Guilt by Association

From the time our parents allowed us to venture beyond the front door and associate with other kids, we were warned to be careful. My mother always said to be careful at least three times before we left the house for any reason. My sister and I jokingly used the phrase “Be careful be careful be careful!” to our kids mimicking Mom’s persistent loving concern. We were not always careful but we were always careful to make sure that Mom never knew about those times that we momentarily forgot her message.

Image credit: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/photo_11165232_red-wood-word-on-concrete.html'>icetray / 123RF Stock Photo</a>Exercising care is not always about preventing bodily harm to ourselves or anybody else, but it does involve learning to keep our bodies out of harmful situations. A direct parallel was learned early in our social lives when we found out that we were often judged not by our actions alone but by the actions of our friends. This thing we called “reputation” was the embryonic form of “personal branding” that we would later take to be so important. The seriousness of the consequences for making bad choices in our associates can range from minor inconvenience to major legal problems. In a now classic court case State v. Omot, an innocent roommate was charged with drug crimes, convicted and went to jail because of guilt by association. There was never any evidence that Omot was in any way involved in his roommate’s activities and there was actually testimony that cleared him of any wrongdoing. However, the police raid uncovered a totally unrelated picture of him with a firearm and the prosecutor claimed this was evidence that he was “ready and willing to act as an ‘enforcer’… in a drug trafficking operation.” He obviously had forgotten to listen to his mother’s advice to be careful.

There are an infinite number of possible scenarios that can tarnish our reputations and the degree of tarnish removal possibilities is also quite variable. Constant vigilance about down-side scenarios and an awareness of consequences help us to remain somewhat in control of most of these situations.    

  1. When the private goes public – Advice given to job seekers will always warn that pictures taken in compromising situations can be damaging to the personal brand. It may not be good enough to avoid being personally involved. Sometimes we have no knowledge of being tagged in a Facebook picture until it is too late. The importance of this scenario is to understand that you can be totally innocent but be guilty by association with others around you when they are misbehaving.
  2. When passions override common sense – One of the reasons I always caution against taking sides in an at-work discussion that involves politics is now being played out in the U.S. following the recent polarizing presidential election. I agree with those who say that you have the right to express yourself in any way you choose and that healthy debate is a benefit of a democracy. Not everybody will be open-minded about such matters. You must be aware that somebody, maybe even your boss, may overhear your one-sided defense of one candidate or the other and take offense.
  3. When the formal ties are uncomfortable – If your employer is engaged in unethical practices, this is your problem even if you are not a player. It does not have to be a blatantly illegal activity for it to bring unexpected consequences if there is an assumed knowledge and participation on your part. The choices to protect your brand are usually limited to blowing the whistle or finding new employment. It won’t go away by pretending it isn’t there. You must also be ready to deal with image stereotyping such as use of animals in research or military arms manufacturing.
  4. When the informal associations get scary – Have you ever volunteered for service in an organization that comes under fire for some sort of abuse of public trust? These associations do not have to be locally prominent since virtual social media organizations with global impact have a good way of putting your brand online as an endorsement. While not as damaging, there can be brand erosion if there is a conflict between an individual’s personal brand and the perceptions and actions of the group leaders. Tarnish travels quite well from one person to another and these situations are relatively easy to avoid. Get out!

Awareness and avoidance of trouble is preferable to damage control after the fact. Admission of the problem and immediately tackling the tarnish removal head-on is the best way to keep one difficulty from causing others. A personal brand is not as fragile as you might think, but it does require consciously maintaining it to keep things on a positive track.