"So anyway, that was my old company's policy," said the breathless guy on the phone, whose name turned out to be Phil. "They used to tell us that we could have a LinkedIn profile, but we couldn't use the company's name. Paranoid much?"
"I'm trying to think of a possible rationale for that," I said. "Were they running a Ponzi scheme or something? Was the place a Mafia front?"
"Not as far as I know," said Phil. "It was a logistics and distribution company. They were just afraid of everything, afraid of their employees, afraid of somebody doing or saying something wrong. That's why I quit, in fact. Now, I've got the company name on my LinkedIn profile, of course. How else am I going to account for those four hellish years?"
"So, that was the old company," I said. "What's the story with your new company?"
"I took a new job four months ago," said Phil. "Great people, great company. No problems. A guy I haven't met more than maybe three times just got promoted to VP, and he announced a new policy: no LinkedIn usage will be allowed, at all. Not just at work, I mean - he says we can't have a presence on LinkedIn, period. Afraid of somebody misrepresenting the company somehow, is what I heard."
"Mamma mia," I said. "That's a new one on me. Total LinkedIn blackout. Who did horrible things to this VP when he was little? The guy sounds like a damaged individual, to be honest with you."
"No doubt," said Phil, "but can they do that? Is it legal?"
"You got me, Phil," I said. "You know I'm not a lawyer. It probably is legal - I mean, you work there by choice - but who wants to work for people like that? You're suddenly supposed to not exist online? What happens to your LinkedIn network? What, you're supposed to kiss it goodbye, with your recommendations and all of your back-and-forth correspondence on LinkedIn and the rest of your LinkedIn archive? Thanks for the decade of online networking, peace out?"
"Evidently," said Phil. "What do you recommend?"
"I'm going to give Mr. Fearful, your VP, the benefit of the doubt and assume he has no idea what he's asking of you guys. It's ridiculous. Would he ask you to also quit your poker club and your church and your gym because you might describe your job or your employer inaccurately? As a matter of fact, they could prohibit you from talking about your job at all, or even confirming that you have a job, because you might say the wrong thing. The guy doesn't realize that he's overstepping wildly. Somebody has to find his voice, or hers, and have a conversation with the gentleman. Why not you?"
The line was silent. "I guess it's either that, or quit tomorrow," said Phil. "It's hard to find a job, but my LinkedIn network is important too." "It's not even that," I added. "It's the presumption, combined with the cluelessness of the request. Your brand is your brand. His brand is his, and the company brand belongs to all of you who work there."
"It's a real thing," said Phil, "This question, 'Who controls my brand?'"
"It's a huge thing!" I agreed with him. "It's a canary in the coal mine issue, too."
"A what, now?" Phil wanted to know. "Canary in the coal mine," I said. "The miners used to bring canaries down into the mines with them, in cages, and if the canary died, the miners knew there was bad stuff in the air and they had to get out."
"Tough deal for the canary," said Phil.
"And for people like you easing their bosses into the nineteen-nineties, when online branding started to be a thing," I said. "Your boss just got the memo: people are talking about themselves, and they're talking about their jobs in your company."
"I said that your whose-brand-is-it-anyway? question is a canary in the coal mine, because it's a signal that a bigger question is coming right behind. Whose life is it? Whose career path is it? Employers don't offer what they used to offer people -- decades of secure employment with great retirement benefits, for instance - so the contract is broken.
People aren't going to fork over their brands, their great ideas, every waking hour of their lives, and all their passion -- why would they? They're running their own careers. They might not even have chosen to do that, but it's too bad; their companies aren't running their careers in any meaningful way. They'd be crazy not to take matters into their own hands."
"So, in a way it's good this happened," said Phil. "Maybe the universe wants me to bail on this job after four months, and go find a better place."
"You know what, Phil," I gently suggested, "I don't think you need to start job-hunting just yet. Your VP is out of it on this LinkedIn issue, but once he comes back to earth things may work out fine. It's not logical, or reasonable, or human or even businesslike to ask hundreds of people to shut down their online branding platforms and networks. I think your poor VP got spooked somehow, maybe reading some random thing an ex-employee wrote on his LinkedIn profile--"
"That's it!" said Phil. "It has to be. There was a guy who worked here with me, we crossed over each other for maybe two months, and it was contentious, and I don't know the details but the guy left very suddenly."
"Go look at the guy's LinkedIn profile," I said. "Let's say the guy didn't take the company name - your company's name, I mean - off his profile. The VP tells him he has to, the guy says go pound sand. There's your power struggle. VP says, no LinkedIn for anybody!"
"Oh my gosh," said Phil. "That fits. That's gotta be the story."
"So, you've got this new VP who has to prove himself, and a difficult guy runs roughshod over his I'm-a-VP-now ego, and he's a little fearful anyway, and the edict comes down. And the guy has not a clue about social networking--"
"No LinkedIn profile, did I mention that?" asked Phil.
"No, but that reinforces the idea that he's behind the curve where LinkedIn is concerned and he's freaked out about that, and now he's a VP and LinkedIn becomes a control thing, and he loses the first round," I went on. "Social media itself becomes the enemy."
"And his way of dealing with it, this idea that people have brands of their own even though they work for him, is to try and stop it," said Phil.
"Good luck to him on that," I said.
"We are in the era of brand collisions. Did you hear about Dish Network? They were called the worst company in America to work for, by Glassdoor.com, a site that tracks that kind of thing. Now the company brand is hurting the brands of the people who work there, especially in PR and HR. People are working hard and trying to grow their flame, and the company's brand problems are dragging them down."
"Ever do a LinkedIn search on the word 'Enron?' I have six thousand LinkedIn connections, and strangely enough not one of them has the word Enron on his profile. Weird, right? Big company, but no one worked there?"
"You're saying that company brands can hurt us as individuals, in our own branding," said Phil.
"For sure, and a company's customer-facing brand is affected by its employer branding, too," I explained. "That's why I mentioned Dish Network. I don't know anything about their front-door marketing -- the things they say and do to attract and hang onto customers -- but I can tell you the job of marketing their services got a whole lot harder when a press release came out calling Dish Network the worst employer in the country. I mean, you have to work pretty hard to hit a bar like that."
"You have to play limbo," said Phil.
"I like you, Phil," I said. "Lookit -- your brand is your brand, and no one else's. Talk to the guy, and say 'I haven't been here long, and we haven't had a chance to talk much. I figured I'd come and talk with you about this policy change, because I had a feeling you hadn't necessarily gotten the best advice on managing 21st-century brand collisions.' That will make him pause for a second."
"I'm going to do it. My mojo is spiking. What do I have to lose?" asked Phil. "The worst he can do is fire me."
"I don't think he will," I said. "There is cluelessness that is evil, but you like these people and have felt good about the energy so far. There is a kind of cluelessness that comes from being really badly advised, or terribly uninformed on a topic -- LinkedIn, for instance. I'm guessing your guy is in the uninformed category. You're offering him valuable coaching. Let me know how he responds!"
Phil's mojo spike was rewarded, because the VP immediately reversed the no-LinkedIn-usage policy in a flurry of embarrassed backpedalling email blasts. The incident was forgotten, with one extra silver lining: Phil became the guy's informal social networking mentor.
"What's funny is that I'm 49, and the VP is 42," said Phil a few weeks later.
"He can take advice from you," I said. "He'd be spooked by a Gen Y kid coaching him on online branding.
"Thanks for the good counsel," said Phil. "Find your voice, isn't that what you always say?"
"That, and focus on the mojo," I said. "Do that, and the branding will take care of itself."
Follow Liz Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/humanworkplace