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I work at a software company. Everyone here uses the Stack Exchange network, all the time. This may include this site as well.

Suppose I have a programming related question, and I ask my workmates. After not getting an answer - which very frequently happens - I post it in Stack Overflow. My coworkers see my questions, and I see theirs. It wouldn't be hard to figure out who uses what account. In my case, I have even my real name.

Suppose I ask about an awkward situation regarding one workmate or boss. My workmate or boss could easily check my profile, see my network activity, and find that awkward question. This could involve several possible outcomes:

  • Perhaps my boss or coworker sees that question and disagrees with me or otherwise dislikes the question. This may reflect poorly upon me - at least in his eyes.
  • The subject of the question could find it, and feels uncomfortable with me telling everybody (this community) about the... issue.
  • A coworker could discover something I post I ask that does not reflect the values of my workplace. For example, if I say, as an answer: you should not work for a boss who treats you like the situation you described; carefully look for another job and end your current one in the best terms you can, ASAP. My current boss reads the answer and finds it inappropriate, and it relects badly upon me, in his eyes.

How should someone concerned with their coworkers discovering their potentially relationship-damaging questions on Stack Exchange? What should they do is such a situation arises?

migrated from workplace.stackexchange.com May 26 '16 at 10:30

This question came from our site for members of the workforce navigating the professional setting.

  • "What tips could you give me?" -- remember this is a public forum. If you would have major doubts if someone came across it, don't post. – Brandin May 25 '16 at 23:47
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    Don't t post from an ID associated with your actual name or business, of course. Avoid unnecessary detail. See if your question, or something close enough to it, has already been asked and answered; don't insist that your case is different when the difference uniquely identified you. – keshlam May 25 '16 at 23:51
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    I agree with Keshlam, create yourself a second email address and a second username on stack overflow. Perhaps, even use a different non-default web browser when you use that second account to ask questions. And as long as you don't abuse the second account to unfairly give yourself extra reputation on the first, I think that should be ok. – Stephan Branczyk May 25 '16 at 23:57
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    I vote to add this post to the Wiki; it is a common problem and people will face it again in the future. – Marion May 26 '16 at 0:54
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    This is one of the reasons I don't use my real name or publish any real life information to my profile. I prefer to wear a mask here. :) – Masked Man May 26 '16 at 1:10
  • Whereas Keshlam is almost unique; I just try not to say anything I wouldn't want quoted. – keshlam May 26 '16 at 2:31
  • This is not a meta question; the exact same question could have been asked about posting on Reddit, Glassdoor, LinkedIn, etc, and we would not have migrated it. Meta discussion: meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/q/3729/325. – Monica Cellio May 26 '16 at 12:50
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There are three factors that bear on this:

  • Deciding whether to post.
  • Separation of accounts.
  • How you post.

Deciding whether to post:

Your question might already be answered, so be sure to search. If you don't find it, you need to decide how important it is to ask it. Could it reveal any private information? Do you risk looking deficient in some way in front of your coworkers?

I use my real name online and I've asked questions arising from current employment. However, they're general questions and I like to think I put some thought into them before asking. If my manager were to come across one of my questions, I hope the reaction would be "good question" or perhaps just "oh hey, Monica's there".

But sometimes you really do want to ask a question that you'd rather your manager and coworkers not know about -- you're having trouble dealing with that obnoxious coworker, that clueless team lead is messing up your deliverables, that dictatorial boss is demanding 80 hours a week for months on end... In those cases, read on.

Separation of accounts:

You're allowed to have more than one account on Stack Exchange so long as you don't use them to do anything you couldn't do with a single account (like vote for yourself, or double-vote on others' posts). The usual way to do this is to create a separate email address and OpenID credential and use the second account from a different browser or an incognito browser window. Basically, don't let the two accounts "meet" each other in the same browser session.

Note that two accounts means two separate inboxes; when you're logged in to your main account you won't see pings from comments on posts from the secondary account. It's more work to manage two accounts because you have to remember to check in. And you also need to keep track of what you did where; the first time you post from one account referring to "my previous question about X" that was actually from the other account, you've blown it.

Even if you do all that, though, you can still give yourself away by...

How you post:

People have individual quirks. The more-unusual ones, like idioms or turns of phrase that very few people use, might stand out to people who know you and recognize them. So might that word that you always misspell. It doesn't take a Big Data Extravaganza to find correlations in longer text samples.

You are probably a poor judge of how other people read what you write -- not because there's anything wrong with you, but because we all have blinders. You can reduce the impact by being aware of what you say and how you say it, but never, ever assume that you are truly anonymous on the Internet.

Knowing that, you can still ask your question -- and still add a layer of insulation by asking it from a second account. But don't ask about that jerk boss or that pompous coworker; ask your question neutrally and focus on yourself, the problems you are having. You and your boss disagree about priorities; your team lead is focusing on short-term deadlines and you worry about the long-term implications; you really really need to find a way to get a nap in the middle of the afternoon without people thinking you're a slacker; whatever. If you focus on you, then even if your coworkers do figure out it's you, they're more likely to treat it professionally and not take it personally.

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    Excellent FAQ-worthy answer. – keshlam May 26 '16 at 2:34
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    Also - and forgive me if this seems obvious - make sure your 2nd account name is difficult to trace back to you. I.e. if your coworkers know that the "Luis Masuelli" account is yours, avoid using "LuisM" or "LMasuelli" as your 2nd account. Try something like "Anonymous1234". – GreenMatt Jun 7 '16 at 22:16
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It is possible to use different name for the account, different account description and hide some communities from the public view. This is configurable through the user preferences settings.

If you do so, logout and check if everything you wanted to hide is really no longer visible.

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