When five federal election candidates were dumped for offensive social media posts earlier this year it was a timely reminder of the damage that a poorly managed social media profile can do to a person’s career.

An ill-timed comment, a thoughtless response, an opinion that you may change or an action you may come to regret later can’t be erased in the digital era, and so your social media profile can haunt and derail your career.

We are quick to assess

In a face-to-face context, when we meet someone for the first time, we very quickly make an assessment as to whether we like them, trust them, want to work with them or want to do business with them. Research highlights that we have 7–15 seconds to make a first impression face-to-face. This is based on what is known as ‘thin-slicing’.

Professor Frank Bernieri of Oregon State University has found we assess people relatively quickly, without a lot of data. This assessment is made on a raft of factors. It might be a glance, their handshake, what they wear, their demeanour, whether they maintain eye contact and how they smile.

As much of our lives now play out on social media the same holds true, albeit in a different way. A statement, a comment or liking an article, which only takes a few seconds to post will be attached to your reputation forever. While that action may not represent your whole perspective on an issue, it will shape how people see you and how they assess your character and reputation.

One you, one brand

It was Tom Peters who said: All of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.

In a digital world, there is no separation between a personal brand and your professional brand. What you post in your personal life on a private Facebook or Instagram page will impact how you are seen professionally.

Your reputation is one of your most important career assets, and so it pays to treat it as such. You may invest in building up your educational qualifications and your leadership skills, and yet not consider the attention that needs to be given to how you develop and maintain a social media profile that enhances your career.

Know what you stand for

To do that effectively goes beyond just taking care of what you say and do online. It’s important to know your values and what you stand for, so you actively take charge of your online reputation and make sure it aligns with what you want to be known for. When you own your reputation you actively seek to understand how others see you, and how you see yourself.

This includes identifying where there are gaps between your desired and actual reputation, and then setting about consciously constructing a reputation that works for you in the long-term, by being positively and sustainably developed. Maintaining a positive and progressive reputation requires work – daily – and it isn’t something you can take for granted.

Think long-term

With rapid changes in the workforce now and into the future, a person’s career can go in many different directions. For example, those entering the workforce now are likely to have at least 17 different employers, and five different careers during their lifetime.

Consequently, this heightens the importance of taking a long-term view of your reputation. In an era where you can never be entirely sure where your career will land, you don’t want to find your career ambitions thwarted by something you did many years ago when you weren’t paying close attention to your reputation.

Your reputation is a vital ingredient in having a successful and sustainable career, and so it pays dividends to treat it carefully.