Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Online reputation, and the public exposure inherent in many jobs: where am I personally headed?


Recently, I’ve made some more posts on my main blog about employer blogging policies, especially in news organizations, and on online reputation. On this specific blog, related to the IT world, I’ve expressed concern that staffing organizations could become concerned about online reputation of contractors that they send to other clients.

Generally, one major issue in the workplace is whether a particular individual is known, by name and identity, to stakeholders outside the organization, and whether that person is perceived as representing the organization publicly or making decisions for them, or even making decisions about clients. Different career fields can have special issues. In the formal media world, companies have to make sure that the public believes that their journalists will remain objective in reporting. In the insurance world, companies might have to make sure that underwriters don’t allow personal beliefs affect underwriting decisions. Almost anywhere in mainstream corporate and even government America, employers have to be confident that personal beliefs don’t affect personnel actions (and that can be tough).

Another issue is compensation. For a few decades, programmers could work internally in many large companies (especially financial institutions) and command quite ample salaries while remaining “private” to the company; as we moved into the Internet age, employees in these situations generally believed that they could say what they wanted on their own dime, as long as they didn’t betray confidences or trade secrets. The market seems to have changes, especially since 9/11, as companies have outsources IT and the contractor-client model, set up by a staffing company, becomes relatively more important. (Actually, this model had gotten fairly well developed in the 1980s.) Generally, it is becoming difficult to be compensated well in a job where one won’t be known externally and quite publicly by what one does for a living. One good example that supports this are repeated reports that the demand for technical sales people is strong, but many "technies", perhaps often introverted, don't like the social schmoozing expected in the sales world and see some of it as fake.

Think about it. When I worked as a debt collector in 2003, I used my first name only. Clients didn’t know who I was. And I made only $10 an hour (still living off a “retirement” settlement from my IT career). I thought about becoming a USPS letter carrier – at $17 an hour. I was approached by many parties to “sell things.” Most of these were pyramids of some kind that would probably last a while and then collapse. Think how I would feel now had I sold subprime mortgages. I could have.

I have looked at becoming a financial planner or a tax preparers. In this case, you have to get your own clients by using your social life, you have some sort of personalized relationship with each client, and you need to have your clients’ best interests at heart. People who do that shouldn’t be sounding off in public about the “unfairness” of public policy, most of all the tax code. (Maybe they could get away with saying “end the income tax and replace it with nothing”, like the late Harry Browne.)

I substitute taught, and considered investing in the time to become a full time teacher. I would certainly relish teaching AP calculus, and could get my math back up to buff. I really could. But there are “role model” issues that I have detailed in the other blogs (too much to cover right here).

I still do get questions now as to what I will do personally about this, at 65. That is difficult for me to pin down, at first. There is no question that a job that would require me to become visible through the job would require me to change my personal online behavior (ah, “reputation defender” again) and squash the expression of some ideas that are important to me. Or maybe it wouldn’t. A lot of it has to do with the public goals associated with the job. Do I want to be remembered for helping wealthy people pay fewer taxes? No. For helping same-sex couples beat this system? Maybe that’s a little better. For helping overturn “don’t ask don’t tell” or COPA? That’s getting warmer, although that doesn’t seem close to the purpose of most mainstream employers. (Well, maybe the COPA part – or particularly the related idea of “implicit content” does. A job where you have to bring law and technology together is more in the ballpark.) How about something like, helping a major search engine company solve the “spam blog” and “false positive” problem? I think I could contribute something there, and would feel publicly proud to have done so. There are issues in Internet companies, with business models, sometimes related to advertising or often to the potential for abuse, where technical solutions and redefining the business model or strategy can turn out to become as important for the free speech opportunities for individual citizens as any court opinion or law. I know that from my experience with libertarianism. At least, here, I’m mapping out some strategic planning for myself.

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