Benjamin Franklin famously said “It takes many good deeds to build a reputation, and only one bad one to lose it”. The quote highlights the fragility of reputation: one bad instance and the damage is done. At the same time, there are other aspects that make this issue a complicated one. Let me share two separate examples to see those.
Imagine that you work in a consulting company and you have heard that one of your colleagues (let’s call him Prateek) over-reports the number of hours he puts into projects. You both have been assigned to work together to write a report urgently. The next day, he come to you with a well-prepared report and tells you that he pulled an all-nighter to get this done. How would you feel about his work? Perhaps questions like ‘Did he really work all night?’, ‘Did he plagiarize from somewhere?’, or ‘Is he playing some kind of trick’ would come up.
Let’s take the second instance. You are the Human Resource manager of a company in Brazil who is looking to recruit fresh talent. Your company values diversity and so you decided to try out a business school in Europe. You shortlisted one person – let’s call her Laura - from there and invited her to come to your office in Brazil for further rounds of interviews. That way, she could have a better chance of knowing about the company, the city, and also the society overall. In return, the company would get the opportunity to observe her over two full days in a variety of settings. Basically, the two sides could gauge cultural fitness with one another. Inviting candidates to the office is a substantial investment for the company – in terms of expenses, time, and effort that goes in. After the student’s visit, they realized that she had stayed in Brazil for full 2 weeks for tourism purposes. Not just that, probably she had already accepted a job offer elsewhere much before the visit and was basically using this as an opportunity to have a fully-paid trip to Brazil. How would you, as the HR manager, feel?
‘Bad’ reputation is sticky. Losing reputation is rather easy but getting rid of that bad image can become a long effortful process. Gossips and grapevines make sure that the negative image travels louder and faster. In the case of Prateek, his seemingly innocuous act can raise feelings of doubt instead of trust in all other interactions. Perhaps, he had over-reported the numbers of hours worked only a couple of times. But his colleagues, friends, and family may question his credibility in everything else that he does.
How about Laura’s example? Having seen how Laura turned out, you as the HR manager would surely be reluctant to go back to the same school next year to hire. Is it that most students have ethical issues? Doubts would emerge about the kind of training that the business school is providing. What kind of a code of conduct does the program have? Not only does reputation spill-over to other areas for the person concerned (as in Prateek’s case) but also to other stakeholders. Parties that had no role in and no knowledge of the wrong–doing get trapped in. They suffer the damage too. Remember the idiom ‘Man is known by the company he keeps’?
This spill-over can be quite indirect sometimes. In my recent visits to India, I had curious experiences using taxi hiring apps. One time, just last minute before leaving for the airport during busy office hours, the taxi cancelled my trip. As a result, I ended up using the Delhi metro to reach the airport. Another time, the driver refused to go to my destination leaving me stranded on the road just because he did not want to go in that direction. These aggregating technology companies – such as Uber for taxi or Airbnb for accommodation - might position themselves as mere market aggregators. Uber own no cars and has no drivers on its payrolls. Similarly, Airbnb owns no rooms or apartments. As such, any transgressions from the drivers or the hosts might not be the company’s responsibility. However, recall the several lawsuits that these companies have gotten subjected to because of the wrongdoings of the third parties.
In all this, the point is that bad reputation sticks for a long time, travels fast, and spills-over in various unintended ways. Be it the individuals, companies, or nations, acts done out of carelessness or short-sightedness can have serious implications. As a result, it can become rather difficult to manage the threats to reputation after issues have already emerged. A more preemptive approach is needed to control their emergence in the first place.