By ANDREW KATZ
WASHINGTON (Feb. 26, 2010) - Some students worried about how their online presence will be perceived by a potential employer are taking the extraordinary security step of changing their names on the social network Facebook.
In this down economy, with heavy competition for jobs, Maryland students and new graduates are joining an emerging national trend of modifying account names to elude snooping recruiters.
"I had an internship that required me to do it because I worked for a politician and I couldn't be associated with any kind of organization," said Emily Winchatz, a Capitol Hill intern and senior government and philosophy major at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"(Fellow interns) said my best bet would be to just get off Facebook altogether or change my name so I couldn't be searched," said Winchatz, who replaced her last name with her middle name on the network.
Andrew Noyes, public policy communications manager in Facebook's Washington, D.C., office, couldn't comment on this specific trend, but said information security is a "top priority" and the company constantly works to improve its systems for users.
Launched from a Harvard dorm room in February 2004, Facebook began as a way of linking students at the country's most elite universities, but quickly expanded by connecting workplaces, high schools and, now the public, through by-the-second status updates, multimedia and "wall" posts.
Lauren Berger, who earned the nickname "Intern Queen" after completing 15 internships during her four-year college career, is familiar with the trend and discusses it often on her college speaking tour.
"It is too easy for them to not type in your name and look you up on Facebook when you apply for a job," she said. "If they see inappropriate content they might not interview you—they might not hire you."
Berger, who graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2006, said a handful of employers fired interns last year because of questionable content on their Facebook pages. She urged students to keep in mind that, if hired, they become a representation of that company and an "extension of the brand."
A January 2010 report commissioned by Microsoft that examined the impact of an online reputation on hiring practices supports Berger's assertions.
The "Online Reputation in a Connected World" report conducted by Cross-Tab Marketing Services noted that 75 percent of recruiters said their companies had formal policies that required human resources teams to research applicants online and 63 percent had visited candidates' social networking sites before making any hiring decisions.
On the contrary, only 7 percent of Americans surveyed believed information about them online had affected previous job searches, the report states, while 70 percent of U.S. hiring managers said they had eliminated candidates based on what they found.
Andrea Donohue, who graduated from UMCP last May with a degree in French, was aware of companies that screened social networks for prospective applicants and ditched her Facebook surname to cloak her online identity.
"I was looking for jobs and I just didn't really want employers to be able to find me," she said, adding that she was also cautious about potential bosses having access to her page through mutual friends.
"I cleaned out my friend list because a lot of people on there were people I had one class with freshman year that I haven't talked to since," said Donohue. "I don't know if they're going to get a job with someone interviewing and they say, 'Oh, you know this person? Let me look at their profile.'"
Carol Vellucci, career center director at the University of Baltimore, understands students' unease, saying that most recruiters will check social networking sites when there's time to do so.
"Concerns about social media are definitely legit," said Vellucci in a statement. "We always tell (students) to be careful about what they post and where they post it."
Jackie Sauter, web content manager at American University's Kogod School of Business, wasn't aware of the name-changing trend but said students should be apprehensive.
"In this day and age, almost every employer is checking people out on social networks," she said, but "if you pay attention to your privacy settings and you're vigilant about it, you can absolutely protect your privacy and still put forth a good image to a potential employer."
Sarah Barton, a senior at Stevenson University outside Baltimore, hadn't thought about changing her account name until a law professor recently acknowledged performing client background checks on Facebook.
Although she opted to merely adjust the viewer settings for her photos—partly because her middle name is so uncommon it could actually draw more attention to her page—the 21-year-old paralegal studies major said she knew of friends who had altered their names during job searches.
Also an adjunct online journalism professor at UMCP, her alma mater, Sauter had a few extra tips to stay under the radar: adjust your privacy settings to remove profiles from searches, create a second page for professional contacts and restrict access to photos, as they can be "some of the most damning evidence on Facebook to a potential employer."
"There's a way that you can use your presence on a social network to help yourself," she said, "because at the end of the day, you control what information you're putting out there, so you don't really have anyone to blame but yourself if something goes awry."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.