You are not your company

Facebook hoodieI’ve done a lot of thinking in the past about how a person carves up their identity, and most of the time I’m comfortable with a certain level of tribalism.

In fact, my partner Charles and I have worked very hard over the last few years to subjugate our public identities (AKA “personal brands”) during conference talks and blog posts to that of The Frontside, for good reason. We have a shared goal that is larger than either of us, and we want an umbrella that is larger than us to protect that goal. (The goal itself is a topic for another day.)

So why would I have a problem with my employees telling people “I’m a Frontsider”? Or with a gaggle of employees of Cool Startup X all decked out in company swag huddled together at a tech event? Or how about when someone drops the name of their workplace with all the subtlety of James Bond’s self-introduction?

“I work at GitHub. The GitHub.”

Why would that make me uncomfortable? Because I don’t believe a company is an appropriate or safe place to house any significant portion of your identity.

You just have to ask one question: What is the exchange happening here? By tying your identity to your company…

You get: A sense of belonging, and perhaps some prestige if the company is known.

They get: An increased sense of importance and priority to your work life, a lower likelihood you’ll leave for any reason, and a staunch defender of the company… all without having to pay you more.

Basically I get more “employee per dollar” if you’re willing to identify with my company.

I don’t think people realize the exchange that’s happening here. Hell, I’m an owner of my company and I don’t like the exchange rate on tying it to my personal identity. And I’m expressly not a fan of companies using psychology to extract more value from employees without compensating them.

Charles and I are building a Brand (yes, I know, ugh) that is expected to stand in for a set of goals and values, and are willing to attach much of our public work to that Brand intentionally. But that is very different than tying it to our own personal identities.

Like us, you already tie a lot of things to your company: your time, your daily personal associations, and your best work. That’s the agreed-upon exchange when you take a job. I strongly recommend to my employees and to those who will hear me to not give up a big ol’ chunk of your identity in that deal without careful consideration.

  • Carl

    couldn’t agree more with this… it makes me cringe when I see / hear people doing it

  • guahanweb

    Overall, great points, and I agree with the sentiment, although, on occasion, you will find an organization to which people are drawn with a desire for conjoined identity. When I worked at Amazon, I would very hesitantly express that relationship due to the exact reasons you state. However, now that I work for Disney, it’s the inverse, but with good reason. My relationship (identity with Disney, if you will) was established long before the role. In this case, I don’t identify with the company because I work for them, but rather, I now work for a brand with whom I had already long since established identity. I believe this is the exception case, but one to point out! I see people identifying with (even advertising apparel, if you will) the Disney brand without ANY return on the exchange. Curious to hear your thoughts on that type of brand identity.

  • andreyb

    Hear, hear!

    I believe that some companies (no names here) intentionally save on compensation (simply underpaying their employees) by replacing it with a cult… Clever, but morally highly dubious strategy.