Sunday, June 2, 2013

When Good Institutions Let us Down

An exciting job opportunity came to my attention recently.  When the "coveted" communication job was finally announced, I applied that same evening.  I sent all the requested information via e-mail.  As often happens these days, there was absolutely no confirmation message.  Not wanting to be a pest, I waited a week, or so, to send another e-mail.  Again, there was no response.  I waited a few more days, then called the HR department at the institution.  After I identified myself and the position about which I was inquiring, I was told that the HR director was reviewing the application materials that afternoon.  I also felt that the person with whom I was speaking seemed to know who I was.  In my mind, then, the call confirmed the application receipt.

The next week, however, I learned what I was afraid of the most: my application e-mail was never received.  Within hours, I was able to get them everything by e-mail again.  I learned the next day, however, that I was too late.  The HR person could not confirm that the director even saw my materials, and the interviews had already been scheduled.  It seemed abundantly clear that my materials came too late to be seriously considered.

I politely pointed out that the e-mail problems likely did not originate on my end, but theirs.  This approach did not meet with great success.  In fact, I had noticed e-mail issues with regards to this non-profit in the past, and I probably should have driven out to the institution to confirm that my information was received timely; my own lack of follow through contributed in a small way to this institution's poor response.  It also rasies some interesting questions.

First, I think it's important that we bear in mind that there are no perfect earthly institutions--with the possible exception of Pixar.  What I mean, then, is that we can project qualities of our own making on an institution we may only know in a superficial way.  For instance, I absolutely loved attending Seattle Pacific University as a student in the late 1980s.  Working as a security staff person there more than two decades ago, however, was not a particularly pleasant experience.  Institutions are run by imperfect people; we should try to avoid letting these kinds of experiences unduly color our larger view of the institution and the substantive good it does.

It reminds me of a childhood friend.  This guy seemed to search out instances where he felt slighted or disrespected.  He would carry these "hurts" with him for years and years.  When I became Catholic some years ago, for instance, his first question to me was couldn't I remember how cruel some of the children were to us when we attended Catholic schools.  Eventually, though, one must endeavor to forgive and let that stuff go.  Hand-in-hand with this forgiveness also comes an acknowledgment that evil can be done to us through the actions of people who still represent good and praiseworthy organizations.  We must be able to separate the perceived personal injury from the greater good performed by the institution in question.  That takes maturity, but it's possible.

Second, it's a good reminder of where we are technologically as a culture.  I work with editors and writers all the time, for example, who never respond timely to e-mails.  If you follow-up, they will often still fail to respond to you.  I've come to the conclusion that many people truly must not understand e-mail, or they are too disorganized to make appropriate use of it.  What also seems to happen many times is that small organizations without the luxury of dedicated IT staff--especially non-profits...and maybe literary agents, too--seem particularly ill-equipped to handle and coordinate their own e-mail efficiently.  What was supposed to create improved communication can lead just as easily to overflowing inboxes and sloppy spam screening. 

I think we all need to take this into account.  Without crossing the line and making a serious pest of yourself, I suggest you, as a job applicant or writer, follow up until you receive some manner of confirmation--if there's any doubt.  Whether it be a newly submitted manuscript or a complex job application, don't assume that it was received by that right person.  Take some initiative and ensure that it took the correct exit off the Information Superhighway.

If they want to avoid your follow up, they can take simple steps such as the creation of reliable internet pages dedicated to uploading materials where you easily receive a confirmation of status--like Oregon State's current job system.  Alternatively, HR departments could set their e-mails to automatically reply with a polite thank you when the application is received.  This tells you that it was indeed directed to the right individual, and you have something in-hand should problems arise later.  Until some future time when everyone is competent in using e-mail, circumstances may just require that you be a pest from time to time when it comes to safeguarding your information and avoiding lost opportunities for professional advancement.

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