Your Permanent Record

Jan 24, 2019

By Sander A. Flaum

Do you remember some glowering high school teacher warning you that the next time you got in trouble it would go down on your permanent record?

I do. 

Of course, I wasn’t exactly sure what a permanent record was, but it sounded scary. Then one day we realize that minor infractions will actually have zero impact on the rest of our lives. We also learn that just about any setback can be reversed. This week’s fumble can be redeemed by next week’s game-winning pass. And by and by, we discover that we can actually reinvent ourselves. Going off to college, enlisting in the military, or starting a new job, we have new chances to smooth over the past and expunge old failures. 

Until now. 

Thanks to Google, Wikipedia, Gawker, Facebook, and their ilk, today there really is a “permanent record.” Anyone can find out anything about practically anybody. As a result, if you lie, exaggerate, or even just speak thoughtlessly, not only can you be found out, but you can also be exposed to instant, viral ridicule. (Just ask New York’s former congressman, Carlos Danger.)

So, is this good or bad?  Who knows? It’s just the way things are. For better or worse, nearly every action we take puts our credibility on the line in ways we could never have imagined.

You probably don’t think much about your credibility. It might be the least exciting of all personal attributes. Compare “credible” to traits like passionate, courageous, powerful, charismatic, visionary, inspiring, and innovative. Credible barely gets a yawn. Yet the smallest crack in your credibility can spell disaster. Being caught in even a tiny lie is one of the fastest ways to end a career (or even go to jail, if you happened to fib to an FBI agent). Although there’s nothing glamorous about credibility, and  it isn’t the direct route to a C-Suite office, it is the mortar that holds all your other attributes in place. 

So here with a few tips about how not to lose your credibility and a few more about how to build or even rebuild it.

First, Three “Don't’s”:
1. Never bluff when you’re confronted with unfamiliar information. If you’re behind the curve in some aspect of your work, that’s embarrassing, but guess what? It happens. Just quickly admit your knowledge gap, do your homework, and get current. If you pretend to know what you obviously don’t, not only will you look out of touch, you’ll be seen as a phony.

2. Never lie about yourself, especially in written or recorded form. The truth is always better. Perhaps you never finished or even attended graduate school. So what? Show your expertise in the quality of your work. Even better, go back to school. It’s never too late. But if you spice up your résumé with a fictitious MBA, eventually, you’ll be busted.

3. Never try to weasel out of a mistake. Admit it, you flubbed. Whatever credibility you may lose in how others perceive your abilities, you will more than make up in terms of earning their respect for your honesty. Even if you are offered the chance to throw someone else under the bus, take your lumps and move on. Stand-up people are winners in the end.

Next, Three “Dos”:
1. Keep your promises. If you can say, “My word is my bond,” and know that even your enemies will not roll their eyes, you have gone a long way to establishing personal credibility. Of course, the corollary of this principle is: Do not promise what you cannot deliver!

2. Be yourself. If you are naturally popular and social, good for you. But what if you are not—if you are more of a private person—that’s okay, too. Do what’s natural and comfortable. People will respect you for being who you are. They won’t be impressed if you put on an act.

3. Guard your credibility. For leaders, being credible is just the price of admission. You’ll still need to perform, persuade, inspire, listen, innovate, communicate, and execute all of the other actions that go into being an effective leader. But of all those qualities, only your personal credibility makes it possible to look at yourself in the mirror and be proud of what you see. And that’s worth putting in your permanent record.

You can further explore the issues discussed in this article at these AMA seminars:
Developing Executive Leadership

How to Communicate with Diplomacy, Tact & Credibility

About the Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is Principal, Flaum Navigators, and Chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration. Contact him at