Ask LH: Should I Keep My Personal And Professional Identities Separate Online?

Dear Lifehacker, I'm a pretty savvy person when it comes to getting my work on the web where people can see, but all this talk about Facebook passwords and things has me re-thinking my personal/professional boundaries. Should I set up completely separate accounts for my personal life and my professional life, or is that kind of misleading?

How can I juggle privacy and openness, especially if I want to make a name for myself and get hired? Sincerely, Camera Shy

Title image remixed from susumis (Shutterstock) and Nowik (Shutterstock).

Dear Camera Shy,

Well, there's no clear yes or no answer here, and what's best for you will really come down to how much you want a potential employer to be able to find out about you. Balance that with exactly how strong your desire for privacy is, and you'll know where you come down on this issue. There are some ramifications to going either way though, and a comfortable compromise in the middle may work best for you -- let's dig into that a bit.

How Comfortable Are You With Your Name in Public?

This is the ultimate question you're going to have to answer. Some of us live with our identities in public because we have to, either because we work in public under our own names or assumed identities, or because we prefer to be above board with our comments, criticisms and public interactions on the web. Many other people prefer the cloak of anonymity so they can speak their mind, comment and write what they really feel, and join the communities they prefer without worrying about who might find them there later.

We touched on this topic a bit when it came to Facebook passwords and even with companies tracking your activities on the web. If you prefer anonymity because you don't want it to come around to your staunchly conservative boss that you're a guest writer at a leading progressive blog, then there's a reason you'd want to keep some elements of your personal identity separate from your professional one. At the same time, if you're a writer and you'd like to apply for more opportunities, you may do yourself a disservice by keeping some of your best work out of your portfolio. Ultimately, you have to balance how comfortable you are having your name attached to all of your work, and whether or not the things that you attach your name are relevant to your field, or help complete a potential employer's picture of you as a whole individual.

Pros to Keeping Your Identities Separate

  • It provides a layer of privacy (through obscurity). Your anonymous or personal persona is free to comment where you choose, say what you like and be an active participant in any community you wish, without fear that your professional portfolio or career will be impacted by it. Photo by Tom Mc Nemar.
  • You have control over your professional appearance. By keeping semi-separate identities, you can carefully curate who sees what, and what information is available to a potential employer, business partner, family member, or anyone else looking for information on you and what you've been up to. By minimising the intersection between personal and professional, you have the option to let some people into both worlds while keeping most people in the ones you prefer.
  • Avoids information overload, for you and your audience. Keeping your identities separate allows you to control and refine what you see and when. It allows you to keep different networks for different purposes, and limit your own access to some networks when you're off the clock, and then stay up to date on everything when it's business time. This method also allows you to keep your professional updates -- like new photos in your gallery, or new articles you've written and projects you've completed -- from boring your personal friends, and keeps your professional contacts from seeing irrelevant details of your personal life.

Cons to Keeping Your Identities Separate

  • Requires you to maintain separate accounts/personae in different places. On some networks, you may want to go as far as to create a completely separate identity for yourself, and depending on the network in question, that may be a violation of the terms of service. Some companies don't take lightly to the same person having multiple accounts, with one under a false name. More importantly though, it doubles the amount of work you have to physically put into maintaining your presence online. You'll have personal networks you use to stay in touch with friends, and professional pages and portfolios to help you get jobs and market yourself. Photo by Sybil Liberty.
  • Splits your audience. For many people, your biggest fans, and the people who are perhaps the most likely to help you find new jobs, connect with people who can help you find your dream gig, or support your vision are the people closest to you -- or the people you would connect with on your personal networks, but keep at arms length elsewhere. If you opt to keep your personal and professional lives separate, you may find yourself excluding valuable people who can help you because they're friends or family. If you let them in to both, however, it may defeat the whole point. Alternatively, if what you do is what you love, this definitely defeats the point.

Use Different Networks for Different Purposes

Some of this is obvious -- you'd naturally use your LinkedIn profile for business contacts, right? But would you think about creating a Facebook page for your personal "brand" or the professional side of your life? Everyone has a personal Facebook account, and we would strongly suggest you keep it locked down, but if you want to use Facebook as a professional networking tool -- and it's great for that, make no mistake -- then a Facebook Page, not a second profile, may be what you're looking for. Then you have the separation you need between the personal and the professional. Photo by Sheila Scarborough.

The same applies to Twitter, or your personal website. It's one thing to have a personal blog, full of your own thoughts and opinions, but it's another to have a professional blog where you write about your goals, your projects, and post samples of your work. Flickr, Smugmug and networks like 500px are great tools for photographers, but not many photographers who are serious about their work would suggest using Flickr in lieu of a personal gallery hosted on your own site (where potential clients can reach you about your work.)

It's more important that you find the sweet spot of personal and professional distance between your social circles that's right for you than you specifically create two accounts with the same name, or one with a fake name and the other with your real name. You can have it all, just be aware of the privacy policies and terms of service you're signing to, and make sure you're using each network for its best intended purpose.

