While speaking on a panel at NYU Wagner yesterday, I encouraged my fellow grad students to start blogging. One guy asked me a sensible question about what happens when you write something that might be unpopular with employers. My answer wasn’t very articulate, so I’d like to take a mulligan and try again here.

But first, a related issue: Saundra Schimmelpfennig has recently been leading the charge against World Vision’s distribution of NFL t-shirts. A few weeks ago, she noted that development bloggers have been relatively silent on World Vision (relative, at least, to the cacophony raised about another t-shirt related campaign). She argued that this was due to pressure from World Vision and concern among bloggers that engaging with the issue would be bad for their careers. Allow me to take this opportunity to state that my silence on the issue has been due only to school and work, which have conspired to reduce my blogging time. The World Vision/NFL collaboration looks like a terrible idea to me. Rather than argue the points here, I refer you to Saundra’s compilation of posts on the issue.

Back to the original question: I do worry that what I write here could hurt my career. Here’s why those worries don’t stop me from writing.

  1. I like arguments. I think they help to generate better solutions. (Also, they’re fun.) We should always be able to argue for ideas — with passion but without personal investment in them. I like working with smart people who get that. I think of the classic line: “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” If you expect everyone in the workplace to already agree with one another, I don’t want to work for you.*
  2. That said, I don’t blame an organization for wanting to stifle external dissent. Development organizations operate in competitive environments. Bad PR can hurt fundraising as well as staff recruitment. This is true for NGOs, contractors, and even donor agencies, which depend on the good will of their legislators. If you run one of these organizations and you believe in what your organization does (as I hope you do), it’s reasonable that you would do everything you can to continue the flow of resources. So even if someone disagrees with you or with the official organizational line, and even if you’re smart enough that you encourage that dissent, I can understand why you would not want such dissent to be public. You don’t want any hint that the organization’s staff isn’t fully invested in the work. For recent high profile examples of what happens when an organization’s problems get broader attention, check out the Global Fund and AED.
  3. However, public discourse is extremely important for moving the whole industry forward. We need the people closest to the work to comment on what works and what doesn’t, and we need to learn from one another. We can’t afford to limit our epistemic community to those whose jobs are specifically focused on research and knowledge management (as great as these people are). Blogs are a way to lower the barrier to entry for that conversation, increasing the ideas and voices that participate.
  4. So how do we combine each organization’s need to stifle external dissent with the industry’s need to encourage it? One way is for bloggers to remain anonymous, as two of the best aid/development bloggers (Tales from the Hood and Shotgun Shack) have done. For me, the biggest benefit of blogging has been that it’s forced me to read other blogs, think about issues, and stay sharp. I could have done that anonymously. However I’ve chosen not to be anonymous because I think the career benefits of attaching my name outweigh the career risks. Ultimately, that’s a choice that each blogger must make. I tread lightly when commenting about specific organizations, regardless of whether I have worked/do work/ever hope to work with them. Potential future employers might still worry that I would wikileaks them. The industry would benefit if organizations had written policies guaranteeing a certain amount of freedom for public comment from their employees, but with clear statement of what lines cannot be crossed. Until then, they’ll just have to trust that I have good enough judgement to not do anything stupid.

I’d be curious to hear from other bloggers on this. How do you think about the career concerns and have they influenced whether you publish anonymously or not?

________________

* Sadly, word has it that some NGOs don’t even tolerate internal dissent. So I may need to swallow this principle at some point. My ideals are totally negotiable, don’t you worry.

________________

“Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.”

  1. When I started blogging I knew there was a risk that I’d never be hired in this field again. And although I’ve gotten a few short-term contracts, I do think it’s had an impact on other positions I’ve applied for – though I can’t prove that.

    When I first started blogging, I tried to avoid actually naming organizations and talk about basic concepts instead. I didn’t actually name an organization until the Kiva debate. Even after that I’ve been fairly circumspect, only calling out 1millionshirts and TOMS Shoes – and TOMS Shoes only after repeated comments and emails asking my opinion. When the World Vision story broke, I did consider not writing about it because of their size and influence on the aid world. But it would have been hypocritical to call out Jason and TOMS and not World Vision. There’s already an impression in the general public that the aid world protects its own, and ignoring this issue would have called into question my personal and professional integrity. It also seems horribly unfair to take the smaller organizations for their bad practices but allow the big guys – who set the standards- off scott free.

    This all happened in the middle of me applying for a job coordinating aid work, and did come up in the job interview. I’m still awaiting the final answer on that one. So I don’t know the answer. There’s still a lot of risk in speaking out, the aid world is very small indeed and if you get known as a trouble maker it could make finding work very difficult. I don’t even know my own future now.

