Jess Ostroff

Don’t Maintain Your Reputation, Build It

By: Jess Ostroff | April 15, 2014 | 

Don't Maintain Your Reputation, Build ItBy Jess Ostroff

I hate the phrase, “Maintain your reputation.”

The word “maintain” is simply too passive.

It downplays the importance of reputation, which is one word that can change everything.

Reputation is not something that needs “maintaining.”

It needs to be nurtured, enlivened, groomed – it’s something that needs constant work.

You are your reputation.

Everything you do, every piece of work you turn in, every interaction you have ties directly to what people think about you.

And if you think that what others think doesn’t matter, well, you’re not wrong (and yes, it’s a nice piece of advice to tell your children), but you might not do so well getting what you want – both personally and professionally.

A Reputation Nightmare

Last year, I had the unfortunate experience of letting someone on my team go. It’s something I had hoped, as a business owner, I would never have to experience.

Of course, in the back of my mind I knew it would happen sooner or later, and in hindsight, I’m glad it happened sooner.

The conflict started when I found some small formatting mistakes and inconsistencies on a project we were working on. When I asked her about them, she made excuses – the instructions weren’t clear, the tool malfunctioned, she had too much other work.

Okay, no worries. Just do better next time.

In my experience, you are only as good as the people around you, so I wanted to give her another chance to prove that she could do a good job.

Things escalated from there.

As any PR person knows, tracking time for clients is crucial. It’s how we price out our services and measure performance. I started finding some weird numbers in our time tracking tool (we use Freshbooks). While she was coming into the office earlier than I was and leaving later, her hours did not reflect the time she spent.

I quickly started to realize she wasn’t working on my company’s projects; she was building her own business on MY time. As someone who always gives the benefit of the doubt, I was crushed. She had been lying about the work she was doing, throwing out constant excuses, and missing deadlines.

One client told me they didn’t think we were a good fit during this time. I had defended my employee after looking at the evidence, much like Gini Dietrich has done in the past, only to find out later this client had valid reasons for concern, reasons I was unaware of.

I was heartbroken. And then I was angry. This person clearly didn’t understand the value of her own reputation and, worse, her actions had started to affect mine.

Own Your Reputation

Reputation management is not unlike crisis management in PR. At the end of the day, it’s all about putting your best foot forward and not letting mistakes put a negative light on how your audience sees you.

In my case, I believe I nipped the situation before it got out of control. But she did have some likeable qualities that kept her working with me longer than she should have, and I think about her trajectory often.

Did she realize what she was doing to her reputation?

Does she know we run in some of the same circles and that I’ll never be able to give her a positive recommendation?

While I really hate the term “personal brand” (I hate a lot of things today!), in some cases you really do have to think of yourself as a company in order to make rational decisions.

Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to own up to them. Whether you’ve made one mistake or a hundred mistakes, your reputation doesn’t have to go into to the toilet as a result.

Walk the Talk

Say you’re sorry. Offer solutions. Take measures to ensure you don’t make the same mistake twice. These simple steps can go a long way in boosting your reputation, especially because you never really know who you might be dealing with.

If you were a brand, or better yet one of your client’s brands, how would you handle a sticky situation?

Walk the talk. Practice what you preach. I don’t care which mantra you like, but find one and stick to it.

And that’s what I realized I was most upset about – my employee never took responsibility for her actions and therefore, she wasn’t taking responsibility for her own reputation (or the reputation of the company) either.

Not being able to get a recommendation from someone you worked with for almost a year isn’t good. And the fact that I’m writing about it today means that it matters.

Every person you meet and every connection you make is an opportunity for you to grow. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by sitting on your high horse and believing you are above reputation building. No one is. It’s something you’ll need to work on for the rest of your life, and you have a choice. Which reputation will you strive for?

About Jess Ostroff

Jess Ostroff is the founder and director of calm of Don't Panic Management, a virtual assistant agency. She loves finding efficient ways to get work done, bringing good people together, and enjoying live music.

  • Oh man, there are so many things I want to say in response to this. I agree with every point and have been in similar situations. To me, it’s heartbreaking because that trust has been take advantage of, and it shows such a lack of respect for themselves and their role. I feel bad for these people more than anything, because they can’t take pride in their work, and I can’t imagine how you could go through your professional life so haphazard and unable to take pride in what you do.

    I also feel building a strong personal brand and reputation is important, for many reasons. One, it helps people connect with and trust you. It follows you wherever you go and will support you through good and bad. 

    Great article Jeff! 😉

  • So, so agree with the points you’re making.
    Related: I had a friend once who wanted to write this scathing, angry letter of resignation when he left a job. I couldn’t advocate more strongly AGAINST it. I mean, give constructive criticism to your employer while you work there to help them do better. Don’t save it all up and spit it in their faces on the way out the door – because you never know who they might know later on down the line, why on earth would you want the last impression you leave to be bitter, angry, and mean? IMHO, last impressions are often more important than first impressions, at least where your reputation is concerned.

