October 5, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

The Privacy Genie

The Privacy Genie

Shel Holtz appears to have either struck a nerve or a chord with a recent post titled (cleverly) “Recruiters shouldn’t care about that Facebook picture of your beer pong game in college.” Most of the comments (and there are a lot–the reason I’m writing this is that I had more thoughts and didn’t want to keep posting comments!) focus on the appropriateness of sharing “party pictures” and the perceived lack of judgment in doing so, and whether it’s short-sighted of HR to take this into account when making hiring decisions. I’m not going to tackle that aspect of Shel’s post, as it’s being examined in detail on his blog.

What is interesting to me though, is Shel’s point that Millenials (paraphrasing here) don’t see the need to separate their work and personal lives–or, in Shel’s words “[…] they see no reason to pretend that they don’t have personal lives in order to create some kind of fictitious persona for work.”

This is of course dramatically different from those of us who essentially had these firewalls between work and home built in from day one of our work lives, and it might be why many commenters are blowing by that point. It’s too foreign to us. And I honestly don’t feel as though I’ve created a “fictitious persona” for work because I choose to keep some things private. I’m more comfortable in my jammies than a suit, but I’m not going to wear them to work to be “authentic.” Work–>work clothes, Home–>stuff that I can cook in and get food on without an enormous dry cleaning bill. These separations don’t make me any less “Jen” in either setting, they are situationally appropriate. I view what I choose to share in each setting the same way.

I can think of a number of cases how this separation is beneficial, from both the perspective of the employer and employee. It makes me wonder if Millenials are perhaps setting themselves up for future problems, because it’s hard to put that privacy genie back in the bottle.

Part of my thought process I think stems from having lived in small communities, where everyone actually did seem to know everything about you. People clamor to escape small towns due to the very environment that many are now willingly recreating on Facebook. (This is interesting to me from a sociological perspective, maybe as a disconnected and far-flung society we long for the close ties of a small town? Maybe?)

While it might be the “new normal” to be completely open, mixing family and work could soon start to present issues for Millenials. If you’re accustomed to sharing everything, it will soon appear in a space shared by work and family. Think of what celebrities and politicians go through, but on a smaller scale: maybe you use a sick day to play golf. Someone posts “hey, great round today” on your Wall, and suddenly you have a credibility issue at work.

Or, what about the very personal decision on when to start a family, and who to tell–with work and family intertwined on Facebook, do you delay telling family until you’re ready to notify work–or the reverse? There are a number of medical and personal situations that an employee perhaps wouldn’t want their employer to know about (treatment for depression, fertility treatments, financial issues, and so on) and the employer–from a legal perspective–might not *want* to know about either. Perhaps these issues can be kept separate, but it’s going to take a heck of a lot more work to do so.

I’m not saying one way is good and the other is bad. I do think that eliminating any kind of separation between one’s personal and work lives is a decision that should be made consciously, with an understanding that it’s going to be very hard to recapture that privacy if you should ever desire it.

In the long run, having no distinction between these spheres of self could ultimately lead Millenials to be *less* authentic rather than more, as they struggle to regain a modicum of privacy in the future.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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  1. Rich Becker


    I think you hit this point right out of the park. It might seem like a long time ago, but Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan found their personal and professional world’s collide while working on John Edwards campaign just last year.

    Despite some quarters trying to claim that Marcotte and McEwan were being unfairly persecuted as bloggers (they were not), the simple truth is that their decision to be semi-public came with consequences that they didn’t expect. I think we can expect to see more of it.

    There is a difference between authenticity and transparency. And while transparency might work to bring people toward you, it can also drive some people away. In theory, we can attempt to suggest tolerance, but the reality is that what one chooses to make public might say just as much as what they choose to do in public.

    All my best,

  2. @shel

    I think the Marcotte/McEwan example is apples and oranges, Rich, at least as far as the point I’m trying to make is concerned. I think most millennials would see that instance as an example of bad behavior; posting about it is merely an extension of that bad behavior.

    The question isn’t really about whether you post photos; it’s about what you consider to be bad behavior. There’s a mile-wide gap between the culture of Gen-Y and the culture of the generations that preceded it. Partying — a perfectly legal behavior that most consider not unethical — is not considered bad behavior, so why should posting a photo of yourself partying be any worse? I never suggested that recruiters should reject candidates who posted photos that proved they engaged in genuinely illegal or unethical behavior. The photo is merely evidence of the behavior.

    The question revolves around the definition of “judgment.” The Net Generation doesn’t consider it to be bad judgment to share a picture of drunken revelry. Personally, I don’t either (even though I don’t get drunk, ever, so it’s not an issue for me). Once someone becomes an employee, it only takes a matter of weeks or months before his or her colleagues learn about him personally, including whether or not he parties heavily. If that partying interferes with work performance, it’s dealt with by a supervisor. In most cases, though, it doesn’t (or there’d be an awful lot of unemployed partiers). To employ a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” approach to recruiting strikes me as very hypocritical.

    I may write a follow-up post on this.

  3. Jen Zingsheim

    Interesting, I hadn’t thought of the similarities to don’t ask/don’t tell.

    I suppose what I’m addressing is beyond the interview process–say the Millenial in question does get the job, because the recruiter sees past the party pictures. There are further–and possibly bigger–implications for all involved in an environment where there are few or no distinctions made by employees about separating work/private lives. If it’s true Millenials don’t see the need to distinguish between the two, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to assume that the sharing will continue–not beer pong pictures, but other things (like the medical/financial issues I speculated on above) that could present issues going forward.

    I might be over-thinking this–it happens–but this has the potential to radically change the workplace, don’t you think?

    I think there’s plenty to be examined in a follow-up post!

  4. Jen Zingsheim

    Thanks Rich…it might be my background in politics, but I do see the similarities between opening up on a blog and stepping into the political arena. The new candidates I worked with were usually unprepared for how quickly everything they did was examined. They felt they knew what they were getting into, and were still somewhat surprised by the intense scrutiny. Many end up adjusting to that new environment by becoming a bit more generic, for lack of a better word.

    It’s a complaint many have about politicians–that they all start sounding the same–but it’s a I think natural response to the public microscope. Except for Jim Traficant, I think he stays pretty true to self…

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