My sister (who's a brilliant manager and team leader) is looking for a new job. She showed me her résumé a few days ago, and there, in small print at the very bottom, were four words that appear on almost every résumé—and that are now irrelevant: "References available upon request."
Like millions of other job seekers, she was willing to share selected opinions about herself once a company expressed interest. The thing is, it doesn't matter anymore. The reason? Your references are everywhere, all the time, whether you want to share them or not.
Wherever we go, we leave electronic footprints. When you post a complaint on Epinions.com, a review on Amazon, or a comment in a newsgroup, your opinions are shared, with everyone, forever. Buy a house, default on a credit card, switch jobs a few times—it's all there, online, for everyone to see.
The cost of a background check is a fraction of what it used to be. Private detectives don't do legwork anymore. They check their email, type in a few numbers, and—wham!—the data (more than you can imagine) is right there.
Of course, it's not just employees who are leaving a trail. Organizations face an even bigger challenge. Consider the case of a company that hired me to give a few speeches around the country. Instead of paying me as we contracted (with the money going to charity), they bounced three checks. After trying to call them, write them, and work with them, I finally had to hire a lawyer. They never paid. In the old days, that would be that. But today, there's a record online. A quick Google search of the company name would lead you to my blog, which would make you think twice about doing any sort of business with them.
If you run a restaurant, every patron is keeping score for Zagat. If you're a politician, every potential voter is a potential online pundit as well. It's pretty easy to get paranoid about this. Pretty easy to imagine that every customer is a potential brand destroyer. But every customer is also a potential brand builder. Dozens of people have posted positive reviews on PlanetFeedback (now known as Intelliseek) and Epinions.com for brands you wouldn't expect, like Chili's restaurants. Here are excerpts from one posting: "Do you like service that is exceptional? Do you like having a fair price for what you get? You can get all of this at Chili's, because it has all that you want in a restaurant. . . . I had a chicken fried steak with corn on the cob and mashed potatoes. The chicken fried steak was as big as the plate, and it is made with Black Angus beef. . . ."
One thing is becoming crystal clear: You are your references. If a friend tells me a play is no good, I don't go. A friend's recommendation will also determine my choice of lawn-care service or an island to vacation on. My publisher just sent me an email asking about a potential author—and if I don't back up the author's version of our relationship, he won't get the contract.
No person or company can escape their past. You can no longer change your prices with impunity, because the old price lists may be cached at The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine (www.archive.org), which regularly takes snapshots of Web sites and stores them forever. With a little care, you won't hire a manager with a history of abusing his employees, because the lawsuits are all in the public record.
So what should we do? Should we fret and live in fear of our past actions and words coming back to haunt us? I don't think so. There's a bright new opportunity just sitting here, waiting for organizations and individuals to take advantage of it: Spend your future creating your past, starting right now. Live your life out loud, well aware that everything you say can (and will) be used against you (or for you). Treat every customer as though he could turn into a testimonial. Treat every vendor as if she could give you a recommendation. And then, when the time comes, the seeds you've sown will pay off.
Blogs, newsgroups, professional organizations, and all the rest are perfect for someone who wants to leave a vivid, positive trail. You can choose to use the new tools or to become a victim of them.
My sister? She's no longer offering to supply her amazing references upon request. Now she's sending them instead of her résumé.
Seth Godin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an author based outside of New York. Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (Portfolio, 2003) is his latest book.