Reputation Management in an Era of Too Much Information
The scenario is all too familiar in our digital era: A high-profile administrator or academic is taken to task for a past deed or comment that is newly revealed. The result is mild embarrassment, shame, or worse.
Frequently the revelations — whether true or alleged — come to light during a job search. Sometimes the deed or the information in question is exposed by the screening and referencing process. Other times it’s a false accusation or a leak from someone with a grudge.
In my work as a search consultant, there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t speak with candidates for administrative jobs about a personal or career misstep they’ve made and how to handle it in the hiring process. Because so much information is available about job candidates today, search committees must think carefully about how it influences their decisions, as my fellow consultant Dennis Barden has written.
But the onus is on you as the candidate to manage anything from your past that will be a red flag for a search committee. You must have a plan for what you’re going to do and say if — or more likely when — the potential revelations or accusations emerge.
Maybe you were named in a lawsuit or investigation. Perhaps you were criticized in the local press or in a student newspaper for a controversial decision or comment you made. None of those things necessarily derail a candidacy. What will is if the committee discovers the information on its own, or if you wait to reveal it until late in the hiring process.
In my experience, if a search committee discovers something that the candidate should have shared, it will be a serious mark against you. You may think you have good reasons for keeping quiet, but the committee will perceive you as lacking trustworthiness, integrity, and character. In the job marketplace, being transparent and providing explanations and mea culpas go a long way toward keeping or restoring your integrity and credibility.
The news gets out in all sorts of ways:
- A reporter unearths blog posts written years earlier by a candidate for a deanship. The search committee views the posts as offensive, and even the candidate now agrees.
- During a background check, the search consultant learns that a top candidate was accused, then acquitted, of misappropriating funds from a previous employer.
- In an open forum, students ask about questionable tweets that a finalist for a provost position “liked” on Twitter.
Each of those scenarios should be handled somewhat differently. But one point is the same for all of them: The candidate should be upfront about a controversial revelation and prepared to respond.
It could happen to you at any time. So how do you best control the situation and manage your reputation? Some suggestions:
Do forensics on yourself. We’ve all Googled ourselves from time to time, just to see what’s attached to our names online. Sometimes it’s worrisome to find an old photo, blog post, or even your mobile-phone number smack dab in the middle of the search-engine results page. Private information may be out there that you weren’t aware was public. Or maybe someone has written something about you that is simply untrue.
It’s good practice to check a few times a year, and to ask for potentially embarrassing or damaging information to be taken down if possible. Or remove it yourself if you can. For example: Delete that Twitter account you had in your days as a faculty member. Removing information from the web doesn’t mean it’s gone forever — you should be ready to account for it, should it be discovered at some point — but at least you are taking control of the profile that the majority of others will see. You are proactively managing and updating your online persona to reflect who you are today.
Assess the magnitude of the “revelation.” How bad is it? Is there a piece of information about you floating in cyberspace that could create a career or job-search challenge? Is it merely embarrassing (“I don’t want people to know, but it wouldn’t alter my standing with colleagues or the institution”) or truly concerning (“There will be career repercussions”)?
You can’t figure out how to handle it unless you have a good understanding of how much its disclosure would actually hurt your career.
Assess the likely response. What will the court of public opinion say? How might a search committee react? You may think that old blog post isn’t representative of your true self, but many of your peers will see otherwise.
Most of the questionable incidents or comments from your past will likely fall under the “embarrassing” category rather than “career-killer” kind. Assessing the reaction should give you confidence regardless of who knows about them.
Be honest and upfront — if possible. If you’re a candidate in a job search and you’re worried about a particular aspect of your past, have a confidential conversation with the search consultant or your contact on the search committee. Explain the situation and ask for advice on gauging its significance and severity. You can’t reveal your whole life, but at least give serious thought to whether a particular issue that seems like a potential problem should be raised as relevant to your candidacy.
Context matters: Something that would kill your candidacy at one institution will only be considered a tiny blemish at another. Try to get a sense of how your particular issue plays out within the institution’s culture and traditions. Don’t be afraid to tell the search consultant. We can help. Believe me, I have heard a lot of stories. I’ve seen how search committees respond to different revelations. Search consultants will know how to raise a matter with the committee and whether it will disqualify you for the position, for example.
Be calm and patient as you contest false accusations. I have witnessed a number of instances in which false or unfounded information about a candidate came out during the due-diligence process. Due diligence begins once the candidate is selected for a first-round interview. Before the first interview, the search consultant and sometimes the hiring committee look into a candidate’s background. A deeper dive takes place as the candidate moves through the process. It’s always upsetting when you hear a false allegation repeated against you — but it’s particularly disturbing when an allegation you weren’t even aware of emerges during the search process. (I repeat: Do your own forensics.)
In all of those instances, the committee and the search consultant were able to work with the candidate to unravel and discredit the false information, whether through documentation or verbal confirmation from another party.
Fight to put the matter in a larger context. By that I mean: Strive to keep the mistake or problem in the context of your full body of work — both in your own mind and in others’ minds.
Most mistakes can be tempered by what is otherwise a career of being a good person and an effective professional. As a candidate, you can’t please everyone or make everyone overlook your flaws. Hopefully you can persuade a search committee or hiring authority to see the big picture.
We are living in an era in which privacy is being redefined and anonymity is nearly impossible. As an academic leader — whether or not you are on the job market now — be proactive and seek to control how information about you is perceived if and when it comes to light. It won’t be easy, but it is better than the alternative.
Ann Yates is a principal with the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. She leads nationwide searches for presidents, provosts, deans, and vice presidents at public and private colleges and universities.
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2019, issue.
Read other items in this The Executive Hiring Process package.
Ann Yates is a senior partner in the education practice of the executive search firm WittKieffer.