I was just reading about how a woman dealt with an offensive joke-telling guy at a developer’s conference by outing him on Twitter. He got fired. So did she. Both tried to defend their actions on the blogosphere, to no avail.
That’s just another in a long line of increasingly easy ways far too many of you will someday use some of that cool technology you’ve got at your fingertips to destroy your reputation, lose your job, or blow your career.
You think I’m kidding? I’m not. Not even a little. I can rattle off a long list of examples, all of which really happened to people I know and other high-profile executives. Here are just a few cautionary tales.
Too much information. I don’t know how many times Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has gotten himself into hot water by over-communicating. The last time was when he blabbed material company information on his personal Facebook page. That triggered an SEC investigation into whether the verbose chief executive violated the Fair Disclosure Regulation. The SEC has since updated its rule, but still. For all the good it does, blabbing on social media sites carries a far greater downside risk, especially for corporate officers and directors.
Click “Send.” Then say, “Oh crap!” Long ago we all learned not to drink and drive. Then we learned not to leave flame voicemails when we’re angry. Well, here’s a new one for you, along the same lines. Don’t ever click send on an email until you’ve reread the whole thing and verified that you didn’t click “Reply All” by mistake. Also, if it’s even slightly possible that it might be inflammatory, give it a day. I bet you end up deleting most of them.
What expectation of privacy? Even before smartphones and Twitter did away with any expectation of privacy or confidentiality you may once have enjoyed, I would have given you this advice: You’ll live a far happier and carefree life by assuming everyone knows everything. Don’t assume anything you do or say will stay private. If it’s worth repeating, it will be repeated.
Guess what? Your competitors know about the Internet too. According to a Forrester Research survey, 82% of companies monitor social media for competitive intelligence. In other words, they’re looking for people who spill their guts about stuff they shouldn’t. A year or two ago, an HP executive named Scott McClellan apparently tipped off competitors about the company’s cloud computing strategy on his LinkedIn page. Did it cost him his job? I don’t know, but after 26 years with the company, he no longer works there.
Document your stupidity. It’s truly astounding how often people who should know better document their stupidity by putting things they shouldn’t in writing. Last year a senior Oracle executive had to leave the company after his instant message rant about company president Mark Hurd came out in a completely unrelated court case. If you wouldn’t want it plastered all over the front page of the Wall Street Journal, don’t text it, email it, or document it in any form, anywhere. And don’t badmouth the boss, either.
BS on LinkedIn. Former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson was one of many top executives who got caught embellishing their resume. It just doesn’t get any more embarrassing than that. But here’s the thing. LinkedIn has pretty much taken the place of resumes for everyone on Earth with a job. I know it’s easy to stretch the truth just a little bit, but trust me; it’s a bad idea. Just don’t do it.
The Internet is forever. I don’t care if you had too much to drink, are angry, or are just having a little too much fun. If there’s any chance you might not want a potential future employer to see whatever it is you’re about to post on YouTube or Facebook, don’t do it. The Internet's like a bad tattoo you can never get rid of. Somewhere in the cloud, you’re idiocy is documented forever.
Take your smartphone to the bathroom. A long time ago I drank way too much coffee at a conference and, when the break came, I literally bolted for the restroom. Just as I was getting there, my cellphone rang. It was a female employee. I shouldn’t have taken the call, but it was important and I wasn’t thinking. Everything was fine until I flushed. There was awkward silence and then she said, “What was that?”
Listen, just do yourself a favor and keep these two things in mind. First, we take our phones everywhere these days. Second, we live in a litigious, politically correct society with thin-skinned people who get offended by all sorts of dumb things. That’s not a great combination if you want to keep getting a paycheck and stay out of court.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.