Lessons from the 2016 election

Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, the increasing amount of publishing and scrutiny of (previously) private communications (from both major candidates and their parties) should be interesting. It’s not isolated to politics either; we’ve seen similar situations unfold with celebrities and movie studios. And there are lessons here for managers and for tech-savvy individuals in general which are worth examining.

There’s been significant analysis and condemnation about the wording of the emails between various DNC officials, whether it relates to bad-mouthing Bernie Sanders or unflattering characterizations of vast numbers of the voting public. The same held true during the aftermath of the Sony Pictures hack. There’s been remarkably little condemnation of the repurposing of these private communications for public analysis, though. Everyone seems to believe that the greater good (or just the greater curiosity) outweighs respecting the privacy of these communications.

This is a valuable insight into the reality of 21st century communication.

Careful individuals will not only assume their private communications will someday become public, but that there will be little to no excuses for the content of those communications when it does happen, and that the tone of those messages may matter as much as the content.

When I was a teenager, I remember telling my friends I never wanted to work in a kitchen, because I was afraid that once I saw how the food was prepared, I wouldn’t want to eat it any more. I had that experience as a Teaching Assistant in college. Seeing how professors behaved with each other and how they talked about their students broke some of my desire to remain in academia.

New managers have similar growing pains when they first go through some of the conversations we have to have as relate to our team members. When you’re trying to parcel out a limited compensation budget as fairly as possible, or stack-rank an entire development organization (knowing the results may someday result in layoffs), some very blunt phrasing may come into play, especially among people who have been doing this for many years and have developed some emotional distance from the subject.

This isn’t limited to managerial conversations. All of us deal with interpersonal issues, all of us have conversations where we our filters are different. And, some of those conversations happen online, especially in today’s distributed worldwide economy.

Now imagine those conversations being reviewed, line by line, word by word, by others, maybe the people you’re talking about, maybe by others. Maybe you’re applying for a job and the hiring manager has access to the emails you exchanged with your colleagues at your last job. Maybe you’re interviewing someone and they have access to how you discussed other candidates with your colleagues. Maybe you’re sitting down to talk to someone about their compensation and they are armed with the exact conversations you used to arrive at that decision.

Are these exact scenarios likely? Of course not. They’re intentionally far-fetched. But I choose them as extremes to illustrate the possible impact. You and I are likely not famous, likely not targets for the kind of directed attacks which led to these leaks. But it’s not far-fetched that your communications may be exposed as a side-effect of some other event. Whether a malicious hack or an accidental dump of data, data which you thought was private is probably already out there for download. Today it’s just your name and address, but tomorrow it could you an email archive or your SMS history.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to remember that those examples are possible, and to think about the trends. For years, people have trivialized government access to our private conversations by saying they are doing nothing illegal. But we weren’t sure a decade ago how average people would treat leaks of private data from random citizens; that’s a different beast. Now we have a lot more data and the trend is clear. People are increasingly willing and eager to read and analyze leaked information, and form opinions of others based on it.

It’s not a bad idea to assume the worst for all conversations that persist electronically — texts, emails, facebook posts, IMs, you name it — and filter accordingly. Spend the extra time to come up with phrasing you wouldn’t be ashamed to see on your wikipedia page (if you were to ever have one). It might seem like overkill, but who knows what you’ll be doing in 20 years, and how easy these conversations will be to track down….