Most of us dream of working a fulfilling career until we have enough money so that we can choose our own path: we can stay if we wish, move on to a new and more fulfilling career, or head out the door with two middle fingers straight in the air never to work again. But what do you do if something happens before then, and you are forced out of your career not by your own choosing, but because your employer fires you and you are unable to find another job? Hopefully this is an unlikely scenario, but do something stupid which ruins your reputation, or heaven forbid, gets you caught in the social media mob storm, and you may be doomed to an early exit.
Reputation is the main currency for white collar workers to advance in their careers and earn bigger paychecks. Unlike previous generations, we are much more connected and now have an infinitely long memory though the internet. It’s nearly impossible to make a mistake, move on, and start over without our past following us on a Google search. A mistake captured by someone with their phone or through their Twitter account can make your life a living hell, essentially ending your economic earning capabilities. As Benjamin Franklin said “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Today especially, expectations of perfection and a general sense of public anger make us all potential targets. Sounds severe, but unfortunately, it’s true.
You can become a target for any number of reasons, and there are many examples of highly unfair and unjust reactions to minor incidents. Character assassination by a disgruntled ex-coworker, or just falling on the wrong side of a social media mob, are realistic avenues to a potential reputational death. Being on the wrong side of a social media frenzy can mean the economic death penalty for your career. Social media plays a central societal role in generalizing our thoughts and reactions – unfortunately these are often made too quickly and rarely are well thought out nor the subject of any level of nuance. Social media can be used as a weapon, and it can be turned against you by anyone who feels like you’ve wronged them. Good intentions don’t go very far in prevention.
There are only two ways to protect yourself. First, never let yourself get into one of these situations. This is possible, but often these situations are from minor mistakes or not of your own making, as some of the examples below will show. The second is to have enough of an F-You fund that you become bullet proof – at least on a financial basis. In any situation, reputational risk is why you absolutely need F-You money today more than ever.
It Can’t Happen to You?
Many of us think that there’s no way we’ll ever be at the center of a social media storm. We’re not important enough, or we’re smart enough not to do anything stupid enough that causes a stir. Well, many of these people probably felt the same:
- Ashley Payne: Ashley Payne was a high school English teacher at a Georgia school in 2009. At some point, she friended one of her students on Facebook. Then, in a private posting, she used the term “bitch” in a playful manner, while also posting several pictures of herself drinking wine- things that few of us would think twice about doing.
The student’s parents found this out and sent an anonymous email to the superintendent. The school’s principal sat her down and effectively gave her two choices: resign or be suspended on the spot. No reason was given beyond that one of the parents complained. She agreed to resign but then tried to rescind it. She sued to get her job back and failed. Today she’s a graduate student at the University of Georgia.
- Adam Smith: Several years ago, Chic-Fil-A got into a social media frenzy due to its anti-gay marriage stance. Adam Smith, who worked as a CFO of a medical device company making over $200,000 per year, decided to voice his anger by going through the drive-thru and berating a poor girl working the window. He posted the interaction online for the world to see. Clearly Adam was an A-hole to this poor fast food employee, but what happened next demonstrates today’s consequences to making a mistake.
By the time he reached the office later that morning, his voicemail was full of bomb threats and hate. He was fired by the end of the day and he and his family were forced to move. Adam was able to find another job, but the company rescinded the offer two weeks later when they found out who he was. Since then, he’s been upfront with every company he’s interviewed with, but has been unable to find a job anywhere near his previous work. Today he, his wife, and their four kids live in an RV and are on food stamps.
- Victor Alvarez: Victor Alvarez was a journalist with Boston.com. In early 2015, a bartender in Ohio hatched a scheme to poison then Speaker of the House John Boehner. As part of an opinion piece, Victor Alvarez wrote: ‘Would anyone have noticed if the bartender succeeded in poisoning John Boehner?” The piece made references to the known, but never spoken about, drinking problem John Boehner had during his time in the House. Was it a stupid and crass joke? Yes. However, he was also responding to his boss’s request the previous week to be more “edgy” in his writing. Nonetheless, the story was picked up nationally, and the resulting firestorm caused Victor to promptly lose his job. Even John Boehner’s office got involved. He’s still writing, but is now freelance with a far less secure economic future.
Those are just a few examples of how something as innocuous as a picture with you with a glass of wine or a stupid joke that twenty years ago would have been forgotten the next day can now threaten your economic future. There are far more examples, including several recently. Sam Seder briefly lost his job at MSNBC after an Alt-Right organization brought back to life a several year-old sarcastically critical tweet. Stephen Henderson at the Detroit Free Press lost his job after he was caught up in the #MeToo movement- not due to any complaint, but due to hearsay about behavior that his company thought justified termination. In his case, there were no accusations or evidence of sexual assault. In fact, the “victims” stood up for Stephen. Regardless, he’s out of his job with his reputation permanently scarred by a basic Google search.
There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of more examples. In all cases, if any of these incidents had occurred twenty years ago, there would have been no issues and no repercussions. But because of social media, and the constant threat of mob justice, all of these individuals have suffered enormous personal and economic setbacks, with some receiving the equivalent of the economic death penalty. As an employer, it’s justified in letting these employees go. Few people add enough value to take a potential firm-wide reputation hit.
Reputation is one of the few currencies professionals have, and it can disappear in a second. F-You money may no longer be an option but a necessity. With F-You money, you can weather any storm, and at the very least, survive indefinitely without needing someone else to pay you. In several of the cases above, these individuals have yet to find full-time work again and in most, rarely are the new jobs found at the same level of compensation.
Social media can be a useful tool, but like any tool, it can hurt you if used incorrectly. First and foremost, recognize the impact of public shaming and social media mobs. Never, ever participate. Everything can be taken out of context, and even if someone does something truly disgusting, rarely would you getting involved matter. It’s best to keep your comments offline.
Beyond that, you have two concerns: how to prevent a mob against you and what to do if you are the subject of one. To help prevent a mob, you must be careful on social media at all times. Having an established presence online is a necessity, but make sure that every post or tweet you write is one you’re willing to share with the world. You are. Once it’s out there, you can’t retract it. Refrain from posting negative comments about others – there’s just very little, if anything, to be gained. Also, there are several social media alerts that you can set up so that you’ll be notified as soon as someone posts something about you. Keeping an eye open and responding quickly can be helpful.
Further, you must even be careful with email. Anything can be saved and digitized, so just like social media posts, never write something that you wouldn’t want the world to read. If it sounds like self-censorship, it is. Each of the people in the examples above probably wrote or posted thousands of entries on Facebook or Twitter, but it only took one to ruin their lives. You must be constantly vigilant.
If you ever become the subject to a social media storm, it’s best to lay low and let it blow over. Exercise patience and do not engage. Starve the mob of its energy by not responding. Keep records of everything. You never know when you may be able to use it, so take screenshots of everything and save every email. If needed, take the temporary financial hit and hire someone to help. There is an entire cottage industry dedicated to helping people and companies through this type of storm. With time, you’ll need to work to improve your online reputation through positive entries. Often, you can’t remove negative entries about yourself in Google’s search history, so you have to work to do good things that are moved up higher in the results.
Above all, be as financially secure as possible. Our ability to earn a living can be stripped at any moment. Only a big fat dollar balance can truly protect you. With F-You money, you’re economically bullet-proof. Without it, you’re always at risk.
Keep building my friends.