Your Online Reputation

Perhaps this post should have more rightly been titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

The good: It’s awfully rewarding when you start seeing people Googling your name. That means you are building a reputation, in some way or form. When people are interested enough in who you are to research you, it means you are doing something right.

The bad: Are you ready for that level of scrutiny? One of the issues I have with being such a prolific writer is that I’m starting to build up a massive portfolio of work, and good or bad…it’s all on display. In some cases, where I have handed off an article to an editor who then makes a mistake before publishing the content, my name is still attached to that work, and I’m not going to catch every mistake that gets made, regardless if it was my mistake or an editor’s mistake. Not to mention, the things you say and do are more public than ever, and if you’ve ever made a comment on a forum, blog, or website…it’s there to stay.

The ugly: I recently saw another writer who had failed to live up to the expectations of their client, at which point said client went on the Interwebz and started posting some fairly horrific comments about the writer, referencing their dissatisfaction on their blog, website, and even going so far as to mention the writer in their newsletter and Twitter, furthering the damage caused.

I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the intricacies of the real world Human Resources departments, but as a general rule if a potential employer calls your previous place of employment and asks about you, all they (your previous employers) are allowed to give is generalities. Yes, you were let go, no we can’t go into any intimate details. Yes you quit. Etc.

For those of you who are not familiar with how slander/libel works, it basically means that no one, regardless of how upset they are with your performance, is allowed to spread libelous information about you which could potentially jeopardize your lifestyle in any way, shape or form, at least not publicly. For example, if I were unhappy with an employee’s performance I might complain to my wife or my close friends over beers, and I might even fire that person for performance-related issues and mark that down in case someone calls to ask about them, but what I am not allowed to do is post a newsletter saying “Employee X is one of the worst employees I’ve ever seen. He was consistently late, he smelled like poo, his face looked like a squirrel’s armpit, and I’d rather see him ran over by a bus than be allowed to work in this profession again.”

The latter is exactly what this particular client did after the writer failed to live up to their expectations. Needless to say, a libel/slander lawsuit followed. I don’t need to tell you the outcome.

However, this points to a growing problem with online reputations. Did you know the IRS–for example–is now checking people’s Twitter, Facebook and MySpace accounts to keep tabs on whether or not they are/are not paying their taxes? This is just the smallest tip of the iceberg, and while some might argue that the IRS has every right to use any means necessary to get their chunk of your paycheck, there are others who still believe in basic human rights and freedoms. One of those being the right to keep people from spreading libel and slander about your character or work-related abilities.

Anyone can Google your name. Some of us, like myself, are fine with that, as long as the information showing up is good. What happens if you come across someone who is not 100% satisfied with your services and decides to strike to the airwaves with blog posts and website posts about you, your business, and otherwise? Or even worse, what happens if you run into a blogger or fellow writer who has a difference of opinion with you and then proceeds to post comments about you on their website ?

While the actual laws vary state to state in the US, and country to country around the world, as a general rule no previous employer is allowed to give a bad reference. The basics of this are closely tied to libel and slander laws around the world, where a company cannot spread damaging information about someone for fear of a defamation lawsuit if an individual finds him/herself in a position where the information a previous employer gives out was less than stellar. Obviously there are exceptions to these rules. If you were taking drugs on the job, for example, that’s probably going to come up, and no amount of fast talking will get you away from that fact. But if it’s simply a matter of performance or expectations, there is a line that should not be crossed, and in most cases it won’t be.

In the last couple of years I have seen people’s blogs used as actually references for lawsuits regarding defamation cases. Digital signatures are now binding in a court of law. Things you say on the Internet–regardless if they are on your personal blog or not–can in some cases be actionable in a court of law, which leads to some fairly sticky situations regarding freedom of speech. Or does it?

The thing to remember is that your personal blog isn’t really personal. The moment you chose to host something on the Internet you entered into the public domain. A personal journal is just that…a journal you keep in your drawer that no one else but you can read. It’s personal. You cannot call a blog personal. No matter if you have set the permissions to only friends and family allowed to read, it is still public reading material.

Defamation lawsuits are serious business. No one has the right to harm your chances of finding future work, and if you find yourself dealing with a client who is potentially unsatisfied with the final product, you need to understand that it’s just an unfortunate situation, but one that does not necessarily have to reflect upon your future job prospects. That client may not be 100% satisfied with your performance, but what you need to understand is that everyone is human; at some point or another in our lives we are going to come across people who we have a difference of opinion with. The line between professionals and the non is being able to accept those differences of opinions and move forward regardless, rather than being stuck on the difference of opinion and allowing that to motivate you to overstep the bounds of the client/clientele relationship.

T.W. Anderson is the founder of Complete Writing Solutions, and is a freelance writer specializing in travel writing, website content, interior design and home improvement, green-related topics, as well as anything else potential clients need him to be.

Posted in Freelance Writing 101, Freelance Writing Tips, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
6 comments on “Your Online Reputation
  1. Andrew says:

    “For those of you who are not familiar with how slander/libel works, it basically means that no one, regardless of how upset they are with your performance, is allowed to spread information about you which could potentially jeopardize your lifestyle in any way, shape or form, at least not publicly.”

    Truth is an absolute defense to libel and slander. HR departments usually decline to elaborate on their history with former employee not because it’s unlawful to say negative things, but because they fear frivolous defamation lawsuits.

  2. Yep. I might have worded that first part incorrectly; if you notice later in the article I reference the fact that it’s the defamation lawsuits that are the deterrent.

  3. I started my online life what seems like a hundred years ago on The Well, probably the original online community… all text.

    One of the first things they taught us there was not to put anything online we weren’t willing to see on the front page of the NY Times… a good rule even today I think.

  4. Pretty much. Beyond that, I think too many bloggers think they can say what they want and hide behind Internet anonymity, but those days are rapidly going the way of the dinosaur. Anything you say on the Internet can be held against you in a court of law, so it’s best to do like your mother told you…if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

  5. TC says:

    I guard my online reputation very, very carefully. I am quite passionate about my business and, back during the real estate “boom” I’d often get into arguments with folks about mortgages and real estate. There were times when I’d respond to some flaming attack on me, type the whole thing, my blood boiling the whole time. Then my better sense would kick in before I hit Captain Picard’s “engage” button.

    I hewed to the line of extreme caution about what I say on the internet because, well, it’s out there FOREVER. (or at least until the next ice age)

    Unfortunately I think too many folks on the ‘net think what they say is basically private. They don’t consider the consequences of their actions. Then again, you could say the same about the people who get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle after drinking a bit too much.

    Guard your online reputation by considering the consequences; it’s all about the consequences, whether Good, Bad, or Ugly.


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