    Reply

  2. I’ve also been recently considering the career benefits/drawbacks of blogging. My training is in the Library field and when this same debate came up in that field new librarians or those seeking library jobs were encouraged to start blogs on “non-threatening” topics, like quilting and cats (no joke!) rather than debating issues that might scare away employers (like glut of MLIS degree holders and no jobs…). To me, this just creates meaningless chatter and reinforces people’s tendency not keep their ideas and thoughts to themselves. I’d rather have people thinking, discussing, challenging established (traditional) thought rather than shying away from controversy. If we are really going to make things better then we need to be open to new ideas.

    In fact, one of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to admit more often when I had changed my mind on an issue. In a way, this is an attempt to normalize flexibility and change in thought, moving away from being stubborn for tradition’s sake. This is especially a problem in librarianship but change management is something every company/organization has to deal with at some point.

    On the point of career concerns, I do occasionally wonder if the fact that I work for a Christian (non-denominational) organization now, turns off future secular employers.

    Reply

  3. As a grad student, I certainly know where the fear is coming from and also agree with you. I wrote on the World Vision controversy but only after seriously thinking it through. Like Saundra and yourself have said, I believe in free dissent being constructive and positive and feel the need to not sit silently by. Still, as grad students who notoriously live from grant to grant or ‘hand to mouth’, it’s not easy to participate in something that sabotages your chances at getting a decent job (and paying off those loans) before you even begin. It’s not an easy choice and I can see why for some people the risk is not worth it. For me, blogging is a chance to refine ideas, bounce them off the great interwebs, and participate in dialogue beyond what I do normally and physically.

    Reply

  4. I’m currently “on the market” for jobs and consultancies, but I believe that putting my name on my blog makes me more accountable. Sure, anonymous, cynical rants on other blogs are fun to read, but I hope that having my name attached makes me more constructive and demonstrates to any future employers my willingness and ability to raise and reflect on deeper questions.

    And yes, I might be laughing all the way to the poor house as I accept that organizations that don’t value dissent aren’t the organizations for me.

    Or maybe this just highlights that there aren’t enough aid organizations out there doing it.

    Reply

  5. Great post, and very timely. The NGO I head recently started a blog as part of our growing social media strategy, and one of my first posts has got one of the board members up in arms because it criticizes the Canadian government. (If you aren’t up on what’s happening with the Canadian government and NGOs, I suggest you google “KAIROS” and read all about it.)

    Because I’m blogging as “me” and not “my NGO”, and because my posts cross-post with my personal blog, my concession was to offer a small disclaimer that anything I post is my own opinion and not that of the NGOs. But I refused to take down the post and I refused to start censoring or refusing posts precisely because of what you wrote in point #3.

    My only “rules” for posting are no personal attack (talk about the policy, not the minister), back up your argument with concrete facts and include suggestion(s) for how we should move forward as a sector. I also pointed out to staff that if they follow these rules I will support any post they make even if I don’t agree with it – and they should be ready for follow-up arguments in the comments.

    Reply

  6. Having worked and researched on the interface of policy, practice and research, I haven’t come across a situation yet where there was this direct, immediate impact of an organisation saying: We are not hiring person A, because s/he is too critical about aid/discourses/the World Bank. Or an organisation saying: We are not hiring person A, because s/he was critical in her latest report for another organisation. HR, especially in large organisations, works in mysterious ways and whether or not you have a public profile (either ‘old school’ through academic articles or books, or through the ‘Internet’) seems secondary at best, because I really wonder if, to take a random example, DFID would bother to check my blog, because they may be busy checking 20 other things including my criminal record as a public sector organisation. I don’t really believe in black lists and institutional memory, the famous ‘I pissed off organisation X’. It may happen in individual circumstances, but it’s also possible that another organisation that works in the same field as World Vision would hire Saundra BECAUSE of her critical writing on the T-Shirt affair. Reasonable critique has its part in the development ‘industry’ and unless you really want to publish that post on how the UN is a secret world government with black helicopters and mind-controlling machines, you should do it openly. Also, most people have multiple ‘hats’ on (researcher, consultant, poor student etc.) and using common sense is a good idea. Don’t blog 5 minutes after you have attended a board meeting on how the organisation is in trouble-just wait a week or a month and publish a post on ‘what I learned from board meetings’ or, better yet, write an academic article on ‘the use of board meetings in organisational learning’. Most people will ignore it anyway 😉 and those who read it will hopefully see you as a professional expert. But this leaves one point unanswered: What about those with long-term careers and a certain level of seniority in an organisation, those who know a lot, but also could influence their organisation? Most of them are too busy to blog, follow blogs and read long articles-which opens up interesting avenues for bloggers-cum-action-researchers-cum-consultants: I would LOVE to shadow senior managers and write about it-or help a group of individuals inside an organisation to manage a group blog etc. There should be more opportunities for engaging openly and critical with development and its organisations in the future that hopefully outweigh narrow perceptions of ‘stiffling external dissent’.