  • Eleanor Pierce  OMG, GREAT point! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s truly what I’m saying here. They always say first impressions are the most important, but I think you could totally botch your first impression and still build up a strong relationship with someone and reputation for yourself. I don’t understand how people can be so short-sighted about these things. They don’t realize that every decision they make affects their future. And yes, we do make mistakes sometimes, but it’s less important WHAT happens to you and more important HOW you deal with it.

  • I give trust easily. I just expect people to be honest on face value. I have been burned a few times. I am a Scorpio my stinger is something the few people who have experienced it, found most unpleasant. I then walk away and they are gone from my world. But it hurts so much when deceived.I dealt with that twice last year once with a no ex-best friend/partner and my biggest client.

    One thing some employers and managers hated about me was I owned everything including mistakes. You think ‘Wait that sounds weird’ but the ones who were uncomfortable didn’t do the same.

    Sorry you went through that. I might not hire ginidietrich to help me sell girl scout cookies just in case she eats the profits and I have to let her go it will really suck. Her resume says she has never gotten caught with cookies not her own….but they are sooooo tempting!

  • LauraPetrolino  LOL. Oh Jeff…

    You’re right, it’s really more sad than anything else. I always wonder how this person is faring in life and whether she’s taking advantage of more trusting souls like me. Big sigh. I would never be able to live with myself if I did something like that!

  • Great points Jess. The discussion around professional and personal brand comes up very often these days. I am of the belief that in today’s world and with all the lines blurring (I think I may have more “friends” on Facebook today through professional associations than friends from high school, University etc.) my personal brand is essentially my professional brand and I have to own my reputation on all counts.

    Over the years I have worked with several people who have spent significant amount of time at their full-time jobs building and running their own businesses.  Unlike in your situation, they were my peers ( rather than direct reports)  and therefore a tricky situation in a different way.  In some situations they were found out and others they are still there.

  • jessostroff LauraPetrolino  unfortunately people like that keep repeating the same mistakes over and over, and yet they can’t understand why they ‘are stuck’ in a career/place they don’t wish to be in.

  • LSSocialEngage agree – such fantastic points (and ones that older teenagers/college kids would be well advised to think about. I had an employee once in a contact center who didn’t. take. a. single. call. but  held the phone up to her ear as if she was (a bit of an exaggeration here but she truly did very little real work while expending a LOT of effort to look like she was). Fabulous reminders Jess – thank you for sharing this.

  • The thing that drives me most crazy – and as you pointed out so eloquently above – is that when people do stuff to tarnish *their* reputation, they forget they are bringing down everyone around them as well. That really gets my dander up.

  • As you know, I’ve had a situation similar to yours that was made very public. It stinks to have to take the blame for something you knew nothing about, but you’re right in that’s what makes a great leader. I also find I get very Mother Hen’ish when a client says something negative about someone on my team. I have to remember to sit back, listen, and assess because sometimes they DO know something we don’t know.

  • biggreenpen I believe it and it gets very frustrating to watch them expend all that effort trying to fake it and then get away with it while you are working hard. sigh!

  • jessostroff Eleanor Pierce  Not to mention, getting angry, cynical, and lashing out doesn’t really set a good example for oneself, either!

  • belllindsay The ownership thing, I really like that point too. Part of being good to oneself and to others is being clear about what you own, and then not trying to take on other people’s stuff or vice versa.

  • Ann07

    Reputation, it is something that we give importance and we intend to take care of. Yes, I do agree that reputation is not meant to ‘maintain’, but rather to build. 

    t requires effort, patience and time to build a good reputation, and only one wrong move to destroy.

    As for a piece of advice, don’t just say the attitudes that you want people to associate with you, but live it and let people discover it in you.


    By the way, I found this post shared on

  • Great post Yes, it´s sad when this is happening to you, especially
    when you know you have put everything from your part for that relationship to
    work (been there, done that). Unfortunately, there are times when people are
    acting really selfish even though it´s in their own detriment. They guide
    themselves and act by feelings and emotions that have no place in a workplace.
    Yes, we are humans, but we have the privilege of a brain; we should use it.
    As Warren Buffett says “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If
    you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” The keyword here is

  • Ruonan Zhang

    I agree that “maintain your
    reputation” sounds more negative than “build your reputation”. Reputation can
    bring lots of benefits to a corporation, an employee or just a person. The
    employee you mentioned clearly should improve on this point. She uses excuses
    and lies to defend her reputation, instead of using activity to build gain
    herself trust. Not every person or corporation understands it. Just like Abbey,
    a PR practitioner said in my class as guest speaker, most companies come to PR
    firms when crisis occurs, few ones pay PR firm to maintain a good reputation
    when thing seem to be fine, but these firms benefit a lot!

  • corinamanea  You’re spot on with that (and so is Warren!). It’s just a shortsighted approach to life when people don’t realize what consequences are coming to them.

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  • Hi Jess,
    Karma, all around. Power message! Own your rep by doing good, not worrying about critics, making mistakes and detaching. I’ve seen creative people fail horribly because they fear losing their rep and not terribly creative people who generated good karma, had faith in their good karma and didn’t even think about their rep. Karma took care of that 😉

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