Last Saturday, I received a call. The woman said her name was Ella. And she was very close to tears.
Ella was begging me to remove her name from a blog post I’d written in October of last year. At the time, Ella had attempted to deceive me by stating that there was an urgent need to update my web site and include a link to information posted deceptively her employer Selectra UK. It was a manipulative email, and I called out Selectra (and Ella) on it.
Now Ella was starting a new job. And she knew her employer would Google her name and see what she used to do.
I took pity on poor Ella and have removed her (last) name from my site. She took the time and courage to be a human being and called me. I could treat her like a person and agree to her request. People can change.
But the experience made me think about what reputation means now, and whether I did the right thing by putting Ella’s name on my site in the first place.
Your bad deeds will follow you forever
If you are early in your career, you may have some decisions to make. Will you work for an employer who you believe is unethical? Will you do unethical things for that employer?
What is “unethical?” It is anything that you are ashamed of doing, or realize you will be ashamed of having done when you look back on it.
These decisions happen all the time. And they stick with the people who make them more than ever.
I will never forget the boss I had that attempted to plagiarize my work. And if someone asks me about him, that’s the first thing I’ll mention.
I will not forget the Forrester sales guy who told a client that if they didn’t renew their contract, they could never do a briefing with me again. This was completely false, we took briefings regardless of whether you were a client or not. I will not forget that he lied to close the deal, and neither will the client.
Every interaction you have speaks to your character. How far will you go to get the business, meet the deadline, look good? Whatever you do, people will see. They will remember. And you will not escape the stain on your reputation.
The same applies to your comments online. There are many people making a name for themselves on social media right now by saying outrageous, stupid, hateful things. Some are not attempting to gain a reputation, they are just being mean for the fun of it. They cannot hide who they are. But what they said will follow them forever. Ask Milo Yiannopoulos.
You reap what you sow. I realize you are just trying to get ahead, earn a buck, get by, feed your family, or get known. It’s so tempting to not worry about those niceties. But it will catch up to you. The Internet is forever, and so are the impressions you make on people.
By the way, if you are nice, help out a friend, do somebody a favor, work late and cover for someone, save somebody from a mistake — that lives forever, too. It’s not just mistakes you live with, it’s good deeds as well.
A friend of mine did a poll online recently. He asked, “Are you in favor of cancel culture?” What a silly question. No one is “in favor of” cancel culture. The term is inherently biased.
However, all of us are in favor of actions having consequences. The only question is whether the consequences have gotten out of proportion to the actions.
Do you really believe that Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby should still be working in the entertainment business? Of course you don’t. What they did was horrible. They abused power and the result was the abuse and probable rape of many women.
Should the CEO of Goya Foods reap the consequences of appearing in favor of Trump? That’s a more difficult question. In my opinion, you’re welcome to decide this any way you want. If you think he made a mistake, you can stop buying his products. (A similar debate continues to rage on my blog post about Uline packaging products, where the management put political statements in their catalogues and are enthusiastic Trump backers.)
Should Kevin Spacey ever work again? Was Al Franken appropriately cashiered for a minor infraction? Do you believe Woody Allen or his stepdaughter, and if it’s the daughter, does that invalidate every movie he’s ever made? What’s the right penalty for what Louis C.K. did?
Is there a statute of limitations? Can you forgive “handsy” Joe Biden and still condemn Donald Trump for paying off an adult film actress? Do you still buy from Amazon even though many of their workers are treated poorly and they sell products from reprehensible people? Is Harry Potter no longer entertaining now that J.K. Rowling has revealed her transphobia?
What about me? Was I wrong to publish Ella’s name after the way she behaved? One of my commenter’s said “Yeah, not sure why you’re publicly calling out someone just doing their job. Call out the company if you have an issue with it.” He has a point. Another said “Let’s be clear here: There’s zero respect for the recipient. Instead, there’s condescension. When others are not considered worthy of respect, there’s a term for that: ‘contempt.’ “
I do think that the penalties people are assessing for infractions from long ago, or minor violations of a personal code they just imposed last week, are out of hand. But I also believe that as with Ella, my old boss, and the people posting hateful and racist things on Twitter, that if you behave like an ass, there will be consequences.
I’d like to tell you what those consequences should be, but I implore you to think for yourself here.
(That’s what the people writing the Harper’s letter were trying to say, but they did an awful job of it.)
It is ok to keep doing business and voting for someone who made a mistake. It is also ok to decide someone has stepped over the line and you should call out their behavior and have nothing further to do with them.
Put away the pitchforks and use your brain. I’m not ready to cancel “cancel culture” — because there are offenders that we ought to shame and shun. But perhaps a little calibration of the weapons we wield is in order.
How far is too far? I’d love to hear what you think.