    Reply

  7. I only saw trasie’s post after my own contribution…Great example! I would tell the board member that in the current situation the government is likely to cut funding REGARDLESS of whether there is a ‘critical’ blog post or not. I just don’t think that any large government policy initiative would take such small things into consideration. Great that you didn’t remove the post, trasie!

    Reply

  8. Great post, and thanks for the shout-out. Few things warm an anonymous aid bloggers’ heart more than being called one of “the best aid/development bloggers”. Being listed next to @shotgunshack is additional honor.

    I personally believe that the near universal lack of a vibrant “culture of candor” in aid NGOs is one of the biggest hurdles that the aid industry faces at present. @Shotgunshack said it best: “I bet some people are secretly cracking up (over secretly consumed alcohol) at all the blogger heat World Vision USA’s marketing and PR teams are probably under for those 100,000 loser shirts. And secretly dreading the shaming they will face at the next INGO meeting with their program peers.” (http://shotgunshackblog.com/2011/02/10/oh-you-people-and-your-damn-t-shirt-donations/).

    It is a reality that there is a range of opinion on many issues, and a very deep divide within INGOs on the GIK issue, in particular. While I appreciate Jennifer’s comment above – this has all got to be more than simply cynical ranting for entertainment purposes – Saundra’s comment speaks to the reality that not only does what we say in the blogosphere matter in the real world, but there are repercussions for going against company orthodoxy.

    Reply

  9. […] #69 Would you hire me if I disagreed with you? What if I did it publicly? – Find What Works – Extends the conversation started in the post #12 Explaining the radio silence over World Vision – and asks the question what are the risks of blogging for aid professionals. […]

    Reply

  10. Great post Dave! It is a tough choice to decide whether to blog anonymously or publicly. If you go public and say smart things and don’t piss people off, then it is probably a great career move and great way to get your thoughts and ideas out there, discuss them and also get your name out. A blog is better than a CV.

    A few points that jump out at me from the comments:

    1) Forward thinking organizations will stimulate blogging – and likely like Trasie said – you just need a disclaimer. But you still can’t quite say everything or you put yourself and your organization at risk of some kind sanction or PR crisis.

    2) Tanya – Wow. Quilting and cats? Time to start an anonymous blog!

    3) Jennifer – surely you see the benefit of using humor as a way to bring topics up that aren’t normally addressed? This happens all the time in communities – humor, theater, comedy, to broach things that can’t be touched head on and to generate self-reflection and change. Satirical blogging can play the same role, and anonymous bloggers can say things that others can’t.

    4) Aidnography – discussion like the one you suggest in your first paragraph don’t normally happen in the open. People do get reputations. And if you blog and/or are open in your criticism, that reputation is hard to hide. If you think no one is looking up a blog before hiring, think again. Whenever I hire someone, I google them. If their blog comes up, I read it and it gives me a good sense of who I’m looking at. If DfID is not doing that, maybe they should be.

    5) Also aidnography – This idea that if you have a real job *doing things*, you don’t have time to blog, or that if you are a senior manager, you don’t have time to blog is rubbish. People find time to do the things they think are important or that they value. For some people, blogging is one of those things they take pleasure in and they might choose it over, say, a game of tennis, or a television show, reading a journal article or book, or sleeping.

    Reply

  11. Great blog post – and great responses. (and also thanks for the shout-out)

    My own 2c. Aid organizations very a lot in terms of how much dissent they are willing to tolerate as do individual hiring managers – but I don’t think aid is different from any other sector in that respect.

    I personally think that most organizations would not put previous critical blogging in the way of hiring you unless your blog showed you to be disrespectful, unprofessional, to not check your facts or if you took a position that was incompatible with the mission of the organization. Just disagreeing with a specific incident or practice of an organization wouldn’t be a huge deal.
    (after all comms teams hire former journalists who no might well have written critical articles in the past, or technical departments hire experts who have published academic papers that might call into question approaches in use within the organization).

    I think the key is to be professional, and be willing to stand by and explain whatever it is you wrote (and admit if you are wrong or changed your mind).

    Once you are hired though there are some real, and probably reasonable restrictions on what you say about the organization where you work if you want to stay in good graces. In my case when I blog I do mention things I’d like to see change about the organization, or areas of work I think we should strengthen – but I wouldn’t be disloyal, nor would I share internal dirty laundry or confidential information – and I’m also careful to include a disclaimer snd also not to talk about things that I don’t have full knowledge of (even if I have opinions on them).

