Once upon a time, most career advice related to social media boiled down to “don’t have it”. Even with your privacy settings on max, job-hunters with a Facebook account were warned that they were exposing themselves to the risk of prudish employers stumbling across your Spring Break ’08 photos and subsequently marking your resume with a big red X.

But these days, social media is increasingly seen as an integral part of your personal brand: 41% of hiring managers say they would be reluctant to interview a candidate with no online presence. And social media is increasingly becoming involved in the recruitment process. LinkedIn, the ‘social network for professionals’, is used to find candidates by 9 in 10 recruiters. Facebook, traditionally seen as a ‘personal’ social network, has rolled out a job post feature.

Consequently, most professionals are now pretty clued up about appropriate posting online. They avoid slagging off their boss in a Facebook status and refrain from posting Instagram selfies while smoking a joint.

But few are being as careful about their interactions with other people’s posts. Liking, sharing, commenting and retweeting are all part and parcel of the social media experience – but they too can sometimes be the difference between hired… and fired.

The Positive Impact of Social Media Engagement

Good new first: engaging with content online can improve your job prospects. For example, liking and sharing relevant industry news, updates and breakthroughs shows employers that you’re passionate about what you do and well-informed about your sector. This effect is amplified when you add your own comments to posts and articles (assuming they’re well thought-out and add to the discussion, of course!).

Savvy job-hunters can go one step further and actively engage with the companies they’re looking to work for. While going overboard and bombarding them with interaction will come across as creepy, regular and thoughtful engagement can help get you on the company’s radar. Everyone loves to be flattered, and if a hiring manager checks you out online and sees you praising their company, it’s only going to work in your favour.

Positive engagement doesn’t have to be limited to work-related posts either. Sharing information about an interesting hobby of yours, or showcasing your personality by liking funny, inspiring or feel-good things can be hugely beneficial. Employers don’t want to hire robots; they’re looking for team members who are easy-going, fun, and who get along well with the rest of the team. And if you happen to share something that your hiring manager is also into, your career prospects could get a further boost: research shows that we are more likely to hire people we think are similar to us.

Both the professional and personal aspects of your social media sharing combine to make up part of your personal brand – i.e. how you want to appear to others. Remembering that the content you engage with is as telling as the content you post is crucial to career success.

The Negative Impact of Social Media Engagement

However, the damaging side of social media is as true for secondary engagement as for posting. It is far from unheard of for people to be fired for liking, sharing, or commenting on something someone else has posted online. Staff in America, for example, were fired for liking the Facebook page of an opposing politician. A man in Norwich was fired because he liked a picture of a colleague’s jumper that HR decided was tantamount to bullying.

Part of the problem, as illustrated by the latter example, is that when you engage with content you didn’t create or control, you are risking people misunderstanding your intentions. On Facebook,  emoticon-based reactions allow you to “dislike” a post you disagree with by using an angry or sad emoticon. To employers skimming through your page, however, it may not be clear that you were opposing a bigoted or inappropriate post.

If they assume you are associated with such views, they will be reluctant to hire you: one-third of managers cited “discriminatory” comments online as a reason for rejecting a past candidate. Indeed, some may decide that any association with inappropriate material is a turn-off, particularly if you wish to work in an industry that requires integrity and sensitivity.

Of course, some types of associations are protected by law. A young woman who engages with a lot of child-bearing posts cannot have her candidacy rejected on the assumption she might be pregnant, just as an employee cannot be fired for supporting LGBTQ+ articles. But bear in mind that such prejudices on the part of your employer may be almost impossible to prove.

Laying Down the Law

Some social media users believe they have found a solution to the engagement problem: they use quasi-legal terminology in their profile. Claiming that “all views are my own”, for example, is intended to distance the individual from any company or organisation they may be associated with. Similarly, the statement “retweet is not endorsement” is meant to disavow any responsibility for engaging with another person’s words.

Unfortunately, none of these claims have any legal basis. They will not stop employers taking action against you for any associated social media content they deem inappropriate. Just as being abusive while wearing company uniform can result in consequences even if you were off the clock, any statements you implicitly agree with can be used against you, regardless of whether you wrote those words yourself.

So be smart, be sensible, and above all – be careful who you like!