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

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Replies to This Discussion

Great topic to discuss. I'm really looking forward to what people say.

Personally, I haven't yet had my online work affect my employability, but I have been forced to take a couple of critical posts down once being employed by a certain organisation. These posts weren't critical of the organisation itself, mind, but just of the general human rights situation in the country I'm now based. The organisation is concerned that I was being too critical of this particular country's government, and that it would impact negatively on their work.

So, whilst I completely agree with you that critical analysis of NGOs, development etc, should be allowed (and indeed, encouraged), it can cause problems.

In general, I think the benefits outweigh the costs, if you do it right. Kate is right that commenting on the country where you plan to work is probably the biggest risk. Aid and development are always political, so even if you think you're being academic and detached, you've got to tread carefully.

I also want to add another monkey wrench to this discussion: how would you know if your critical/controversial comments negatively affected your employability? I can see all the benefits clearly in the contacts I've made and the opportunities that have come my way. But the harms are harder to see. Maybe my resume lands on the desk of a hiring officer who disagrees with something I wrote, or who just doesn't want to hire a blogger because it seems like a risk. I would never know that my blogging cost me that job. It would just look like any other job that I didn't get.

So just a note of caution: the benefits seem to outweigh the costs, but the former are quite visible while the latter are less so.

Great post, Weh.  Sadly, I think it might be idealistic to think that putting critical opinions out there online wouldn't affect employability.  I think if you're established in the field there might be exceptions, or if you are already employed and have an agreement with your employer there might be an exception.  But in the climate right now, given how anxious the culture is to rip apart an NGO (ex. IC), I can't see how hiring someone you have no previous experience with and who has an online presence based on critiquing aid would be a risk an average employer would want to take.  I don't know if that makes me jaded.

But, this is what makes academic freedom so important.  Theoretically, this is the role that academia should play in society and in different professions.  Sadly though, with the slow pace of publishing and emphasis on empiricism, this becomes more difficult especially for current and timely topics.

The thing that I think is interesting is that is it purely "yes, you are credible/have experience" BUT "as a result of your posts/life/haircolor"  you are being screened out for "fit" in the workplace culture.

If I am applying to, oh, the Vatican.  But routinely write about how Satan is the bomb-diggetty.  Its just not going to work out.  Both the Vatican and the contrary ethos that I hypothetically subscribe to for the purpose of illustration, have a certain moral imperative... a prime directive, that comes from opposite places... The goal is the same... World unity through [ethos/opinions/methods.]

So we've got some options and morally impaired folks -- and this is the splitsville.  You can speak so loudly (or smartly in their language and reference the MGDs) that the otherside gets your point.  Or change the world while hanging out in the belly of the beast... talking in the elevator to the Trustees.  The first one could get you fired, the second strategy will test your soul, and perhaps patience.

I think we need both strategies.  Both take ovaries (or cahones).  So consent to your risk.  Speak as you can, when you can, and in a way that suits your situation.

Sarah I think you raise an interesting point om religion even though it might be a tricky one.

Personally I never had experienced any bad returns on my employability for my blogging but I can understand this might create some concerns. If it happens I'll take the positive side. If an NGO doesn't like what I'm writing about and doesn't want to hire me then I'll be also happy not to work with them because I think there will be chances that I'll get frustrated soon.

It is in fact just the reverse side of people not applying at certain NGOs or Organization because in disagreement of their practices or principles. E.g. I will never apply to a "strong" christian Ngo because I know I'll get frustrated in a couple of weeks or so, so why bother each other? If you don't like what I'm writing ok there are no ways it can work between us.

I also understand by the way that some arguments must be treated internally before, like human rights and similars. 

So in the end my conclusion is: if the problem is the content of blogging/speaking out I understand this might create problems (and aid workers should also understand to which extent this can create problem to them and their NGO on field), but if it is the principle itself (I don't hire you because you like bloggin/speaking out thus you might be an uneasy employee) it is much more serious.

I am with you that I would not want to work for a company that would find my approach and opinions to be disagreeable to the company culture. In fact, this is where a personal blog can be a great employer selector - they can self-select for/away from you and save everyone the disappointment of finding out 3 months in that you and the org are in serious disagreement.

There's obviously a great deal that can be said on this topic.

In general, for a wide range of reasons, NGOs are naturally resistant to internal diversity of thought, despite frequent and strident claims to the contrary. Questioning aid doctrine or the orthodoxy of a particular organization is almost always taken as disloyalty, regardless of how it was originally intended. It's human nature to want to be agreed with, and to bristle when people question us/suggest that we're wrong, even benignly. So there's that.

It also helps to understand that in all probability your blog is not being read by someone who truly understands what they're reading or what you're trying to say during the application/recruitment process. Rather, it's being read by someone in HR whose job is weeding through a probably large pile of applications for a small number of actual positions, and who is looking very quickly for evidence that you'll be a "good fit" or "not good fit" - and a blog where you question things will be very quickly taken by someone not well-versed in the nuanced issues of the humanitarian world as reason to think that you're a "not good fit." See the previous point.

These days I put something like, "fluent in the use of social media" or "intimate knowledge of the online community engaged in discussions about humanitarian issues" on my CV, and then leave discussion of what site(s) or twitter streams are mine for a second or third interview where I'm talking to fellow practitioners.

Yeah, its true that HR is the epicenter of evil. Because they aren't in the field... and they aren't prone/party or interested in to the questions that generate these blog posts.  And from what I understand.. they aren't new questions.  The questions asked stem from "what the heck am I doing here??"  -- And people who think that they are good people adhering to a commonly held doctrine don't really like to be challenged on this point. 

I guess the thing...As above, it is slippery.  And anywhere humans get to judge people with RL (or not) consequences, gets complicated.  In fact its just like development work... But if they weren't judging, would they similarly be able to identify the kernels of awesomeness and "right fit?"

Of course nothing on the internet is secret, sacred, private.  There are things out there that are awesome in blogs, and if you apply some frameworks of social change -- experiencing some pushback, or friction, means somewhere along the way, you pushed a correct button (by your ethos).  Even if it doesn't come with a paycheck, maybe there is solace in that.

Lastly, and this is a derailing topic that I'm going to start over here ....   So you've called someone/some Org/Policy out. If they are listening...

Do you think folks at our level are hired by HR? I would consider my personal branding, networking, and job search efforts a complete failure if I am unknown to the actual decision makers for a position. That's the whole reason I blog, meet you for drinks, and would do a targeted job search - so that fellow practitioners would be handing my resume to HR saying "we want this guy".

Good point. 

But there are lots of new young people who are, say learning about NGO/Aid problems that "Wayan, circa 2001" may have had --  where you probably were hired by HR.

You've had a long time to build this street cred.  (and I'm totally going to e-stalk your blog)  But I think there is a whole "new guard" coming into Aid work, getting their minds blown in one way or another, and blowing up the blog and possibly their initial avenues to a career.  (Not all of us are director of marketing material. :-)  )

I would humbly submit that all of us have blown up on a blog - its part of coming of age in a digital realm. I don't see how one blog post could ruin a career, though it could surely get you fired from a job if you went too far. I certainly have come close. Luckily, there is so much content, and so many blog posts, that any one post is quickly forgotten by us all.

Heh, I try to save my blow-ups for Livejournal.  :-) I hope that all affected are fortunate enough to be so prolific as to make lots of water under the bridge. 

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