Why Being a Cyber Idiot Will Come Back to Hurt You

Computer keyboard
Computer keyboard

Perhaps you've seen the tape of the incident that was endlessly replayed on news and sports shows last week.

It showed a young man sitting dazed on top of a net over the home plate crowd at Yankee Stadium after he had jumped off the upper deck during a ballgame. It seems he wanted to impress his friends and maybe land on an ESPN highlight reel.

What he got instead was a court date and a new moniker. Courtesy of the New York Post, he's now known as "the village idiot." He wasn't smart enough to think about the consequences of his actions.

While most of us would shake our heads at such public stupidity, there are some among us who are guilty of acting the same way, at least on the internet. What do I mean?

  • They trash their previous and even their current employer on blogs and discussion forums;
  • They trade in malicious gossip with emails about their former or current co-workers and bosses; and
  • They exercise their right to express their opinions by venting their spleen in crude and defamatory language.

And when they engage in such behavior, they are ignoring its consequences. They are acting like "cyber idiots."

The village idiot was dumb on two counts: He could have hurt himself with his ignorant behavior, and perhaps worse, he could have hurt others if that net had ripped and sent him flying into the crowd beneath it. The same can be said for cyber idiots.

First, their comments hurt others. They can undermine the credibility of their employers and undercut the reputations of their co-workers.

Regardless of the accuracy of the idiot's comments or their "right" to make them, posting them in a public forum where rebuttal is difficult or impossible can have only one purpose: to harm the other party. And in most cases, that's exactly what happens.

Second, their comments hurt them. A recent column in USA Today cited several examples of workers who were fired by their employers for making inaccurate or inappropriate comments about the organization in their personal blogs.

Did they have the right to make such comments? Absolutely. Was it smart to do so? Absolutely not. The commentary a person posts online, in email, on discussion forums or on their blog will be part of the public profile they build for themselves. That profile will be used to evaluate them for employment today and, thanks to the limitless memory of the web, for the rest of their career.

Ignoring the consequences of one's actions simply isn't rational. It can't even be described as prudent risking. It doesn't involve weighing the possible benefits of an action against its potentially negative outcomes.

Instead, when village and cyber idiots commit their acts, they focus exclusively on what they perceive to be the positive results they will achieve. And the tragedy is that those results are all but insignificant when measured against the long-term negative impact they are guaranteed to have.

  • The village idiot is likely to spend a year in jail and have a lifelong criminal record for his 15 minutes of fame; and
  • Cyber idiots may feel momentarily vindicated or superior while expressing their views in an email message or on their blog, but the harm to their own reputation will likely last as long as they are in the workforce.

Back in the ancient past before the web, we were urged not to "burn our bridges behind us" when dealing with employers and co-workers. The rationale, of course, was that circumstances change: And that has never been more true than in the rapidly shifting environment of the contemporary world of work. For example:

  • The boss and co-workers we had in one organization can easily show up in the one to which we've moved;
  • The organization that previously employed us can acquire the organization that employs us now;
  • The opportunity we thought we had at our new employer can disappear or never appear at all and make the opportunity at our former employer suddenly look much better; and
  • The boss and co-workers we had in our previous employer might (a) live next door to us, (b) have graduated from the same college as us, or (c) be somehow related to our current boss and co-workers.

The internet has short-circuited the six degrees of separation that used to buffer what we said and diminish its impact. In today's hyper-connected world, acting like a cyber idiot can and almost certainly will come back to haunt you.

That's one reason why you shouldn't do so. The second reason is something your mother taught you. It's called the Golden Rule -- the key to success (in work as well as life) is to treat others as you would like them to treat you.

Peter Weddle is a veteran as well as the author or editor of more than two dozen employment-related books. 

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