo it’s their privacy settings that are in play.”

So if a friend tags you on Instagram in a beer-pong photo from spring break 2014, untag yourself before sending out those résumés. 

You can do that on Instagram by tapping the photo, then tapping your name. Then tap More Options>Remove Me from Post, then RemoveAnd it’s just as easy to untag yourself from Facebook photos.

Remember that untagging yourself does not remove the photo from the site; only the person who originally posted the image can do that. 

5. Reconsider the Cute

Starting a job hunt provides a good incentive to get a grown-up email account. It should be easy to remember and directly related to your actual name.

That means retiring “Thronesfan95” and “KittyFooFoo14,” or at least relegating them to your private correspondence.

Similarly, make sure that any photo attached to an account looks like you and presents an image that’s appropriate for the kind of job you’re looking for. If you can imagine it appearing in the company newsletter, you’re on the right track.

6. Beware of Doppelgangers

Social media has created a unique brand of confusion: the possibility of an employer stumbling upon the profile of stranger with the same name and assuming it’s you. So when you’re searching yourself, pay attention not only to your own social media presence but also to anyone who might be confused with you. That includes people with the same name or a common misspelling of it.

“I had an applicant come in and say, ‘I want you to know that I’m not this other person,’’’ Lake says. “‘They’ve got the same name, and they’ve been in the news recently but not in a good light.’”
And here’s a final reason you should consider cleaning up your social media presence before you start looking for a job. 

Even if the hiring manager doesn’t delve into your Facebook account or skim your Instagram posts, you can be sure that once you do get a job, your new officemates will. Once you meet them, would you rather spend time chatting about the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” or how drunk you looked in a photo from some forgotten fraternity party?