    Despite having frustrations in my job (like absolutely everyone does) I still love my work, want to keep doing it, and wouldn’t want to cause people to lose confidence in the organization I work in, and believe in.

    Some organizations do allow a bit more public dissent and self-criticism from their own staff (within reason) and I think that is a good thing – since it can lead to greater learning as well as increased credibility. But here I believe that while you should push your organization to be more open – you also have to follow whatever rules and norms are in place.

    If you are in an organization that doesn’t even allow internal dissent (and I’m sure there are some) then you probably ought to work somewhere else!
    A final thought on criticizing the place where you work – a wise friend once said to me “We don’t only work here because of what the organization is, but also what we would like it to become”

    Reply

  12. Thanks for this post, it’s a breath of fresh air. I started blogging as soon as I got to the field, in fact even before leaving. It started as a personal journal, but then as I was in Palestine it became more and more political, more and more asking questions about the value of humanitarian interventions, our supposed neutrality and independence. Officially I didn’t have a blog because MSF France did allow it. I think the video from Il Padrino portrays that culture very well.

    I was not allowed to have a blog when I was deployed to China, and isn’t it hilarious that the one forbidding it was not the Chinese government but by some bureaucrat in Paris? Of course I had it anyway once I figured how to get round the Chinese censorship (easy for blogging). Many NGOs hide behind the fact that they don’t want to create problems with the local authorities for their staff. Truth is they don’t want dissent.

    Back then I was blogging anonymously, but I wanted to be public about my opinions and that’s partly why I have gone free-lance. Now instead of being a psychologists for beneficiaries who don’t really need a Western woman to give them counselling, I provide mindfulness training and psychological support for Western aid workers and those NGOs daring enough to open up a bit.

    Let’s keep developing a new awareness in the humanitarian community so that we can send those bureaucrats home and replace them with fresh blood and new ideas! It’s already happening!

    Reply

  13. In our organisation it’s understood that we all have different views on issues and that’s what makes for lively, dynamic, scholarly engagement. However – and this isn’t all pinned down yet – we are picking and choosing which tools are suited for expressing the different viewpoints and which are not. We’ve decided to use our blog as an opinion space, but Facebook more as mostly ‘news about our organisations’ with a couple of interesting pieces, and Twitter as mostly a knowledge sharing tool (for our work and the work of others).

    I don’t think my personal blog would be career ending, however, it could be as I am highly critical of aid and funding organisations … it could limit the extent to which funding orgs fund work that I do … ?

    Reply

  14. Another great and timely post Dave, and on an issue than many students and graduates must be thinking. I do not want to rehash some of the insightful and helpful comments made here already and only want to talk about two points. First, I would also encourage fellow (former) classmates to get involved in blogging. If you do not want to write, at least read and contribute to discussions. The aid and development blog sector is an enormous;y important area for continuing education. I have found it incredibly interesting and valuable for my own learning and professional aspirations. All those who have already commented above me are must follows as well as this blog itself. The connotations of ‘blogging’ can be a bit mundane, such as knitting and cats, but if this is the view one has, well, then they have not looked hard enough.

    Second, I think if we start asking whether it will effect our opportunities for employment, particularly those students and graduates, then we are seriously overestimating our reach, intelligence and importance. I am more than happy to attach my name to what I write, and willing to stick by my posts, engage in discussions and reflect and change my initial thoughts. That is what I aim for. But, I do not attach too much importance (ego?) to what I write. Well, I try not to.

    Appreciate reading through the comments in this post as well. Thanks all!

    Reply

  15. […] Dave Algoso (who I met at the AidWatch conference this weekend) writes “Would you hire me if I disagreed with you? What if I did it publicly?” […]

    Reply

  16. […] Would you hire me if I disagreed with you? What if I did it publicly? – https://algoso.org/2011/03/04/would-you-hire-me-if-i-disagreed-with-you-what-if-i-di… Peace Corps, a program for the 21st century – […]

    Reply

  17. […] Beyond the network of other bloggers, your work is on display for the whole world. People who google your name will find your blog. You may even find that potential employers already know your name — and suddenly your job application is more than just another resume in their inbox. Some people are worried about the potential downsides of this publicity. It’s one reason why many aid bloggers are anonymous. I decided the benefits outweigh the risks. For more, see my previous piece on the topic. […]

    Reply

  18. […] incredibly necessary. Our industry faces tough questions that intelligent people can disagree on. As I’ve said before, we should always be able to argue for ideas, with passion but without personal investment. I hope […]

    Reply

  19. […] it has brought me very little money. I have no aspiration to be a full-time writer or analyst. The blogging has always been separate from my day jobs. The biggest measurable benefit is that I get free books to review. However, on […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: