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Personal Brands, Boundaries, and Bias: The Dirty
Little Secret No One is Talking About

By Sima Dahl
President of Parlay Communications

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, or so the saying goes.

Statistics vary, but researchers generally agree that first impressions are formed within 10 to 20 seconds of meeting someone. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, asserts that first impressions can happen inside of two seconds, even instantaneously. Recent studies indicate the same holds true for watching someone on video. In a flash, we may judge a person's character, competence, and charisma.

The dirty little secret about personal branding is this: when we make snap judgments, we bring a lifetime of education, experience, and bias to bear on a person. Call it preference or partiality if it makes you feel better, but in the end, it's still bias. When I meet you, I absorb a million bits of data—and snap!—just like that, I make a judgment call. For example:

  • The shine of your shoes, the cut of your hair, the amount of gray in it—snap!
  • The speed of your speech, the Star of David or cross around our neck, the presence or absence of a wedding band—snap!
  • The bright blue toenail polish peeking out of your peep-toe shoes, the tattoo flirtatiously poking out from under your sleeve—snap!

And if that weren't enough, now I can judge you before we even meet! The LinkedIn Groups you join, the Facebook pages you like, the tweets you retweet. Intentional or not, each action you take online tells me something about you, and the sum of your activity screams volumes.

I recently dialed into one of my LinkedIn groups because a headline caught my eye: "Tattoos in the Workplace." The author noted that tattoos were becoming more mainstream and wondered if businesses needed to become more tolerant of them. A healthy debate ensued, but I couldn't get past a comment from a woman I knew. "Personally, I do not like them. I would never hire someone who had an obvious tattoo, just like I would not hire someone that had a nose, lip, or earring," she wrote. "I would never hire you if I saw a big tattoo and/or other embellishment that is not accepted by ALL in ALL industries. I would not want to offend any of my customers or prospective customers."

Not accepted by all people in all industries? Is that even feasible in a world where we make snap judgments about one another instantaneously, whether from a snippet of video or a poorly written LinkedIn profile?

She's entitled to her opinion. What's changed, however, is how I feel about her. Right or wrong, now I am the one doing the judging.

So it was a breath of fresh air when I saw this tweet from @RedheadWriting (a.k.a. Erika Napoletano)—author, columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine, and Head Redhead at RHW Media, a Denver-based online strategies consultancy—about her three-quarter sleeve tattoo-in-progress:

If you read Erika's blog, you know she doesn't pull punches. I asked how her personal brand developed. "I made a commitment to myself: I live out loud," she said. "Life is entirely too short to work in a job you hate, be surrounded by people who aren't your friends, or walk on eggshells because you're afraid to piss someone off."

I'm not saying you have to live as loud as Erika or tweet about your ink to have a strong personal brand. What I am saying is that you have have to be conscious about what you put out there, because like it or not, you will be judged for it.

As for her ink? Erika says, "If you don't like it, don't hire me. We all carry the onus of looking past the cover and seeing what's on the inside."

So wear your religious affiliations around your neck, declare your political inclinations on your LinkedIn profile, or profess your love for another with ink on your ankle, but do so intentionally, knowing that you will be judged for it—in an instant. Snap!

Sima Dahl

Sima Dahl is a social media strategist and personal branding expert with 20 years experience working for both mature enterprises and early-stage startups. She is well known for her "Sway Factor" approach to social networking and has coached rainmakers, ladder climbers, and job seekers on the art of networking in the digital age. Sima is the President of Parlay Communications, founder and Chief Connector of Marketing Job Wire, serves on the Board of Directors for the Chicago AMA, and blogs about various social media and marketing topics at ExpertBusinessSource.com.