During my job search, I naturally included the private sector. As an ecologist, for me that meant targeting environmental consulting firms. I got all the way through an on-site interview with a small specialized company rich with Ph.Ds …and blew it. There were probably several reasons why it didn’t go well, but one reason was this blog. Or, at least, a previous incarnation of it. They didn’t like seeing posts that might have been interpreted as environmental advocacy.

The lesson learned here is that these firms avoid applicants that they think might be perceived by potential clients as advocating anything environmental. In other words, the clients of environmental consulting firms are usually corporations forced to do something through regulatory compliance, not out of the goodness of their hearts. They don’t want to hire consulting firms biased toward environmentalism. I can’t blame them, they want to spend and do as little as possible because that is in their self-interest. If they hire environmentalists, it will bite them in the ass eventually. Hence consulting firms must take care to protect their brand, which is supposed to be neutral. That way they can be trusted by clients and regulators not to bias results one way or another.

The question for me was: did I advertise a bias? I didn’t think so, but apparently the selection committee did. I was willing to scrub anything from the blog if they thought it was questionable, and after the interview I deleted many posts and tweets anyway. I was in effect getting feedback on my brand, and took steps to reshape it. Of course, the appearance of bias and actual bias are different things.

I’m not a fan of the whole “appearance” philosophy, usually in form of adhering to standard of avoiding “the appearance of impropriety”. If we apply a standard to our behavior that we can’t do anything if it appears to be inappropriate to our critics, then we limit our ability to actually do our jobs. If critics have a problem with how our jobs are done, when we are acting appropriately, then they are the ones with the problem – namely, they don’t know how our jobs are actually done. It can apply to any profession. I don’t mean lowering our ethical standards, far from it. I mean acting properly, and if someone has a problem then they need to learn what is truly inappropriate.

Here, the bar is set very low, and gut feelings prevail. If it doesn’t pass the “smell test” then you might be an advocate for environmentalism, and thus too risky to hire. Some things that would appear innocuous to you might be perceived as a problem to potential employers, like research blogging. In my experience human resource departments spook easily, and they can always move on to the next applicant.

So here’s what this means for you. We live in a time when people express themselves in ways that potential employers can see. Statements – blog posts, tweets, status updates – can be misinterpreted. And if you want to advocate environmentalism, that’s your choice, but some doors will close.

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