The Curse of Unshakable Labels—Overcoming Career Blots

“If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t doing anything” is a leadership tenet that promotes innovation, risk-taking, continuous improvement, and decision-making. 

It’s a way to motivate employees, overcome fear of failure, and promote creativity. 

However, there’s an unstated caveat even in the most enlightened companies: “Some mistakes are unacceptable, even intolerable.” 

There’s a line we can’t cross and if we do, the mark on us is indelible. 

The dreaded line 

We make mistakes for lots of reasons: 

  • Lack of knowledge (Inputting the wrong code)
  • Inattentiveness or carelessness (Forgetting to notify the board)
  • Misdirected loyalties and confidence (Revealing confidential information)
  • Confusion and chance (Misspeaking to the media) 

Saying or doing the wrong thing has its consequences. Some are insignificant, some problematic, and some unshakable. 

It’s only after our gaff that we know its effect on our career brand.  The way we find out is often by how people refer to us as a matter of description or introduction: 

“You know who ____ is. S/he’s the one who: 

  • Lied about….
  • Couldn’t do the job
  • Went ballistic/threw a punch
  • Dressed like a bum/floozy
  • Lost that big account
  • Couldn’t handle the pressure” 

Once our mistakes become legend, they are hard to bury.

The case of Amanda Knox 

The impact of negative branding will be the forever challenge for Amanda Knox, first charged, sentenced, and then exonerated for the horrific murder of her roommate in Perugia, Italy. 

Amanda spent four years in an Italian prison for a crime, it was ultimately proven, she and her boyfriend did not commit. Her saga is a frightful one and some will never believe she didn’t commit this awful crime. (A third party has been convicted in the killing and is in jail.) 

From the outset, Amanda was the target of negative labels, particularly in the Italian press. She was called: 

  • “the monster of Perugia”
  • “foxy knoxy” (a former childhood nickname that resurfaced in the press)
  • “she-devil” 

Henry Chu, from the Tribune Newspapers, wrote: 

“For the past four years, Amanda Knox…has been the focus of breathless debate of whether she was a calculating, remorseless vixen…or the helpless victim of a character assassination and a botched police investigation in a foreign land.” 

This dichotomy of perception will likely follow Amanda for her lifetime. She’ll give her name and people will ask, “Are you that Amanda Knox?” And she will need to reply. 

Overcoming “those” labels 

Sometimes we deserve the negative labels we get and sometimes we don’t. They become part of our brand either way. 

You can point to lots of prominent people who have had career blots to overcome like former President Bill Clinton for his dalliances; Elton John for his drug and alcohol excesses, and Martha Stewart for insider trading. 

Our individual brands have their own unique reach. For some it’s global or national. For others it’s state or local. For us it may be within our company or circle.

Counteracting those labels isn’t easy but doable with effort. We fix negatives with positives, Big Positives. 

The good things we do need to overshadow the mistake(s) we’ve made. They need to be bigger and more memorable. They need to take the place of the negative story. 

Bill Clinton heads his global initiative, doing high impact work worldwide. Elton John raises boatloads of money to combat AIDS. Martha Stewart drives her business straight through those old negatives. 

Amanda Knox will have to do something too, something more than a book or a movie. She’s only 24 years old and faced with global notoriety she surely isn’t ready for. What she does next to overcome the blot on her reputation will be a challenging case in brand management. 

Guard your brand 

Your brand is your reputation and you’re its keeper. It’s tempting to think it takes care of itself, but that would be reckless. 

Our brands can be negatively affected without our knowing it, particularly through social media. So now’s the time to take special care of something that will take care of you and your career for a long time. 

Photo by deeleea via Flickr

Your Generation’s Workplace Brand—Fair or Foul? |Taking Issue

Isn’t it actually stereotyping? A kind of “when you were born” profiling? I’m talking about those labels—Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y (aka the Millenials, Generation Next, Net Generation, Echo Boomers).

These labels, initially designating our birth era, have become cultural brands, creating either positive or negative perceptions, depending on who’s watching, especially at work. We even use them to categorize ourselves. 

Stories can spawn truth or myth. 

On her morning talk show this week, NBC’s Hoda Kotb and guest co-host, Willie Geist, an MSNBC TV commentator, swapped stories about interns they’d hired. 

Hoda needed to locate a J. Smith in NJ for a segment, so she said to her intern, “I’ll start calling this half of the names in the phone book and you can take the other half.” 

The intern replied, “Oh, I don’t make cold calls.” 

Geist’s story was similar. When given a weekend assignment, his intern informed him, “I don’t work Saturdays.” 

Both Kotb and Geist called these reactions signs of “narcissism,” reflective of that generation nineteen-year-olds. Fair or foul? 

I suspect that you know plenty of entry level professionals who would have walked through fire for KotB and Geist. But stories like these feed the brands of whole generations. 

The perils of painting with a broad brush 

Why do we find it unacceptable to attach sweeping labels to the styles of our coworkers by ethnicity or race but find it acceptable to use the era in which we’re born? 

We’ve become pidgeon-holed: 

  • Baby Boomer—a person born during the Post-World War II baby boom
  • Generation X—a person born after the Western post-World War II baby boom, from the 1960s to the early 1980s  
  • Generation Y (Millenials, et al)—a person born after the Gen Xers, from about the mid-1970s to the early 2000s.   

(Some people refer to Millenials as their own generational group.) 

These labels have been allowed to represent our work ethic and the ways we interact. For some reason, as managers and employees, we’ve become comfortable categorizing each other and ourselves using these labels. 

Here’s what several career-minded professionals posted on a site I follow: 

  • “Generation X and Baby Boomer managers complain about poor performance.
  • Generation Y whines about a lack of responsibility and/or high demands in the workplace.
  • Millenials pick up important cues because they are native technology users; Boomers sometimes miss those cues because they’re not.” 

People write statements like these and everyone nods. But are they true about everyone in these groups? About you? They sure aren’t true about me. 

Why aren’t we angry about this? 

I’ve been frustrated by these labels for a long time. There’s a danger in them when they’re perceived as truths.

Every time we refer to ourselves as a Boomer, a Gen Xer, or a Millenial, we agree to be defined in the context of others we don’t even know. We accept the stories that went with them, rather than creating stories that showcase ourselves  and what we have to offer.

When we accept those labels, we foster division. Each person, not generation, brings something important to the party. It’s our job to figure out what that is and grow from it. 

Please stay out of the boxes!

Success is about YOU. There’s no value thinking in labels. Instead, find people where you work you who are considered the best contributors, the standout leaders, and the examples to follow. 

Find mentors with varied experiences and knowledge. Don’t just hang around with your own clan. Bridge every generation and engage all the talent you can. Defy the labels. Be your own person. Then see how your career takes off!

Try this: List the people in your company who have distinguished themselves. Find a way to talk to them about something related to your work in the next 30 days. See what happens. You’ll be amazed.