• 03/16/2012
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Don't Burn Bridges, And Don't Be A Jerk

These two simple rules of life can help ensure you thrive on social networks.
Some recent high-profile commentaries got me thinking about how two of my personal rules of life can and should be applied to social networking: Don't burn your bridges, and don't be a jerk. Now, I'm not saying that I've never burned any bridges, and I know for sure that I have been a jerk at certain times in my life. But in general I try not to do things like write negative missives about present or past employers or display rude, sexist behavior because I don't happen to agree with someone else. And I've found that what holds true for life also holds true for social networking.

First, don't burn your bridges. It seems to me that two people did just that with very public kiss-offs to former employers. Greg Smith, now famously formerly of Goldman Sachs, basically resigned in the op-ed pages of the New York Times: "Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs," wrote Smith, who was executive director and head of Goldman's U.S. equity business for Europe. "After almost 12 years at the firm ... I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it."

Wow. You've probably seen much shorter (and probably less well-written) versions of Smith's statements on Facebook and Twitter. I know I have, and they always make me cringe.

Then there was James Whitaker, who left Google for Microsoft and talked about why in an MSDN blog post. "The days of old Google hiring smart people and empowering them to invent the future was gone," he wrote, comparing the old Google with the present-day version of the tech giant. "The new Google knew beyond doubt what the future should look like. Employees had gotten it wrong and corporate intervention would set it right again." (Whitaker attributes what he sees as Google's downward spiral to no less than Google+ and Google's inability to effectively compete with Facebook.)

Both Smith's and Whitaker's respective swan songs went viral, and even inspired several spoofs that also went viral.

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No company is perfect; no job is perfect; no manager is perfect; no co-worker is perfect. Sure, we've all had the fantasy of telling off a clueless manager (not that I have had any of those!) before we storm out of the office for the very last time. But it truly is a small world, and you never know when that manager will pop into your professional life again, whether you need a reference or perhaps want to return to the company you so dramatically left. Maybe things are different when you're a powerful executive like Smith. Maybe then the door is always open. But for most of us, that would not be the case. Likewise, for most of us, it wouldn't take an op-ed piece to close future doors. All it takes is a "good riddance to bad rubbish"-type Facebook update or Tweet that will certainly live on in infamy.

And then there's Rush and radio and why you don't want to be a jerk on social networks. And what is radio if not an early social network? Listen to any talk radio (and, as someone who commuted three hours a day every day for years, I have listened to my fair share of talk radio) and you'll see the parallels. The host introduces (updates or Tweets) a topic, and callers (fans and followers) weigh in with their opinions (comment on posts).

[ See TechWeb VP and editorial analyst Eric Lundquist's take on the rush to bury Rush and the lessons we can learn. Social Media Lessons From The Rush Imbroglio. ]

Limbaugh has come under fire most recently for calling 30-year-old Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" for her views on expanding access to birth control. Limbaugh is certainly no stranger to these kinds of inflammatory comments, but many felt that he crossed a line. He has since issued a kind-of apology, but that damage has been done. You can't take back being a jerk--not in life, not on radio, and not on social networks.

You will hear from many people that effective social networking is challenging, that it's difficult to separate your personal and professional life, that it's too easy for your message to be misinterpreted. I disagree. I think that by following those two simple rules--don't burn your bridges and don't be a jerk--social networking can be pretty easy and safe.

What are your rules for social networking? Have I oversimplified? Comment below or write me at

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re: Don't Burn Bridges, And Don't Be A Jerk

Don't burn your bridges? IGm glad Smith stood up to share an insider's confirmation that at least one Wall Street firm has apparently run amuck! GGreed is goodG is not an acceptable mission statement for a reputable firm. Sometimes you have to stand up for decency and sound business principles.

re: Don't Burn Bridges, And Don't Be A Jerk

Debra, thank you for this post! My rule for social networking is "If I would not want my mom or employer to read it, then don't post it." I also agree with '"don't be a jerk" and do my best to live up to that one. :)

"Don't burn your bridges" I agree with in theory. However, I was very glad to read Smith's article because I feel very strongly about customer service and support, and think the message about delighting customers - and then shareholder happiness will eventually follow - is a good one. If I put myself in Smith's situation, and had written a public article like he did, then I seriously doubt I would want to return to that employer. If I did, I think some major changes, at the employer and with myself, would need to happen first.

I am having my own struggle with how to effect positive change. If a company says, "This is the best we can do," there is some truth to that. But if customers or employees believe, "We can do better," how do you bring such a message forward? Accepting "this is the best we can do" supports the status quo, complacency, stagnancy. As Doug H said so well, sometimes you have to stand up for what you think is right.

So, I certainly agree that Smith burned a bridge but I'm guessing he was fully conscious of doing so. Even if his depiction of the employer is not fully accurate (it is just one person's take, after all), I appreciated reading his thoughts on the importance of culture, and of valuing customers.
~ Trisha

re: Don't Burn Bridges, And Don't Be A Jerk

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I hear what you are saying about Smith and Goldman Sachs, and I know I have greatly simplified the issues. (I am squarely in the 99%, after all!) But after all of these stories came to light and I started putting them together in my head, it occurred to me that they reflect a lot of what you see on social media. When it comes to burning bridges, most of us who do so on social media aren't blowing whistles but are instead blowing off steam--and the consequences of doing so are usually not worth the initial satisfaction.

Deb Donston-Miller
Contributing Editor, The BrainYard

re: Don't Burn Bridges, And Don't Be A Jerk

Deb, thanks for your reply! Your comment helped me think about the range of behaviors we see on social media: from inappropriate sharing (such as drunk parties/naked pictures) to blowing off steam; from expressing opinions to exposing wrongdoing.

I think what you are encouraging us to consider is: Be careful about what one posts, the messages it sends, and the potential consequences. And I support this thinking. But I have some fear about 'don't burn bridges' because it can be used as a reason to stay in a bad situation, or to allow wrongdoing to continue. It echoes something my mom says, 'Do what you need to do to save your job.' There is nothing wrong with this advice, unless it includes compromising principles or one's health.

And I think I just broke my own social media rule - I am imagining my mom reading the above, and I am cringing! ;) But I am moved to comment here because it is too easy to stay quiet and not participate. I think Smith's article was partly blowing off steam, but also saying some things that others may believe but are afraid to say - that corporate culture matters, and focusing on customers first matters.

re: Don't Burn Bridges, And Don't Be A Jerk

Thank you so much for your comments and your thoughtful insight. The context and perspective you have provided is really important and it is greatly appreciated.

Deb Donston-Miller
Contributing Editor, The BrainYard

re: Don't Burn Bridges, And Don't Be A Jerk

Love the simplistic rules to live by on/offline. Thank you. HoggLyfe Social Media's rules for social networking are: transparency, responsiveness and "likeability." We're hilarious on occasion!

re: Don't Burn Bridges, And Don't Be A Jerk

Thank you, HoggLyfe. Your rules for social networking remind me of the discussion between TechWeb's Eric Lundquist and social network guru Allen Bonde, CMO of The Pulse Network (link below). They were talking about how companies should respond when things *don't* go right, with transparency and responsiveness being top priorities.