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Are you embarrassed?

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We have all done things that we are ashamed of, embarrassed by, or simply regret.  If anyone tells me that they have not then I will say they are probably lying.  The thing is, the world has changed over the past few years, and there are two factors that we all have to be concerned by:

  • Everyone has a camera (and video camera) in their pocket; and
  • The Internet is forever.

When I say we have all done things that are embarrassing I do not mean simply tripping over an untied shoelace while all eyes are on you.  That sort of thing happens to everyone.  As my friend Bill Sparks used to say ‘just say ‘Tadaah!’ as if that was what you meant to do.  I am talking about the sort of thing that ten years down the road can come back to bite you.

Over the last twenty years and more we have seen more and more people pushing (and breaking through) the limits of what the majority of people consider acceptable.  The most brazen examples could likely be found at Spring Break parties, Mardi Gras celebrations (especially in New Orleans!), and other such festivals.  However they are really all over the place, these opportunities to haunt our futures.  In fact the people doing these things are very often people who would never do such things, but they get caught up in the moment, alcohol, maybe drugs, and people (alleged friends) egging them on.

I have over the years been interviewed for several positions (both contract and employment) by dozens of people.  Most of them asked me about my technical skills, my experience, my goals and aspirations.  Through it all there is one question that I was asked that has always stood out in my mind as the most memorable… and probably the most important.

“If we were to search the Internet would we find evidence of your having ever done anything that would embarrass the company?”

Wow… I had to give it some thought.  I had certainly done some things that would be embarrassing to myself, but fortunately for me I don’t think any of them were actually on camera.  I answered No.  Since that interview I have done my best to live my life in such a way as to ensure that I never would… even though I did not get that particular job.

What is embarrassing?

The problem with that question is knowing what companies may consider embarrassing.  The big issue is that we never know, starting with the fact that we may not know what sort of company we will want to work for in the future..  There are a lot of unknowns and unknowable factors.  However one thing is for sure… In a day and age where there is a good chance that someone has a camera that can start recording within seconds, it is not a bad idea to live your life with that question in mind.

Unfortunately it is a lesson many people will learn far too late.

There was a time when people lived by values that were consistent with those of their parents.  Most societies around the world were governed by a set of moral or religious values, which in the English world was further restricted by Victorian modesty and propriety.  The rest of Europe may have been slightly more open, but only to a certain degree.

I do not know if it is because society has moved away from religion or something else entirely, but people seem to be willing to do a lot more stupid things on camera than they used to.  Often they are the sort of things that might be acceptable behind closed doors in the privacy of one’s own home; sometimes they are things that most people would never even dream of doing there.

Nudity and sexual activity seem to play a big role in these pictures and videos, but they are not the only areas.  There are inappropriate commentaries and racist/sexist/homophobic jokes and even criminal activity, extreme inebriation and drug use, and more.  All things that may be fun or funny to some in the moment can be career limiting moves down the road.

I understand that people want to have fun; it is unfortunate that we live in an age where cameras are everywhere and the Internet is forever, but that is not going away any time soon so it is the reality we have to live with.  It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to always be aware of what we are doing, and where the cameras are.

What about in private?

I am the last person who would ever tell anyone to be a prude.  I am as open as most (and fortunately neither as open nor as closed as others), and think we should be allowed to let loose and to have fun. However what I do behind closed doors is nobody’s business but my own.

Earlier this year a female friend of mine was showing me pictures of her daughter.  She was showing off how beautiful she (the daughter) was, and handed me her smart phone to browse the pictures.  As I was doing so I noticed that suddenly her face turned white, and she almost lunged at me to get the phone back.  Unfortunately she was not quick enough and did not prevent me from accidentally seeing a picture of her in a very personal situation.

She told me that she took several pictures of herself in that situation to send to her boyfriend.  This was the very same boyfriend that she had just finished telling me she was about to break up with.  They had been dating for three months – did she trust that he was not going to share those photos on the Internet?  Her reaction floored me:

If he wants to get back at me he doesn’t need the pictures, he can just put the videos I did with him on-line.  But he would never do that – he is in the videos too, so I am not worried.