Make the Call That Suits You Best

The key is to use the networks that you sign up for in the best way possible that retains your personal privacy, but also helps you professionally. In most cases, that means getting up to speed with their privacy settings, considering second accounts or secondary profiles (that are or are not linked to your personal one, depending on how comfortable you are doing so) for different purposes, and only cross pollinating when absolutely necessary. Plus, doing this gives you control over what you publish and to whom, and even gives you the option to let professional friends into your personal cabal if you see fit.

We know we didn't say "yes, you should keep them separate" as much as we said "no, you shouldn't use one identity for everything", but that's because it's more important for your sanity and for your work-life boundaries for you to keep some distance between your professional portfolios and your personal activities on the web. Whether you choose to use the same name is up to you, you'll just have to be on your best behaviour when you do. If using your real name forces you to not be a jerk, then we can't complain, but if it forces you to stop short of brilliance because you don't know how a future employer would feel, well then, we agree with XKCD on that one.

Cheers Lifehacker

PS Do you keep your personal and professional profiles completely separate? Do you mix audiences, or just use one name and one set of profiles and call it a day? Share your privacy -- and professional networking tips -- in the comments below.

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Comments

    Separate, without a doubt. There are certain things I enjoy which I do not wish to have taken into context for my employment, because although I enjoy them as a hobby, I don't want to be involved in those things professionally. However, in the past, when an employer found out about them, all of a sudden, that was my main responsibility at work -- even though there's not much of a career future in those pursuits, and therefore they're not what I want to be doing at work, for purposes of career advancement.

    I'm a teacher and I made the decision back in 2009 to keep my personal and professional identities private. I put my real name on professional things and use an alias in my private life. my friends all think i'm nuts but it makes me feel a lot safer in my employment. Teachers in particular face so much public scrutiny of their personal lives that one ill thought out comment or risque picture could end up costing you your job (this has happened in Australia recently).

      So is Jean your real name or your pseudonym? I'm not really sure whether lifehacker comments would be best counted as 'personal' or 'professional'.

    While I am not a "public" figure, nor a high-profile professional, I still like to maintain a degree of secularism between those to aspects of my life.
    My personal actions, thoughts and opinions should not get in the way of my professional life, and for that reason primarily, I will not allow the two to intersect. There are some exceptions of course, though this is rare.
    Work is work, play is play.

    "Work is work, play is play."
    Though the two are becoming closer and closer as we progress down this trail called time.

    If you look around there are many examples of people having their professional lives altered significantly by actions they undertake in their personal. It can be as old as being caught out with a mistress and having your boss frown at the impact on their reputation, to as new as being a major identity in an MMO, getting up on stage in Iceland drunk as a skunk and advocating griefing another player until that player kills themselves.

    The more "known" you are in your personal space (and this may as varied as FB and Yourtube through to a presence on a well known forum) the more likely the impact on your professional existence. Most employers don't differentiate between the two these days though to be fair, they rarely did pre-internet days either. Many are the story of employees being fired for appearing in the papers after having done something stupid/illegal/embarrassing.

    Opinions though should never have an impact unless it can be seen that your view is in direct contradiction with your employer and has a direct impact on the way that they conduct their business. But really, if your personal opinion is so diverged from your employers, you should be asking yourself why you are working for them.

    If you have any kind of career path that might involve working for people with biases or prejudices (or god help you, working in the same zip code as children), and you have any kind of interests that aren't appropriate to discuss with a 5 year old - then the answer is yes.

    I enjoy adult beverages and recreational products. I enjoy art forms and movies that children probably shouldn't watch. I have hobbies that children shouldn't participate in and I enjoy sexuality with no intention of procreation or monogamous heterosexuality with the same partner for the rest of my life. I have opinions about politics and religion and I sometimes like to share my thoughts on these things and the things I enjoy with my friends or other consenting adults online. It would just be foolish to have those interests associated with my real name when the Catholic Education Office in my area is a large employer of IT people with skill sets in my direction. And when conservative government departments, primary industries run by ultra conservative right wing types, are even bigger employers.

    My preference is always to work with young hip adults in centrist / slightly left leaning political climates with no involvement at all with children, religious people, politics or anyone who cares what I do with my body, or with consenting adults, outside of business hours. But the reality is that I've got bills to pay, and sometimes great jobs come with political considerations. Keep your private life private. For all the reasons that you keep your tattoos in places you can cover them for work.

    I am awesome all the time, so it's kind of hard to separate the two. I can see where this would be an issue if I worked as a vet during the day, and drowned puppies as a hobby at night and on the weekend, but I only do one of these two things in real life, so there's no issue.

    My take is, post professionally in professional forums, and personally in social ones. Choose which ones are for which (twitter is a tough one to call) Facebook and LinkedIn are easier in that respect.

    Hi Camera Shy,
    I know how you feel. My personal and online identity is separate. In fact, people think the name I use online is my real one.

    Here are some tips (the things I do to keep my identity separate)
    http://www.jackcola.org/blog/122-how-i-protect-my-personal-and-online-identity
    http://www.jackcola.org/blog/149-should-you-let-your-future-employer-look-at-your-facebook-profile

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