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Avoid Mistaken Identity: Find the Best Version of Your Name for Your Job Search

By Susan P. Joyce

Because most employers Google the names on job applications and resumes, your name is one of the most important keyword phrases for your job search and your career.

Consequently, a new and very serious problem has developed: mistaken online identity. Someone else's misbehavior or bad reputation may be ruining opportunities for you when an employer finds that person when they search online, and that person is someone they wouldn't want to hire.

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Find and Claim Your Professional "Screen" Name

The name you use professionally is just as important to you in many ways as a "screen name" is to an actor or actress.

Your screen name identifies you to employers, recruiters, members of your network, and anyone else involved in your professional life, including clients, customers, and suppliers.

Your screen name needs to be:

  • "Clean" -- nothing associated with it that would scare off an employer..
  • As unique as possible, to minimize confusing you with others who have the same, or very similar, names.
  • Related as closely as possible to your real name.
  • Separate from the name you use for your political, religious, sports, or other rants or for your other online activities that might negatively impact your job search.

If you aren't using the same name for all of your online professional activity, you are blurring your online reputation and weakening your online visibility and personal brand.

1. Research Versions of Your Name Online

Research your name on Google, Bing, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Facebook. 

Didn't find anyone else using your name? Lucky you! Claim your name on your LinkedIn Profile, including the customized LinkedIn URL for your Profile. You're done. Congratulations!

Most of us find other people who have the same or very similar names and are currently using those same/similar names online. If that's what you find, too, evaluate what you find to determine which version of your name is the best professional screen name for you.

  • What do you find on Google and Bing searches?

    Do you find anyone who has done something an employer would consider inappropriate, from posting racy photos of themselves or writing racist blog posts to tax evasion, drunk driving, or murder? If you do, make note of the name(s) used by that person/people, so you can avoid using those names.

    Do you find anyone with the same name who is so well-known that they knock you down in the Google search results 5 pages, like a famous athlete, actor, or politician? If you do, make a note of the name used by that person, so you can also avoid it.
  • What do you find on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter searches?

    Again, you are looking for the versions of your name used by people who could be confused with you by anyone who doesn't know what you look like or where you are located.

    Be particularly careful of someone who is very active on Facebook in a way that would not reflect well on someone in your profession or working for your target employers -- posting photos of drinking parties or activities that break the law (using illegal drugs, for example).

    Make a note of the versions of your name used by those people so you can add them to the list of names that can cause you a problem in your job search.

Now you have a starting point for choosing your name.

2. Choose the Best Version of Your Name

This won't change the name your family and close friends call you. It won't change the name on your birth or marriage certificate or other legal documents. But it will change the name used for your professional presence online.

Some options:

  • Add your middle initial or middle name to your name.
  • If you are a married woman using your spouse's last name, use your maiden name as a middle name.
  • Change the version of your first name - become "Susan" rather than "Sue" if Sue has a high negative profile. Or become "Jim" rather than "James" if James has a high negative profile.
  • If you are a man, you may be able to add a suffix at the end of your name, like "Sr." or "Jr." or whatever is accurate and appropriate for you.
  • Replace your first name with an initial changing "Mary Jane Smith" into "M. Jane Smith."
  • Add your confirmation or other family version of your name, turning "Mary Jane Smith" into "Mary Jane Cecilia Smith."
  • Add your nickname to your name, like "John (Jay) Jones."

Some people add a degree or professional designation to the end of their names, like Mary Smith, MBA or William Smith, CPA. This can be useful for differentiation and personal marketing, but it may cause problems with automated systems that consider the last "word" in a name to be the surname. So, you could be visible Ms MBA or Mr. CPA, and otherwise un-identifiable.

As much as possible, you need to differentiate yourself from others with similar names, but your family and friends don't need to change.

3. Claim the Best Name for Your LinkedIn Profile

A Google search on almost anyone's name will turn up many results, but at the top of the first page of results is usually that name on LinkedIn. So, claim your name on your professional screen name for your LinkedIn Profile by simply editing the name in your existing Profile.

If you can, grab the customized LinkedIn URL that contains that professional screen name.  Click on the pencil icon below your photo when you are on the Edit Profile screen to make that change.

LinkedIn also allows you to specify a "Former/Married" name, which is great if your last name has changed a few times. That can be very helpful for people who knew you before your marriage.

4. Use that Version of Your Name for Your Job Search and Career

That name is your professional identity. Use it consistently online and off-line in your:

  • LinkedIn Profile and other professional social media visibility
  • Business/networking cards
  • Resumes and cover letters and all of your job search related documents
  • Job applications
  • Professional association memberships and other professional visibility
  • Meeting name tags and speaker bios

Be sure that -- when an employer or recruiter does a search on the name on your resume, application, or networking/business card -- they find your professional image.

If you absolutely must rant online (or even in email) about politics, religion, sports, or other controversial topic, use a different version of your name and a different email address.

For More Information:

Bottom Line - Famous Actor Jim Jones!

My favorite example is famous actor Jim Jones. Never heard of him? Yes, you have! Jim Jones has won so many awards for his acting (28!) that they take up 2 screens in his Wikipedia page, from Academy Awards to Tony Awards, including many Emmy Awards and Golden Globe Awards. You probably know him much better - and recognize him much more quickly - by his professional screen name: "James Earl Jones."

If "Jim Jones" can differentiate himself from all the other people with the same name, so can you!


About the author...

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 1998, Susan has been editor and publisher of Job-Hunt.org. Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+.


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