Developing an online presence is an effective way to establish your professional brand, expand your network, and create opportunities. In fact, many writers now consider an online presence to be an essential — not optional — component of a candidate’s portfolio.

One of the questions that often comes up is about “youthful indiscretions.” What about those posts, comments, and photos that may have been posted years ago?

I came across this article in the Washington Post recently about a newly minted lawyer named Kiwi Camera. And not just any lawyer — a magna cum laude Harvard graduate. He cannot land a job as a law school professor because, at age 16, he wrote racist remarks in a summary of a Supreme Court decision that was subsequently posted to the Web. Despite his otherwise stellar resume, his racist comments are now part of his online profile.

Lest you think this is an unfair indictment for a youthful indiscretion, consider one student’s perspective:

“We shouldn’t have to be put in a position where we have to defend [racist comments] by our professor.”

Given the choice bewteen two equally qualified candidates, why would a potential employer risk the potential embarrassment and liability of hiring such a candidate?

They wouldn’t.

So that raises the next question: Why would a student or job seeker sabotage his or her online profile by posting objectionable material on a blog, a personal web site, or a social networking site like LinkedIn, Facebook, or MySpace?

They shouldn’t.

This reminds of a story about an old man teaching a boy about the impact of his words. He told the boy to pluck the feathers from a chicken and spread them along a path. When the boy finished and returned, the old man told him to now g and retrieve every feather and put them back in the chicken. The boy complained, saying that many of the feathers had blown away or been picked up and could never be retrieved. And even if he could, it would be impossible to put them back on the chicken.

So it is with our words — once departed, they can never be retrieved or taken back.