In this era of social media, researching details – personal and professional – about a potential interviewer is often as simple as a Google search.  Detailed profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest can tell you everything you’d want to know (and a few things you probably don’t) about the person you’ll be speaking with, including  hobbies, home town, even marital status.

While it’s undeniably a smart move to research all aspects of a job before the interview, dropping personal details can be a minefield that you’ll have to tread carefully. It is important to know where to draw the line, so your research results in creating points of connection, instead of making the interviewer feel self-conscious or stalked.

One executive recently recounted a story where a potential candidate for a job sent her a cover letter that mentioned the name of her son – a detail that he had gleaned off Facebook. Instead of being impressed by his investigative skills, that executive went into protective ‘mama bear’ mode. While she recognized that she had clearly shared too much online, she felt it also demonstrated poor judgment by the candidate.

With security measures ever-changing on social media sites, many executives may not even know how many of their personal details are publicly accessible. The best strategy for candidates is to play it safe by recognizing that the following particulars are generally off-limit:

  • Children, especially names or other identifying details.  While it may be tempting to try to connect with an employer parent-to-parent, or to flatter their sense of parental pride by extolling the cuteness factor of their children, most parents are extremely protective when it comes to strangers accessing information about their children online.
  • Personal events, such as births, illness or deaths.  These events are among the most emotional for people and, as such, are guarded closely. These events should generally have no relevance in an interview setting.
  • Marital status, age, religion, political leanings. While it may be tempting to connect with an employer by commenting on a political comment they posted online – or even more inappropriate, a dating ad – these details are clearly meant to be shared by an audience outside the workplace setting. Putting an interviewer in a defensive position is clearly the wrong way to approach a job interview.

While there are many don’ts to consider when conducting online research about an interviewer, there are some highly valuable ways to position personal information in a cover letter or interview that are both discreet and powerful.

  • Drop the bait. If you genuinely share a common interest with the person hiring – such as running the same 10K race – highlight this detail when describing YOUR personal accomplishments. If they wish to pick up this thread in the discussion, they will.
  • Raise their professional accomplishments. If the interviewer is a public figure, you can often learn a lot about them through their public speaking engagements, published articles and awards. Topics they talk about, or work they have published, are usually a good indication of their professional hot buttons.
  • Leverage LinkedIn connections. If you share any LinkedIn contacts in common, approach these people to see if they will put in a good word for you. Any recommendation coming from a third-party will carry more weight than anything you would say about yourself.
  • Research the office culture. Interviewers want to know that you’ll be a fit within their organization. If you determine through online research that the company places a high value on philanthropy or has sport teams playing in various leagues, ask about this in the interview. Not only does it show that you’re a team player, but it also demonstrates that you can help to reinforce that employer’s positive profile in the community.

A little research about a potential can go a long way in establishing personal and professional points of connection which, in turn, help you to stand out from the crowd.  It is critical, however, to know where to draw the line when using personal information.  Remember, the interviewer usually needs multiple reasons to hire you, and only one not to.