If you post a lot of compromising photos or inflammatory material in your social media feed, then you might be passed over for job opportunities.

According to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD), two out of every five employers looks at candidates’ Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn profiles before recruiting them. At the same time, a profile that’s too squeaky clean might actually turn off recruiters in certain industries. It’s crucial to know when to sanitize your social media presence and when to leave it as-is.

When to Polish Your Profile

In early 2014, the Warwick, R.I. police department set a goal of recruiting 800 applicants for its hiring list. To increase outreach, the department set up a Facebook page dedicated to the recruitment effort. Interested applicants could simply “like” the page to receive updates and to obtain application instructions.

Imagine that you’re a candidate who has an MS in Criminal and Social Justice and meets all of the department’s physical fitness requirements. Despite your qualifications, if the recruiting officers click on your Facebook profile, they could see photos that would cause them to question your qualifications.

picture2If you’re tagged in some questionable photos or if you post an iffy status, such as a rant about an employer or a complaint about stress, the Warwick police department might question if you would “demonstrate good judgment, [possess] an even temperament, respect and appreciate diversity, show creativity and problem-solving skills, think on their feet, handle pressure and show leadership skills” when you’re under stress.

The verdict: If you work in a field in which appearances matter, such as public service, or you want to work for a company with a buttoned-down culture, give your social media profile a scrub-down before filling out a job application.

When to Leave It Alone

Forbes once reported on a 21-year-old college intern, working at a recruiting firm, who’d been hired to vet candidate social media profiles for her bosses. The intern was ordered to toss candidates who didn’t have wedding photos, baby photos or photos of themselves attending parties with friends on their social profiles. A profile without character, according to the recruiters, suggested that it had been scraped clean to get rid of racy or controversial content. The recruiters also thought that a clean profile without photos indicated that the person didn’t value relationships and might not get along with co-workers.

The verdict: When recruiters try to evaluate a candidate’s personality through social media, they might be turned off by a profile with no personality. If you’re applying for jobs with certain companies or in creative industries, make sure that your profiles maintain some personal flavor. The picture of you at a wedding, standing with friends and holding a glass of champagne, shouldn’t be a problem. That video of you vomiting in the bushes after a frat party? Definitely hit “delete.”

Finding the Right Balance

picture3Before applying for a job, review your social media profiles, and keep the following tips in mind:

  • Use privacy settings, but remember that they’re imperfect. To be safe, never post a photo that you absolutely wouldn’t want a future employer to see. Social networks change their privacy settings all of the time, and your supposedly private photos could end up embarrassing you.
  • Know what might be considered questionable in your industry. If you’re applying for a job as a political consultant, don’t bother deleting political posts that express your positions as long as they display good taste. Do delete profanity, references to illegal drugs, racist or discriminatory comments, evidence of illegal activity or anything that suggests you lack good judgment.
  • Be yourself. If something you’ve posted is integral to who you are and you feel that taking it down would compromise your authentic values, leave it alone. A company that would reject you for the post might not be a place you’d want to work anyway. Alternatively, a company that sees your authentic personality and likes it could be the perfect workplace for you.

The Takeaway

Take the time to clean up your social media presence. It could be the difference between earning a steady paycheck and sitting at home spending too much time on Facebook.