Recently, as a large weekend dinner party was winding down, I sat back and enjoyed a glass of wine while dragging a spoon through the last of the whipped cream on my plate. I started contemplating rolling my full belly in the direction of home, when through heavy-lidded eyes I saw someone take the seat next to mine. “Hi,” he said. “I actually work in your industry, and I was curious about any business opportunities you may have. Maybe I could send you an e-mail?”
In that moment I realized: I was back on duty.
I could have brushed him off nicely, or asked him to call me on Monday, or made a joke about having left my HR hat at home – I’ve done all those things in the past. However, he was doing exactly what you’re supposed to do – networking with a new contact in an attempt to establish a relationship that may be advantageous in the future, and being proactive about his career. I, in turn, am usually the first point of contact for my company, and highly aware that I make the “first impression” for our brands. We want that impression to be unpretentious, accessible, yet professional and high-quality, and they hired me for reasons that support that image. And you never know – maybe this was an opportunity for me, too. So I told him about our brands and markets, and gave him my contact information, and tried not to let my wine buzz affect my ability to answer his questions and make him feel heard.
Personal branding is a term that gets used incessantly these days, and like any trendy idea, has launched a host of associated impenetrable jargon, books, advocates, and strategies. My take on personal branding is that you should be conscious of the kind of person you want to be, and make a concerted effort to ensure that most of your communication and interactions are as authentic as possible. Your company’s brand should ideally be similar to your personal brand. Employees who complain endlessly about their company’s dress code, policies, marketing, or environment are often really saying that their company brand doesn’t jive with their personal brand; that they are working in the wrong place for them.
I wish to be seen as unpretentious, accessible, yet professional, which means I am in the right job for me at the right time. Hooray. Yet it also means, in a 24/7 access world, that I am never really entirely “away” from work, and that the lines between company representative and personal brand get blurred. Finding a balance between them, and a separating line, is an ongoing process.
Nowhere is this balance more tenuous than in the online realm.
I take pains each time I comment on a blog somewhere with my thoughts on, say, dating, or the best way to season marinara sauce, to remember that those opinions will become part of my online persona as soon as someone Googles my name, and that business and personal will be indistinguishable in that search result. I used to be able to keep some separation through different user names, but with the new comment verification programs that require real, full names, or a tie-in to Facebook, Twitter, or a similar tool, those distinctions are gone.
Even at work, I am conscious of the way my personal choices affect the perception of Human Resources within the organization. If I get a drink after work with a coworker, I worry about the perception of favoritism, or that others will worry about my ability to be impartial. My solution, thus far, in order to allow myself the ability to have fun personally yet maintain an HR brand that is open to everyone, is to accept almost every invitation extended, so that I am the friend of everyone, at every celebration, supporter of every cause, in the background of every photograph. It’s an expensive and time-consuming solution, but I’ve yet to find a better one.
I have, I hope, many years ahead of me, to work and to live my life. This means many years of recorded information, through photographs, e-mail, blogs, and the like. Many people choose to stay away from technology- stand outside the photo, shun carrying a cell phone, but that isn’t me – I embrace just about anything that fosters connection between people and expands my world. For me, the benefits outweigh the hassles. Yet finding a balance between the many sides of my “self” will be a challenge, and one that gets a little more complicated with every year.
Photo credit iStockphoto