After a work mishap, there’s no simple answer
Stephen Chernin/the associated press file photo
How many people quietly shuddered while watching Eliot Spitzer’s stellar career disintegrate last week? Even for those with far lesser embarrassments, word of a big mistake — an affair between married co-workers, perhaps — often spreads at lightning speed. Is it best to keep your head down after a major personal blunder, hoping to weather the storm quietly? Should you start job-hunting, or wage a campaign to fix your tattered image?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, says crisis management consultant Eric Dezenhall, co-author of Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management Is Wrong. The popular advice is to admit guilt immediately and apologize, he says, but “coverups work all the time.”
In our 24/7 news cycle world, people expect all the details, but “your objective is not to educate the world,” he says. “Your job is to get out of the mugging alive.”
The best method for accomplishing that depends on several variables:
• Does the mistake reflect directly on your work?
Dezenhall describes Spitzer’s situation as “a character event ... directly relevant to his job.” With an image built on enforcing law and order, breaking the law was a career-ender for him. But a similar situation might not be lethal to someone in a different profession.
•Do you have mentors or influential allies within your company or industry?
If so, ask their advice, says California Career Development Association board member Maureen White. “Discuss with them, ‘Wow, I really blew it,’ or ‘This isn’t really what happened.’” It’s vital, she says, to get an informed and “objective perspective on what’s happening and what to do.”
Just remember that anyone who hired, promoted or supported you in the past may suffer fallout from your blunder. So you may need to repair those relationships before requesting help.
•Where do you fit within the company?
“As elitist as it sounds, some people are more important than others,” Dezenhall says. If you’re high-profile enough that your actions affect the company’s stock price or sales, personal mistakes can be deadly.
“When (Harry) Stonecipher, the CEO of Boeing, stepped down in the wake of his affair, it’s wrong to say he stepped down because he had an affair. The real reason is, there were e-mails,” Dezenhall says. “If something is a private, marital matter, that’s one thing. But you start talking about e-mails that are all over the Internet ... that becomes a company problem.”
Those in management can’t afford to lose the respect of their employees, White says, so they must directly address anything that calls their ethics into question. “Staying low-profile is obviously a lot easier,” she says, “if you’re not management.”
•How far has the gossip gone?
You don’t have to be famous to have your personal scandal dissected on blogs and personal networking sites. If that happens, “scramble fast,” says Michael Fertik, founder of ReputationDefender.com. “Try to address the problem by getting good, positive, clean material out in front right away ... a good LinkedIn page, a clean Facebook page, a MySpace page that you’re proud of.”
By flooding the web with positive content, he says, you may be able to “confuse Google,” so embarrassing gossip isn’t the first thing people find when searching for you online.