Anthony Weiner. Bruce Levenson. Donald Sterling. What do all these people have in common? They have all made headlines recently as a result of inappropriate behavior that revealed poor judgement, moral shortcomings, inner biases or downright bigotry. But in each instance, their behavior was conducted in the privacy of their home or somewhere they expected their private words and actions would not be plastered across newspapers and websites around the world. While deplorable, some of them even defended their positions that the behavior was acted in the theater of their personal lives and not subject to critique and consequence from the public. But the fact is: in each and every case, public pressure forced the professional and political machine to take action and hold them accountable for what they said and did in their [quote] “personal lives.”
Right or wrong…
…Donald Sterling was forced to sell the LA Clippers after a racially inappropriate private conversation surfaced.
…Bruce Levenson voluntarily sold his interest in the Atlanta Hawks (before he was required to do so by the NBA) after a racially inappropriate email was discovered.
…Anthony Weiner resigned from congress after a sexting scandal with a young girl was uncovered.
Information, once reserved as private, travels faster today than ever before and the court of public opinion has widened its jurisdiction to prosecute offenders more decisively.
So, this got me thinking.
One of the debates we have in my masters business class every year is: “Can and should you be held accountable for the things you post on social media? Should your student life, professional life or business persona suffer the consequences for the actions taken in your personal life?”
When we first started to debate this topic in 2008, I had an in-class mutiny on my hands. The students erupted in a House of Commons-style academic brawl, incensed at the suggestion that the opinions expressed in their Twitter feeds and Facebook profiles could jeopardize their future. They just could not fathom, nor agree with, the fact that their personal lives intersected with their professional lives.
Fast forward six years later and I am not sure this is much of a debate; it’s just the reality in which we live. What you say and do, be it online or in private conversations, could have personal and professional consequences.
So, do we have an expectation of privacy? Can we ever really just “be ourselves”?
Let’s examine those two questions separately.
First, the privacy question. All you need to do is go to a party, concert venue or public event and the new expectation of privacy glows in LED back-lit screens before your eyes. Everything in today’s cloud-powered, mobile-enabled and socially-integrated world is connected. You can literally stream speech real-time from someone’s mouth to any audience with an Internet connection. The expectation for privacy is minimal (at best) on the public stage. And the expectation of privacy in your home or with your friends is only as good as the trust you have in the people around you. So, in reality, the expectation of privacy has eroded to the point of “nearly nothing.” I am not saying I agree with or or think it is a good thing; I am saying the actions we take in public are subject to public examination and the actions we take in private are at the mercy of those in which we place our trust.
To the second question: can we ever really just “be ourselves”?
Sure, we can all be ourselves. It is our constitutional right to freely express our opinions, thoughts an ideas, but we cannot live in a world without consequence or accountability for what we say and what we do. If we yell profanities in a public place we should expect someone to react. Common reactions these days are to record it, and now broadcast it all over the internet subject to the public scrutiny and judgement by the court of public opinion. And sometimes that kind of negative attention forces companies and governments to take action. Being yourself does not equate to living without consequence or accountability.
I believe the idea of personal lives being separate, distinct and without consequence on work lives is nearly impossible. You have one persona – not two – and the consequences that impact our work and personal lives are hard to decouple.
Of course, some choose to “wall off” work lives and personal lives and that is totally fine. But the idea that they will never intersect and one life does not have an impact on the other is nothing but a myth.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Steve Ballmer how the LA Clippers are doing.