I recently watched an episode of Penny Arcade: The Series Season 2 - a behind-the-scenes series that takes a look into one of the most successful video gaming comic franchises (and charity and expo) - and Robert Khoo mentioned how their new hire's previous online presence may be detrimental to her professional image, even if her history online was expunged. My first reaction was that of any naive young person in that I found myself in the "if you don't like it, don't read/look at it" mentality, but I took a step back and looked at it as if I was back in the shoes of my old store manager self doing the hiring. And then I was conflicted. (continued after the break)
For the last few years, many news stories like this very recent one have been appearing about the missteps of young people in my age group surrounding their professional career and the implicating or undesirable content they post online about themselves or others. Admittedly, the lesson they repeatedly advertise in their stories is annoying to read and hear, akin to hearing our parents incessantly rant about how we should or shouldn't do something. However, the consequences can be far reaching. Though I can't vouch for my peers, but I too fall victim to the "I know what I'm doing, and I can deal with whatever consequences come my way" trap, though its the Law of Unintended Consequences that is making things difficult and is why professionals are worried.
When we get hired at a company, we don't just get hired to do the work, but we're also hired as a representative of the company. As such, whenever we tell a person "I work at such-and-such," we represent the company, and despite how we believe it shouldn't apply, our character, appearance and history give impressions about the company. Of course, such implications should not exist, as they are based on a known logical fallacy and could wrongly discredit the organization that they work for based solely on the employee. But we live in a world where logic does not govern us at all hours of the day, and the embarrassing things that an employee does in their free time still somehow affect their standing at their place of employment.
Granted that sometimes, as is the case with the new hire in the episode, character and history are actually important, and a non-profit organization such as Child's Play that survives on the good will of their contributors needs to combat any negative feeling of that could hinder the generosity of contributors, such as an embarrassing picture or disparaging comment made in the past by a representative.
Despite the knowledge that I represent the people I work for both inside and outside the workplace, I still honestly believe that comments made online should continue to be protected under the Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Press in this country. By terminating an employee for their personal online transgressions, regardless of what they may be, is, in my opinion, a violation of those rights. I understand that my generation is considered, in the eyes of my elders, too apt and eager to share nearly every facet of their livelihood, every thought and idea, and every memory, but in reality it is merely because the Internet and social networking has introduced new forms of communication so rapidly that the sharing of those things not really been accepted as the norm. Granted, there are things we could do without posting or saying, if merely for just our own personal benefit (a disparaging comment about a boss may make things difficult, or too much personal information can become a personal security risk, for instance), but I do not see the harm in voicing our opinion considering we will always have one.
I am firm proponent of my Right to Speech, and often use my blog to express my frustrations, opinions, or even personal epiphanies online alongside useful information just as political pundit expresses their opinion in the news on television. It is still the same thing - subjective information, albeit sometimes unfounded - but the only difference is the platform that is used to convey those opinions and/or knowledge. Social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, help us share the memories and information of people, places, events, and things in ways that were previously unimaginable, and help us - when used properly - bring people together. And, in some ways, these new forms of communication have already outmoded traditional forms of media. But even if a post poses a professional threat in some way, it is no different than starting a conversation or argument with a group of people in a public place. I guess that it is the permanence of the Internet and its content that scares businesses.
Regardless of whether or not professionals accept or reject the notion that an employee has the right to make his or her opinions public and share their personal life with whomever they choose - even the faceless public - one thing stands for certain: social networking and information sharing will never go away what now with its introduction and use as a means of communication. All they will have to do now is slowly get used to the fact that it will become the norm, and businesses will be hard-pressed to find an employee who will represent their company who has never made some sort of "mistake" online before.