Social media and online comments can have unintended consequences on your career.
Whether you are a student, newly minted registered dietitian nutritionist or nutrition and dietetics technician, registered or a seasoned pro, what you share online can change the trajectory of your career — for better or worse.
According to employment website CareerBuilder, seven in 10 employers use social media to research candidates during the hiring process. Employers are not only seeking talented people to add to their team, but also looking to avoid a liability or to see if you post inappropriate content.
When was the last time you thought about your digital footprint? Or how others might perceive your online activity? Is it possible that you lost out on a job or other opportunity without even knowing it, based on something you (or even someone else) put on the internet?
On social media, it’s easy to hit “like” on a meme or quickly chime in on controversy. Online platforms are an ideal way to connect, after all. However, one-on-one conversations are no longer left at the office water cooler. Instead, they are indelibly imprinted on the internet for any and all to see — including potential employers.
Luckily, there are ways to make social media work for you so that jobs will flow your way, not away.
Keep It On-Brand
Define your personal brand. Perhaps you’ve heard of branding, but can you verbalize yours? While there are differences between your personal and professional personas, the key is defining how you want to present yourself to the world.
This can span from staying in your lane of professional expertise to handling sensitive topics such as politics or social justice issues. It’s also your tone. Will you come across as accessible and warm, candid and casual, or a little quirky?
Prepare to accept the consequences and rewards of your brand’s position. Because some issues will be controversial or divisive, you likely will have support and opposition on both sides. Decide ahead of time how you will show up and engage based on how it might impact your goals.
Know that people are watching — and it’s not just your followers. Potential customers, clients and employers are paying attention. They want to learn about you and see if there’s a good fit or potential relationship. Although employers often are screening for red flags, this is an opportunity to impress them, too.
Structure social media as an online portfolio to show off your creativity. If you excel at translating complex nutrition topics into easy-to understand tidbits for consumers, create infographics showcasing this skill. If you’re a pro at cooking while sharing compelling stories, highlight those skills with short videos. And if you’ve got the gift of gab, create a podcast or start a show on an audio platform.
Curate a feed of your best work and what you want to be known for. It’s all in your hands.
Keep It Clean
Being clear about your brand helps keep your social media on point. Use your brand as a compass.
Curate the content you share. As a professional, you probably check for sensitive language or images that might offend others. But consider taking a few more steps. Before posting, ask yourself: Is this image aligned with my brand? Is this post helpful? Does this tweet represent my unique viewpoint? Or does it subscribe to groupthink (where you adopt the opinion of a majority just to get along or to boost engagement)?
If you manage an online group, page or forum, consider setting ground rules. This is not to limit free speech but to set expectations and foster a respectful, professional environment. For example, you might require people to agree to communications guidelines before joining a Facebook group or saving a story highlight on Instagram to make your expectations clear.
Consider taking controversial conversations offline. Decide how to handle controversial online discussions. It’s ok to ignore some comments, but when constructive criticism and inquisitive remarks are posted in a respectful manner, they can present an opportunity to build an engaged audience.
Nothing online is truly private. Remember that a person can snap a screenshot or otherwise save and share a one-to-one chat. Deleted content is re-discoverable, too. Social media management software, background check agencies and digital forensic recovery techniques can uncover anything ever shared on the internet.
Likes, retweets and reposts are seen as a stamp of approval. Credentialed nutrition and dietetics practitioners are expected to share only credible, science-based information. Take time to vet all content and share and support only what you know to be accurate. Before double-tapping to like a post, consider the source and the original poster’s motivation for sharing the content. Does it align with your brand and messaging? Avoid conversations that include language or subjects you wouldn’t want to be associated with in the future.
When possible, remove negative content. Although scrubbing content doesn’t erase it from the internet, in some instances, it may make sense to delete posts; for example, it might be useful in online forums where future commenters could keep a controversy going.
There are options to help mitigate this issue on your channels: Disable or limit comments, untag photos and change your settings to prevent future tagging. Keep professional civility in mind and remember that taking the higher road often can quell an inflammatory conversation. You’ll sleep better at night and keep your professional reputation intact.
Keep It Ethical and Legal
Although you might not break any laws with an online rant, there still is a risk of committing slander, libel or defamation of character. As a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or a practitioner credentialed by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, you are bound by the Academy’s/CDR’s Code of Ethics for the Nutrition and Dietetics Profession. Consult the Code to identify potential conflicts of interest and what constitutes professionalism, social responsibility and evidence-based practice.
Knowing and understanding the basics of copyright law can help as well. The “fair use” policy allows limited usage of certain copyrighted content, such as some quotes and photos, without needing the owner’s permission and without paying fines. However, you do need express permission to use most images and videos. Photos are protected by copyright from the moment they are taken, whether or not the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Sharing from an original creator’s account on social media is generally appreciated, but taking and using content on your own channels or a website might be an infringement.
It’s especially important to avoid HIPAA violations, such as posting images or videos of patients without consent, sharing details that could lead to identifying an individual or gossiping about patients. Even if you don’t use names, seeing that you conduct public conversations about clients may be enough to turn off a potential employer.
Being paid to promote a food or product is not against any rules, but disclosure is key. Follow the Academy’s/CDR’s Code of Ethics and Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines. Not disclosing erodes trustworthiness and is simply bad practice — plus, it can potentially cost you future opportunities.
Action Steps: Use social media to grow your career. Social media is here to stay. It’s often where people look first to find out more about you. Use it to your advantage:
Choose online platforms wisely.
- Create a space for your audience where they know what to expect and where they can feel safe and supported, as well as entertained and educated.
- Create an online persona that is the best reflection of you. Use social media as a space to show off the best of what you have to offer and a place to tell your story how you want it to be told.
- Connect with a potential employer or client you’re pursuing. Following on social media is an ideal way to learn a company’s culture to see if you’d be a good fit.
Before you post, stop and think.
- Before pressing the publish button, assess your state of mind. What role do your emotions play in the post? Will you feel good about this post in a day or a week? If you have doubts, consider waiting or asking a trusted colleague to review it before you share it far and wide.
Create a feed that feeds you.
- Unfollow people, brands and pages that don’t make you feel good.
- Shake up the algorithm. Choose positive and encouraging people to follow within and outside of food and nutrition. It might spark your creativity and help you show up as your best social self.
Code of Ethics for the Nutrition and Dietetics Profession. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Accessed July 19, 2021.
Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers. Federal Trade Commission website. Accessed July 26, 2021.
Fair Use (FAQ). United States Copyright Office website. Accessed July 26, 2021.
Food & Nutrition Magazine Pledge of Professional Civility. Food & Nutrition Magazine website. Accessed July 19, 2021.
Helm J, Jones RM. Practice Paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Social Media and the Dietetics Practitioner: Opportunities, Challenges, and Best Practices. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116:1825-1835.
More Than Half of Employers Have Found Content on Social Media That Caused Them NOT to Hire a Candidate, According to Recent CareerBuilder Survey. CareerBuilder website. Published August 9, 2018. Accessed June 10, 2021.