Time Limits on Reputation

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Having an HR background, I have heard an obnoxious amount of buzz from people who didn’t jump onto the internet-is-a-socially-useful-thing train until the surge of manic hype came along about an individual’s online footprint, and how that can affect his or her perceived employability. Debates about ethics, “consultants” setting up their vendor booths in snake oil reputation management, and stories about people being fired because of the internet expanded like hot air to fill up airtime and page space so talking heads could get paid. The dialogue has led to the question “What if, with all of their privacy stripped, nobody is considered employable anymore?”

That’s both a smart and stupid question. It’s smart because it challenges the ethics of the practice. It’s stupid because it’s not going to happen. Taboo is relative. When women started wearing pants, gender distinctions didn’t get dissolved to the detriment of the heterosexual family. When almost everyone had sex before marriage, and when a significant chunk of the population started getting divorced, those no longer became reasons to deny people of respect and dignity. It didn’t make marriage in itself obsolete (much like gay marriage doesn’t, but I digress). Tattoos are visible and hair is dyed brightly in some work environments today, so even professional standards are accepting diversity in character and values to run their business. There will never be 100% unemployment, or anything near that. Employers won’t stop hiring people, and those that do base their decisions on the presumed moral character of an applicant will face consequences.

That’s regarding business practices. The ethical or legal matters that this brings up have several parallels in existing law. Human rights legislation deems it illegal for employers to make hiring decisions based on a number of unchosen factors in an individual that’s not a bona fide requirement for the job. This means that race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities can’t be used against an applicant without reasons legitimate enough to stand up in court. Amending “on the basis of Facebook profile content” into the law will never happen, but there’s another factor protected from being used against individuals that I didn’t mention.

Bankruptcy ruins your credit score for seven years. The taxman can audit your income taxes back seven years. A person with a criminal record can apply for a pardon seven years after the offense. That last one is laid out alongside the factor above in human rights codes – Canadian ones, at least – because that is the purpose of pardons. If illegal activities can’t be held against someone seven years after the fact, then immature events shouldn’t either. It should be an outright black-and-white law or precedent that states using evidence of character from over seven years prior to an employment decision (hiring, firing, promoting, or other) is an invalid basis of decision. Reputation management may still be a popular field for those who aim for a career with much public presence, but educated people with years of experience who are looking elsewhere shouldn’t have to worry that something they posted in an online forum in their college days will keep them unemployed indefinitely.

That’s projecting a giant shadow of a tiny mouse to black out seven years of hard work.

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