Wow… she obviously has not been paying attention to the tens of thousands of cases of jilted lovers doing exactly that.  If she was worried about his reputation being as important to him as hers was to her, she did not take into account that he worked as a labourer (honest work and well respected by the way), and she works in a government bureau in the office of a public official, and while he (the boyfriend) would not be limited by embarrassing videos, she certainly would be.  Ask Anthony Weiner how his political career is doing.

The point is you have to be careful.  Of course, different careers and jobs and companies will have different levels of conservatisms, but why limit yourself?  My friend now has to trust that the boyfriend (or ex-boyfriend) will not, in a moment of anger or bitterness or drunken whatever, post the videos on-line.  Lord knows there are enough revenge-porn sites that would love to have them… and once they are online there is no way to get them back.

When do we have to start paying attention?

The sad truth is that we often will never know the reason we are turned down for a job.  When I was originally asked the question, I had to think about it for a minute.  At the time the age of ‘everything goes on-line forever’ was not quite upon us, so I really only tried to think back two or three years.  But some companies don’t only care about what you did last year, they would care about what you did a decade or two ago.  Don’t believe me?  Fill out a Government of Canada application for Secret Clearance.  They go back longer than five years!

If you are a college or even a high school student you may find it thrilling or exciting to push the limits, get crazy, and do things that you wouldn’t do as an adult.  Why not? You are a student, you only live once, right?  Well if you are going to do it, don’t take pictures (or let others take them of you).  You don’t need photographic evidence of being stupid.  Trust me, the memories that you want will always be there, and a lot of the memories will be best forgotten.

I have a son in high school, and I thank G-d every day that he is a good kid, and pretty straight laced.  According to the statistics several of his schoolmates have done drugs, and a number of them do so on a regular basis.  While it seems to be more and more acceptable to have done so at one time or another (ask the mayor of Toronto, the Premiere of Ontario, and the head of the Liberal Party of Canada), that does not mean it would be acceptable to many companies.  Some companies are more conservative, either for their image, because they go after government contracts, or possibly the religious beliefs of the CEO.  Whatever the reason, a picture of a candidate smoking a bong would be frowned upon… especially after that same candidate proclaimed that they had never done drugs.  Women (or men for that matter) who choose to be photographed in sexual situations may be considered too risqué, even if the pictures are years old.

By the way if you feel there should be an allowance made for people who did not choose to be photographed, but rather allowed themselves to be photographed, or who were photographed against their will (there have been cases of that too) then you will be disappointed… the world is not fair, and hoping is not going to change that.

The answer to the question of ‘will it get out there’ is yes, and the follow-up question ‘will somebody find it’ is the same.  The question of when is more difficult to answer, but more often than not it will come at a bad time.  If you think that once you have gotten the job it is yours for life, remember that lying in a job interview or on your resume is grounds for dismissal, and if your company has any sort of morality clause then your job is not safe just because the interviewers did not find it.

Closer to Home

Work is not the only place these embarrassing moments can come to bite you.  I know of a woman whose fiancé was certain she was a virgin, and in their culture that was important to him and to his family.  When his brother (who went to the same school as her) came across a picture proving that she was lying the fiancé’s family forced him to break off the engagement.  Had they gotten married before the lie was discovered I shudder to think what steps this extremely traditional old-school family might have taken.

Recently there was a headline about someone admitting to a crime on his Facebook (YouTube?) page, and that admission was considered by the courts as an admission of guilt.  He was convicted.  If it is good enough for a court of law there is a good chance it would be accepted by an interviewer who does not have to justify denying you a position… or a partner who does not need to justify breaking up.

Conclusion

Is there a light at the end of this dark tunnel? Yes.  Never forget the question, even when letting yourself go.  There are always limits, and living by those limits (that you must set for yourself) will protect you.  What should rule #1 be? If you want someone to see you naked then do it in person.  Taking naked pictures of yourself with your phone and sending them to people may be easy, but the consequences are not.  The instant you press SEND it is out of your control… forever.

Would society be better off reverting to religion?  Probably not, and even so the likelihood of it happening is miniscule.  That doesn’t mean that you cannot live with your own values, and doing so can save you later on.  If you’ve already taken those pictures then stop… it reduces the likelihood of it getting out.

There are still plenty of jobs that would be open to you without taking this message to heart… but if I were a high school student today, looking at the world’s economic and job outlook, I would not want to close any doors for my future because my sweetheart forever needs to see me naked on her phone… remember, there is a better than 95% chance that you will not marry her.

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