When your private life gets in the way of your professional reputation

In our lives we each play many roles, such as business person, manager, employee, parent, partner, child, committee member, customer, leader, follower… and so it goes on. We can have our serious, professional side, our goofy side, and the many other parts of ourselves that emerge depending on the company and situation.

 Sometimes we go to great lengths to keep these elements of us in separate compartments, hoping they never meet. They are, after all, meant for different audiences.

 So here I was this week, in the middle of a very intense court case involving a builder and a nightmare renovation at my home. This had dragged on for more than a year and we were reaching crunch-time. It was the last meeting with our legal team before we presented our final submission.

 In the corner of the meeting room, a heavy suitcase was nearly bursting its seams with our many folders of evidence. The sombre-faced senior solicitor asked to see a specific document and I directed him to a blue folder. He seized it from the case and placed it, open, in the centre of the table.

 Along with everyone in the room, I found myself staring in surprise not at the expected evidence, but at a piece of sheet music emblazoned with the very large heading; “Tap Your Troubles Away!”

 A world of distance from my professional life, and a very long way from my persona as a court litigant, I dabble in amateur musical theatre. Somehow, the folder of music from a recent production of Jerry’s Girls (based on the music of Jerry Herman who wrote Hello Dolly, Mame and La Cage Aux Folles) had snuck its way into our court evidence – a little sliver of mischief among serious sheaves of papers.

 I’m not sure that my legal friend saw the funny side but the incident reminded me of the risks we face in the digital world when it comes to reputation and credibility.

 It used to be that we had some choice and control over which facets of ourselves we presented to the outside world. It’s no secret that now people can see into our lives more deeply than ever before. Our private and professional identities are equally accessible, and we are judged on the combination of all our projections – including those posted by others without our knowledge.

 If we have employees, they are now potent reputation ambassadors whose views are considered to be highly credible by people outside our organization – and their digital personas also cast a stark reflection over our business.

 So how do we protect our credibility in this seemingly out-of-control communication environment?

 It’s pretty simple, really. We can’t control what others say or think about us, but we can certainly control our own words and behaviour in the digital space.

 1.     Be the real deal. No-one likes an online spruiker whose actions don’t match the wonderful things they say about themselves. Be the best you can be, and share useful and meaningful content rather than empty words.

2.     Remember; your comments linger. I spoke at a business event recently where a participant shared that they had pulled out of a lucrative business deal with someone, because that person had made an unpleasant comment on another person’s Facebook post. That one comment was enough to undo a potential partnership. Your words matter – always.

3.     By all means have fun – but be aware of the digital consequences. Any photographed action that strays into bad taste, humiliation or worse, is likely to come back to haunt you. Back in the day, we used to talk about the “newspaper test” – would you be happy for your actions to be plastered over the front page of the local paper? Today, of course, those images are plastered much further.

 It’s a complex world, and our various “folders” now spill into each other. Be sure that when yours opens at an unexpected page, the worst that can happen is that everyone gets a giggle; it’s not a show-stopper to your career.