In May 2020, a prominent health advisor to the UK government stepped down, highlighting a critical lesson: our personal and professional lives are closely intertwined, and actions in one can significantly impact the other. This demonstrates that our personal actions often have deep professional consequences.  Here we discuss the risks and remedies.

The End of a Clear Divide

Gone are the days when personal life impacted work only in minor, often humorous ways, such as turning up to work hungover or making a blunder at the office Christmas party. In the digital era, our personal lives are increasingly visible and can have a profound effect on our professional reputation. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn expose our personal opinions, hobbies, and even political views, blurring the lines between personal and professional identities.

The Challenge of Digital Footprints

This merging of personal and professional spheres is keenly felt by younger generations. A middle school student, for instance, shared her apprehension about posting a hobby video on YouTube, fearing it might unintentionally offend and harm her future academic and career opportunities. This anecdote reflects the growing awareness among young people of the long-term impact of their online activities.

The Interplay of Personal and Professional Selves

Our personal and professional selves are interdependent. While our professional roles provide the means for sustenance, our personal qualities – such as energy, skills, and interests – enhance our work. However, conflicts between these aspects can lead to negative professional repercussions.

Strategies for Harmonising Personal and Professional Identities Online

To protect your personal and professional reputation, consider these two principles and their associated actions:

  1. Unified Identity with Varied Expressions: Acknowledge that we are individuals with multiple facets. We bring our unique mix of energy, intellect, and experiences to all areas of our lives. However, the expression of these traits can differ. In a professional context, we might:
    • Employ formal language.
    • Adhere to a more formal dress code.
    • Establish clear, objective expectations.
    • Depend on structured organisational frameworks.
  2. Unique Purpose of Work Relationships: Recognise that professional relationships have a different purpose compared to personal ones, often driven by commercial or organisational objectives and involving an expectation of reciprocity, such as financial remuneration.

Practical Steps to Maintain a Balanced Online Presence

  1. Considered Social Media Usage: Exercise caution with your social media posts, ensuring they align with both your professional image and personal values.
  2. Professional Online Branding: Develop a professional online presence that reflects your career goals and achievements.
  3. Privacy Settings Management: Regularly review and adjust your privacy settings on social platforms to control who can view your personal information.
  4. Thoughtful Content Creation: When producing content, consider its potential long-term effects on your personal and professional life.
  5. Ongoing Self-Reflection: Continuously evaluate how your personal activities align with your professional objectives and responsibilities.

Navigating Personal and Professional Lives

In an age where personal and professional lives are increasingly interconnected, navigating this landscape with care is crucial. By understanding the relationship between our personal and professional selves and proactively managing our online presence, we can maintain a balance that supports both our career and personal life goals.

Top 5 actions to avoid your actions having professional consequences

1. Living your principles

If our life principles are common to our working and private lives, then not ‘living’ them through our words and deeds in our personal lives can undermine our professional reputation. I once declined to do business with a man who had boasted on the one hand of being honourable and on the other of cheating on his wife.  He told me this during our very first conversation. I felt that if he did not honour personal commitments, he was less likely to honour professional commitments.

Be explicitly aware of the principles in your life through active reflection and live consistently with them.  Ideally, align yourself with employers and clients whose principles reflect your own. It’s clear that not doing so can have negative professional consequences.

2. Always do what you said you would do

This applies to personal and working lives. As per the story above about the UK health advisor who resigned because of his actions, if you make a public statement, you really must ‘live’ that statement in your personal and professional actions.

Not doing so leads to understandable criticisms that:

    • You did not believe the advice you gave, which can suggest that your motivations were not sincere
    • Your future advice cannot be trusted to be anything but self-serving
    • You do not honour the expectations placed on you and the role you hold

Any of these criticisms will severely weaken your professional reputation!

3. Be aware of prevailing social norms

You do not have to share social norms, but you must be aware of them and be prepared to adjust accordingly.  This is brought to life for many when they work in a new culture.  Not understanding social norms such as how respect is exhibited can have an impact on your reputation for being someone with whom people can work.

I once accidentally attempted to eat something in daylight hours during Ramadan in a Muslim country – thankfully I was stopped by a colleague before I could offend.  That personal action would have undermined my professional standing by (completely innocently and inadvertently) performing a socially unacceptable action in front of people I considered respected colleagues and dear friends; these were people I liked and who liked me and in no way would I have wanted to insult them or their home culture

4. Be aware of your social media profile

This is simply way too obvious to mention.  BUT…!  Judging by the number of stories I read about it, perhaps it’s not obvious at all.  Be aware that your profile showing you as a committed ‘party animal’ is available for everyone to see.  And I do mean everyone.

