Using social media to build your professional network is both an art and a science. Learn all you can about how to optimize your profile, catch the attention of both bots and human HR folks, and introduce yourself in the right way to the right people, but in the end, there’s always a hefty amount of gut feeling involved with building your brand online. Too bad, then, that sometimes our guts (or those of our potential connections) are so very, very dumb.
Take for example, the case of the man who sent a LinkedIn message to Charlotte Proudman, a family law barrister in the U.K. – a message that seemed to concentrate more on her profile photo than her CV:
The resulting debate about online sexism hit the usual points, woefully familiar to most women who conduct some of their professional lives online. While supporters came out in force to say they’d experienced the same thing, with one woman saying she’d been forced to change her LinkedIn photo to one in which she wore a turtleneck in order to stop unwarranted comments, detractors howled about disproportionate response and public humiliation. The Daily Mail called Proudman a feminazi. Many tweeted to tell Proudman that she was ungrateful, too sensitive, and anyway, not all that attractive, in their opinions – these responses, many of which she retweeted on her feed, often featured profile pictures with the Blank Egg of the Anonymous Opinion-Haver.
For most of us, male and female, the situation is likely to provoke a range of responses, divided into two camps: on the one hand, at some point almost everyone has been treated to the worst human behavior that the internet has to offer, especially if we’re female, a person of color, etc.; on the other hand, well, we’d probably prefer not to be pilloried in the court of public opinion, and it’s hard not to feel a little bad for anyone who has been embarrassed so thoroughly.
The goal as a professional, then, is to minimize the impact of other people’s bad behavior on us, while making sure we don’t contribute to it.
Aren’t You Feminists Being Sort of Crabby?
The most common complaint, even from people who are using their indoor voices and best internet manners, is that Proudman’s reaction was mean, especially in response to what was surely intended as a compliment. To these people, I say, “Do you often ask strange women to smile? Because stop doing that.”
In all seriousness, when it comes to professional life especially, a compliment is not always a compliment. Even if your intentions are good, you need to think before you speak or write. It’s a matter of understanding the situation in the larger social context.
OK, Fine. So What Should I Do?
Sticking with LinkedIn for a moment, before you message anyone, consider the following:
1. Would I send this message to someone else, e.g. a man?
2. Does this message pertain to something that the person can control and be proud of, like their accomplishments, or is it about something that’s beyond their control, like their physical appearance?
3. Is this polite?
4. What are my motivations? If you dig deep and find that the answer relates more to hotel rooms than boardrooms, you are on the wrong social network.
5. Would I be embarrassed if someone tweeted this to their followers and it then got picked up by every major newspaper in the country?
Listen, I Would Never. I’m the One Who’s Being Creeped On! What Now?
If you’re dealing with messages you don’t want, you have a few options, depending on the social network and the situation.
LinkedIn provides a section on online harassment in their Help Center; depending on the severity of the situation, you might choose to block the connection, hide your public profile, or hide your profile photo. Most other social networks offer similar features. Twitter allows you report abusive users or mute users so their tweets won’t show up in your feed. Facebook lets you unfriend, block, or report someone for abusive behavior.
Of course, if you ever feel unsafe or someone actively threatens you online, you should contact your local law enforcement for advice and help.
Tell Us What You Think
In your opinion, can we ever make people behave themselves on social media, or is it a lost cause? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.
Jen Hubley Luckwaldt writes about work-life balance, stress management, and other topics relating to what makes us happy at work. A full-time freelancer, she deals with stress by blurring the lines between life and work to the point where the two spheres are barely separate. The happiest day of her career was when scientists proved that looking at pictures of cute animals makes us more productive.