Thursday, January 31, 2008

No secrets online: your reputation's at stake

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

We’ve all met them. They’re the no-hopers who nevertheless seem endlessly to rise up the career ladder. By moving jobs every 18 months they avoid any of the consequences of their actions, and by doing so are elevated above the dedicated, the hard workers and the takers of responsibility – moving on again before they’re found out.

And we’d all love to spot them before they join. We all want to find out about other people, especially when we’re about to get involved with them (and sometimes just because we’re nosy) – and the internet’s proving fertile ground for our prurience.

A quick Google of a potential, current or ex-employee can pull up all sorts of interesting data on someone – their MySpace profile complete with photos they might not have chosen to pin to their CV, their Facebook page or a blog.

Argos were reported by The Sun to have sacked an employee for gross misconduct after he set up a Facebook group called “I work at Argos and can’t wait to leave because it’s shit” (one of a number of similarly named groups).

Directory company The Number asked Facebook to remove an abusive site about its brand, after an ex-employee set up a site for survivors of 118 118 - it’s still there (7 members), although it’s been joined by the much more popular (158 members) 118118 Appreciation Society.

HR professionals recommend you don’t check out potential employees online, and should judge them purely on the information they’ve supplied to you. But it’s hard to see how most managers could resist the temptation of checking out that apparently ideal candidate – especially with listings like this:

“Attention Golf Courses- do not hire Joe Bloggs (the listing used his real name, which brings it up in Google). He's the 37 year old assistant golf pro in Fort Worth, Texas, that recently turned himself in after security tapes recorded him skimming off deposits and stealing from the register.”

Employees are equally keen to get the inside track on a company they’re thinking of joining. The now defunct (but fantastically named) was the bible of the dotcom boom. Employees anonymously shared information on layoffs, restructuring and other corporate maneuverings, giving the lie to the official line and forming a fascinating resource for investors and recruits alike with confidential internal memos, emails and pronouncements.

A more serious-minded descendent of this seminal site is – a site where entrepreneurs can share experiences of private equity/venture capital companies (who aren’t allowed to join). These views are divided into public (can be viewed by non-members) and private (much more frank) opinions – and anyone about to embark on a VC path would be well advised to join up, as it helps to know who you’re dealing with.

Ultimately this is the point – and as much as people have applied online knowledge sharing to their business life, they’ve applied it even more enthusiastically to their love life.

After all, web users have been Googling potential dates from day one. But now sites like (which last year hit the number 5 spot in Yahoo! Buzz) let girls search for others’ experience of guys they’re considering dating. Almost inevitably, the site was sued – by a lawyer who took exception to his ex’s depiction of him – but it hasn’t stopped a host of copycat sites launching to cater for the seemingly endless demand for inside knowledge.

It’s getting harder and harder to keep a secret these days. In the past, reputations took a long time to build, and were robust enough to weather the barbs thrown at them by disconsolate ex partners. But in the digital age, employees and employers, investors and investees (and all the people they date) are going to have to get used to the fact that their reputation is increasingly (and quickly) impacted by their actions – and that its value is only increasing as the knowledge that underpins it becomes easier to obtain.

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