Recently the Geek Girls talked to a group of emerging women leaders about the merits of social media in promoting both personal and professional brands. It was a great session and afterwards we found ourselves immersed in lengthy discussion about trying to separate the personal from the professional (in short — get over it). In attendance at the event was a group of interns from a very large financial services firm. One of them approached me with a question that she asked in a very hushed tone. “Can I remove a picture of myself, from Facebook, if it is someone else’s picture?” She looked slightly nervous as she waited for me to answer. And when I answered in the negative she looked crestfallen. “You can remove the tag that identifies you,” I replied. “But you are stuck with the picture unless you contact the person who put it there and ask them to take it down. Anyone with any amount of sensitivity has got to respect that kind of request.” She seemed satisfied with my answer and I moved on to another question. But a few moments later I turned to her and asked “Is it an embarrassing college party kind of picture?” She nodded, “Yes.”
A few days later the twittersphere enjoyed a minor buzz around the news that a Montana town’s hiring procedures now included requiring job candidates to hand over their log-in information for their Facebook accounts so that their potential employer could see who they really were. I, like everyone else with any sense, was appalled by the nerve of these people. We all wondered if this was legal. The press didn’t serve them very well and shortly thereafter they backed away from this policy.
As Meghan and I walked away from that event that breezy Wednesday evening, I couldn’t help but express my empathy for the young woman who’d expressed concern around the picture her friend had posted of her. But beyond that, I have real concern for human resource professionals and leadership inside of organizations that would condone invading someone’s privacy in a way where they are intending to seek out these sorts of incriminating images. I take issue with leaders who conveniently lack any recall around their own questionable choices or reckless behavior. Because, let’s face it, we’ve all been there. And I think that is my biggest issue. Social media gives us access to a wealth of personal and professional information the likes of which we have never seen before. Whole educational profiles, resumes, work histories, testimonials, personal addresses, family pictures, life histories, and, yes, transgressions, are all documented and available on the web. For the most part, its a very cool thing. We can record and validate experiences and share them with our communities in a way that enriches our connections. But we can also abuse it. And I think the worst abuse happens when we believe we have a right to scour through that kind of information to establish a profile of questionable behavior. After all, context is key. The context in which certain situations occur color the lense that records them.
It’s more than that though. Some of the greatest lessons of my life and career have come from my mistakes or missteps. I have news for you, people: I went to college. I stood around a keg. I drank too much beer, or maybe I wore pants on my head. I don’t remember. But the important thing is — I matured beyond that. I had those experiences, and I moved on. I grew up. And I can honestly say I am probably a more well rounded person because I allowed myself to partake in the ridiculous or, even (gasp) the forbidden. It hasn’t happened yet where a compromising picture of me has shown up on Facebook (unless you count the one where I look like I’m in drag in a dinner theatre show which is scary for sure). But it might. When it does I will likely ask the person posting it to remove it. Or maybe I won’t, just to prove a point. But to act like college is all academics, or that victories in life are the only moments along the path worth recording, is nuts. In the long run, we might be forcing people to be even more deceptive about who they are. Because we all know resumes aren’t always non-fiction. We’ve all been there. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all reframed a professional story so it doesn’t reflect poorly on us. We’ve all been in the wrong place at the wrong time. To deny any of that would be dishonest. Hopefully we’ve all learned from those experiences and they contributed to the professionals we are today. Hopefully we’ve gained some perspective and we can demonstrate some compassion and, by extension, respect the social privacy of job candidates or colleagues or acquaintances.
Social media is here to enrich our lives. Not make us fearful about living them. Let’s not abuse our positions by insisting on access to information we have no right to in the first place. What you condone now, in terms of policy, could always come back to bite you in the end. Put that in your pipe and smoke it (just be sure no one is standing nearby with a camera when you do).