Your Reputation is All You Have…

…so protect it.  Protect it from poor performance, illegal or immoral acts, foolish decisions, broken promises, and anything else that is likely to limit your opportunities, your mobility, or your future.

It starts before you do.

Development of your reputation begins before your first day on the job.  That’s why interviewers ask about your childhood jobs, your school history, and your grades.  It’s why people want letters of recommendation from your college professor or a former employer.  Even being vouched for by a family friend can be important in those early days.

This is because everyone inherently assumes that the kind of person you have been is a clear indication of the type of person you’re going to be….

In other words (unlike in financial investment firms) people do expect past performance to be an indication of future results.

What is reputation?

Part of it is your track record.  Did you finish that project on time and under budget?  Did you win a huge new account?  Reputation collects the big performance successes and failures from your career.

But it’s more than just that.  If you’re known for having an explosive temper, that becomes part of your reputation, too.  If you look the other way when someone violates the rules (or laws) it also goes in the hopper.

Reputation is a little like a walking performance review you’re wrapped in – like a blanket (I picture a “snuggie”).  But this blanket can’t be taken off.  Even if it isn’t accurate, or if it is completely out of date.  Once your reputation gets mud on it, there’s no easy way to wash it away.  The mud might fade some with time – assuming another, similar stain doesn’t hit the same spot – but will always be there.

Keep it clean

The best way to protect your reputation is to avoid high risk situations.  Make sure all your assignments are successful.  Be mild-mannered and congenial.  Keep as far away from illegal, immoral, rule-breaking activity as possible.

Except, we know doing these things all the time just isn’t possible.

So minimize the risks, because often enough you’ll be flung into risky situations outside of your control.

In one instance, I was made aware of illegal behavior happening in a foreign subsidiary that was reporting to me.  I had a tough decision to make – either sit on the information and hope that it never came to light (fairly likely in this case, although ignoring it would have made me an accessory) or expose the situation.  I elected to take the issue to our ethics officer, who then conducted a thorough investigation.  Ultimately, people were fired, money was lost, and we self-reported the crime to the government.  While this was a painful process, took a lot of my time, and resulted in a nasty financial and managerial disruption, I felt it was the high road and the right road.  As a side benefit, it enhanced my reputation as an honest person that followed the rules.  I shudder to think what would have happened to my reputation if I’d gone down the other path.

Think carefully about what the implications of your choices to your reputation.  Blow up at a subordinate?  Or put anger and retribution aside and focus on solving the issue that caused the problem?  Either path impacts your reputation?  While screaming at an employee’s stupidity might enhance your reputation as a “tough” boss, it is more likely to brand you as a “jerk.”  Specifics of the situation – and your own past history – will dictate the best course is in many choices.  The point is – think about the long term impacts to your reputation when you make these decisions, after all it’s the only reputation you’ve got.


When your once lily-white reputation snuggie (remember my earlier metaphor?) gets enough dirt and stains on it, you will probably wish to clean it up.

I’ve only seen two things that accomplish this:  1) Work on never, ever repeating the behavior that damaged it in the first place – which you must do consistently for a very long time.  Even then, some people won’t cut you any slack.  2) Move to a new job in a different company and hope the dirt doesn’t trail along behind you.  This works better if the new job is far away and no one from your former employer works there.

Other things I’ve seen tried that failed:  Proclaiming you’ve changed, going to “charm school” (attending a course or getting a coach to correct a specific issue), trying to convince people you were really innocent (or misunderstood), and changing jobs within the same company.

People have long memories when it comes to problems and failures.


Your reputation is your most valuable assets, but it’s hard to keep pristine.  Do your best to keep it unsullied, and do everything you can to make sure any mistakes are one-time occurrences.  If a serious problem does damage your reputation, it is a long, tough road to recovery – particularly if you plan to stick it out with your current employer.  31.1

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