Has being critical or controversial in an online setting negatively affected your employability?

Recently, I've been on the job hunt, and have taken the advice of a few people to spend more time writing pieces online, to try and establish some credibility and be positioned as someone who has something interesting to say. Along the way, I've written one or two pieces that may have been interpreted by certain large NGOs negatively. In fact, I have been called on behalf of one NGO in particular who advised me not to post an article like I had done in the future, if I wanted to be employed by them. The problem was not that I criticised their work, but rather that I advocated for a method which the NGO themselves did not employ. As they put it, "I didn't sound like they sounded".

Generally, when I tell people about this particular situation, they are somewhat surprised that it garnered this reaction, since I was simply stating an idea that was different to an NGO's method of doing things as a talking point. However, more recently, I had a conversation with a seasoned development worker who said that by writing things in the public sphere that were controversial and could possibly be taken as negative by NGOs, I was setting myself up for being difficult to employ. His point was essentially: "It's ok to have an opinion, but as soon as you put it up in the public sphere and attach your name to it, you make yourself an easy target for organisations to say "we don't agree with what you wrote, therefore you're a risk we can't take".

My counter-argument was that an NGO that did not encourage discussion and a wide range of opinions was probably not an enjoyable place to work, but he saw this as being too idealistic. He said it's ok to have discussion as long as it was internal. Once it goes public, and your name is attached to it, that's a few steps too far.

There already is a great discussion about this up on Dave Algoso's blog here: http://findwhatworks.wordpress.com/2011/03/04/would-you-hire-me-if-... but I'm interested to know whether people who have put up critical/controversial stuff in the public sphere have noticed a negative impact on employability. Has it closed more doors than doors opened?

I guess the idealist in me, while acknowledging his points, doesn't want to believe that we live in a world were debate and free speech can be so stifled, simply in order to land a paid job.

Tags: blogs, controversy, employment, jobs, ngos

Views: 2260

Replies to This Discussion

Sorry, Wayan -

I'm gonna disagree with you.

1) You're self-employed, right?

2) What you're saying here may work for someone who wants to work for their aid NGO employer as a blogger or ICT person. But I'm pretty sure that if someone wants to actually be an aid worker - someone routinely on the front line implementing aid programs, seeing their results good bad and ugly up close -and blog about their ambivalences... yeah, not gonna work so well. 

1) Nope, life-long employee. (and we've met, so you should know this)

2) I don't know what you mean by separating "being an aid worker" from blogging or working in ICT. I work for a small social enterprise. I am doing everything from selling the program to helping start and run it, and blogging about the whole experience as a way to further our mission and expertise in doing good ICT4D programs.

Now we can agree that my company is different than most. We value openness and are honest that not everything succeeds. We sponsor Fail Faires each year to prove it. In fact, I am to speak at one in May on our failures in ICT4E and our boss will headline one in October.

And this is my whole point - I worked hard to find a company that shares my values in openness. If the OP has such a need for free speech, they should also seek out similar organizations.

This is a really interesting disagreement I think, because Wayan - from what it appears, your experience is that being controversial and provoking discussion in blogs has helped your career. Yet, for J, would it be fair to say that the fact that you blog anonymously shows that you are acutely aware of the damage it could do to your employment?

I think that deep down Wayan, I would love to think that there is an employer out there that will value contributions made to the development discourse of any sort. But, at an early stage of my career, and after having spent many months out in the job-seeker wilderness, it's tempting to remove all risk of being disagreed with and simply stop putting opinions in the public sphere.

Speaking of which, got any positions open at the moment?? ;)

Ha! I would say that being controversial wasn't the goal. Advancing my career was.

The path I took was risky - I essentially shouted down a much bigger org that could've squashed me had they really had their act together. I was also fortunate to have much of the ICT4D community behind me, if at the same time unable to speak as freely as I could. I certainly had a number of "J's" rooting for me. Many of whom have helped me along my career because of my bravery and ability to say what they could not.

So note the strategy in my approach. I would say that Sandra S. took the same with her approach to bad donations. We both had the backing of those in aid we respected and were in positions of power and influence. Doing any high-level or high-quantity criticism without that support would be a lonely road.

I would not advise you to stop publishing your opinions, but I would make sure that you're not on the fringe of the industry in them. From what I understand of your situation, you were not. The potential employer just had a stricter interpretation of what should be said. In that sense it might be best that you were not in their employ as the fit would not be best.

this sounds like a page from a nick kristof article.

As to the job search, I am a big fan of informational interviews. That's how you get allies. That's how you get past HR. And that's how you get support (and ideas) for your blogging (and opinions therein). Yes, happy to info interview with you too.

you started this company, no?

there are 2 ways to become CEO: 1. take out the boss. or 2. start the company yourself.

No, not the CEO, not even a co-founder. I say "my company" to refer to the concept that I work there with a high degree of pride.

this, of course, depends on how you want to be "seen" in your career. of course free speech will land you the right job -- look at what you do. it's all based on sharing your freedom of speech.

I had this issue arise once when I applied for a job as a communications officer at a global research institution. They are a-political, rightly so, and were concerned with my blogging that conveyed some very strong stances on some of the issues they research and publish on. I absolutely could have separated the two, but ultimately it felt like if they were that cagey about my advocacy work/role as an advocate, it wasn't a great fit for me.

But it did make me much more conscientious about what I write about which organizations. As a consultant, I work with NGOs that I might have flippantly commented on without thinking much - and I'm glad i didn't because to me it's not worth it. Unless it's a really well-based critique that will move things forward, for someone looking for employment it's important to remember that anything on the internet is always searchable and lives on forever...

One big way I look at things - I would far rather do this work than write about it. I am never going to put my ability to do at risk in order to write something more compelling.

And for all my promotion of blogging, I agree with you. If you can work and keep relatively quiet or find ways of expressing in other formats - good on you.

For me personally, I find that my joy in the work comes equally from doing it and talking about it. Not bravado or ego, but in sharing the joys (and pains) of it because this is what excites me. I jabber on about my work even in my off hours because I love it. I could not comprehend doing ICT4D and not being able to talk about it. Wait, I actually had a job like this for 9 months, an if OLPC News were not at its height at the time and consuming all my blogging needs, I would've gone nuts. I know myself - I must blog.

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