Last year, a young graduate famously lost her internship at the USA’s NASA.  In her understandable excitement, she used an inappropriate word in a Tweet announcing her success at landing the internship.  Someone she did not know responded with the single word ‘language’, by which he meant to advise her not to use such language as NASA would find it unprofessional.  Unfortunately, her response to him was especially profane.

Even more, unfortunately, NASA saw the Twitter exchange and revoked her internship.  It’s unclear whether the internship was subsequently reinstated (I hope so!) but at best she put herself in an unnecessary situation by her personal life actions.

The upside of social media presence is, of course, that there is potential for employers to know more about who they are employing.  Cynical, but true.

The downside is that anything we do publicly, no matter how well-intentioned or innocent, is subject to public judgment.

5. Always assume criticism is professional, not personal – even if it’s not!

This advice is a little esoteric.  If you are confident that your principles are robust, be brave, and be yourself.  By doing so, you will be inclined to respond to the criticism from a professional perspective, not a personal one.  And this is vitally important.

Develop a thick skin.  Always assume that criticism is professional and not personal (even if that’s not true!) and take pride in acting in a way that you believe is correct and appropriate to fulfil the purpose of your work role.

Remember that being professional is not about being nice, it’s about ‘being the person you need to be’ to do your job.  Always be objective, ethical and approachable but when you need to be nice, be nice; when you need to be tough, be tough.

Do be prepared for negativity and trolling.  There will be people who will find any reason to criticise you for being the person you need to be in your work role.  This might be because they sincerely disagree with you and your moral compass; or because they simply like trolling and you are their target.

If you have performed honourably, within ethical bounds and using the most appropriate means, then criticism can only ever be subjective and easily rebutted.

People Who Have Experienced Professional Consequences

1. Elizabeth Holmes – Business World (Theranos)

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, exemplifies how personal actions can lead to severe professional consequences in the business world. Lauded as a revolutionary entrepreneur, Holmes claimed her technology could perform complex blood tests with just a few drops of blood. However, investigations revealed that the technology was fundamentally flawed and her claims were false. This deception not only led to the downfall of Theranos but also resulted in Holmes facing criminal fraud charges, highlighting the severe impact of unethical business practices.

2. Lance Armstrong – Sports World (Cycling)

Lance Armstrong, once celebrated as a seven-time Tour de France winner, faced dramatic consequences due to his involvement in doping. Armstrong’s persistent use of performance-enhancing drugs, which he initially vehemently denied, eventually came to light, leading to a major scandal in the cycling world. He was stripped of his Tour de France titles and banned from professional cycling for life. This case not only tarnished his reputation but also had a significant impact on the perception of doping in sports.

3. Richard Nixon – Political World (U.S. Presidency)

Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, faced severe professional consequences due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal. The scandal stemmed from the Nixon administration’s attempt to cover up its involvement in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex. As the investigation unfolded, Nixon’s role in the cover-up became apparent, leading to a loss of public trust and political support. Facing almost certain impeachment, Nixon resigned from the presidency in 1974, marking the first and only resignation of a U.S. President.

4. Harvey Weinstein – Entertainment World (Film Industry)

Harvey Weinstein, a former film producer and co-founder of Miramax and The Weinstein Company, faced dramatic professional and personal consequences following numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. In 2017, several women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Weinstein, spanning decades. This led to his dismissal from The Weinstein Company and expulsion from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Weinstein scandal ignited the #MeToo movement, bringing global attention to sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry and beyond. In 2020, Weinstein was convicted of rape and sexual assault, marking a significant moment in the fight against sexual misconduct in Hollywood and other industries.

5. Oxfam Scandal – Humanitarian/Charity World

The Oxfam scandal of 2018 is a notable example in the humanitarian world where personal actions of staff members led to severe consequences for the organization. Reports emerged that Oxfam staff members engaged in sexual misconduct while on a mission in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The scandal led to widespread public outrage and a significant loss of donor support. Oxfam faced governmental investigations and a temporary ban on receiving government funding. This scandal highlighted the importance of accountability and ethical conduct in humanitarian organisations.

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Committed to helping people find success and fulfilment in their working lives through Personal Professionalism.