In the old days people used to say, “Protect your reputation, it’s all you really have.”  Today it’s, “Protect your brand,” which is cute but sometimes I think it belittles the importance of what we’re talking about.

It’s fun to talk about brand because it gives you the impression that you can change it.  Like Pepsi™ changing the look of its soda can.  But, in my experience, reputations aren’t like that.  You can’t just slip on a new reputation.  Although a brand is viewed through the prism of product quality and performance, a manufacturer can sometimes (at least temporarily) overcome a bad reputation by bringing the product out under another brand name and image.  The question arises, can you do that?  And even more interesting, what can you do if you’re performance has not changed but someone in your company damages your reputation – that is, changes your brand in spite of what you do?

Recently a gentleman who is a senior manager and who is a coaching client came to me with a story.  I have been coaching him for many years.  During his career path he rose from part time worker to Development Manager.  Working with him as closely as I did, I can assure you that his management style did not change significantly over his career.  In fact it was his management style that made him effective leading teams and contributed to his success. 

His immediate supervisors changed with some regularity as the company grew.  One day he inherited a boss who didn’t like the way he managed.  My client worked to accommodate her demands but it didn’t seem to matter.  The new boss didn’t like his style and became vocal about it.  She changed my client’s brand within the company by what she said and who she said it to.  THE BOSS, not my client, changed my client’s brand.

This led to a serious rough patch in my client’s career as he was put in a bind wherein he was ultimately forced to take a somewhat junior position to be able to remain employed.  As much as I would have supported him in his decision to leave the company and negotiate a proper departure, he chose to stay. 

Fast forward a few years and my client is in a meeting with his new boss (three bosses later) who is giving him a performance review.  The boss’ comments to him include things like this: “You’ve really changed your brand.  Yours is a story that we should be celebrating.  You’ve become a real star.  You’ve come a long way.” 

Now you can read this and say, well my client must have bucked up and changed the way he did things - except he didn’t.  He is now who he was then.  He works now as he worked then.  What happened to him was that a boss crossed his career path who disagreed with his management style and who proceeded to ruin his reputation.  No one in senior management chose to dig any deeper than to listen to what his previous boss had to say.   Only time and my client’s determination allowed the truth to finally emerge.  He was good then and he’s just as good now.  But the corporate collective memory never forgets the negative reputation that was infused into his work history by his former boss. 

So my client is now deemed to have risen above his prior failings.  The truth never  surfaced; that he was always this good but was severely misjudged by a former boss.  It’s hard for a company to admit a mistake.  It’s easier for them to work with a scenario that the employee simply “improved.”  Such a scenario justifies the human resource management systems the company has in place.  It’s also a story they can tell as an example to other “non-performers.”

What’s the lesson?  Your ability to change your brand, or your ability to protect your reputation is only as good as the company you work for.  If senior management can’t look past one manager’s opinion, and if your company has a collective memory that never forgets the negative, you may have an uphill battle if someone besmirches your reputation; especially if that someone is your boss or senior to you in the company hierarchy. 

My suggestion?  Be prepared to meet unfair criticism head on – with tact and diplomacy – always with the expressed willingness to improve your performance if it is finally determined that your performance is below par. 

However, caution is required.  It’s a shame that in many large organizations that your willingness to defend yourself is defined as “pushing back,” or “resistance,” or “resistance to change.”  In other words, you can be caught in a catch-22.  If you remain silent, you are assumed to have agreed with the criticism.  If you speak up to defend yourself, you are branded resistant, negative or push-back. 

When I see this I can’t help but feel sad.  These kinds of unjust attacks on employee’s reputations cause significant amounts of stress, lost productivity, lost company loyalty, lost income (for the employee and the company) and lost talent. 

Finding the diplomatic path that will allow you to defend your reputation while promoting yourself as a positive, move-forward person is tricky, but it can be done.  Just remember, in a corporate setting, changing your brand is no easier than rebuilding your reputation.