Death by Web Post or E-mail: Avoiding Career Suicide


A few days ago I suggested that companies put in place policies that prohibit posting under an artificial name. The reason is to get people to think more about what they post and the implications for their career if they are caught.

I've seen too many public posts that could, and should, be career-ending events and know that were these people caught they would probably regret their actions, particularly if they were suddenly unemployed.

This was a precursor to a planned piece where I was going to actually suggest you implement a personal policy of always posting under your own name to protect yourself against posts that might be attributed to you using an artificial name.

It was therefore timely that The New York Times today published a related article called "Flame First: Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior," which speaks to the same behavior but focuses on e-mail where it is certainly as common.

This essay talks about the why behind people writing inappropriate things in e-mail and suggests a solution similar to what has been used in K-12 education, basically the image of a stoplight suggesting you stop and think before writing or doing anything hostile. It references a case in England where a flame war resulted in a nasty murder using a knife and a pickax.

I'm not a huge fan of violence except as fantasy and have personally been on the wrong end of a spear gun, was relatively close to the ESL case where a worker went on a killing spree, and changed career goals after a worker's husband decided to use a shotgun to express discontent with the guy who might have been my predecessor.

It is so easy to get angry but, increasingly, everything we do is a matter of record. Tools that analyze writing and connect it to authors are becoming vastly more advanced and things you wrote years ago could show up in the future as part of a security review, part of an evaluation, or part of a new job background check.

It isn't uncommon to see, in cases of wrongful termination or sexual harassment, e-mails that showcase racism, sexism or inappropriate behavior be used to support the plaintiff's case and you know, when that happens, whoever wrote that e-mail can kiss their career goodbye as a result.

I can recall, in my own company, where a sales VP wrote something inappropriate and racist in an e-mail. This e-mail was accidentally sent to the black employee referenced and her brother was an attorney who specialized in Equal Opportunity Employment Law. The result was her early, and very lucrative, retirement and the sudden elimination of the two idiots who wrote and forwarded the e-mail.

Whether we like it or not, our names go on what we write. We may think we are "anonymous," but we can easily forget that things we do can, and will, at some future point come back to haunt us, our families, our companies, or our children. Can you imagine how you would feel if you had a child running for elective office and he was publicly presented with something you wrote suggesting his parent was racist or a sexual deviant, with the implication that the apple may not fall far from the tree?

So, regardless of whether you agree that your employees should be fired for posting under an assumed name or that you should avoid that as well, I suggest you assume anything you write can, and will, at some future point be You probably should apply this to places you go on the Web or in personal life, and apply the general rule that if you would be embarrassed if your spouse, mother, or boss found out about what you were doing, that maybe you shouldn't do it in the first place. At the very least that should help ensure most of your "surprises" will be positive ones.