Incivility and Its Discontents: How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Photo Credit:  Elle Doubleyou

Photo Credit: Elle Doubleyou

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.
— Malcolm S. Forbes

A friend of mine recently referred some work to me in my consulting capacity, a contract position helping a local social sector organization with their fund development strategy, work I’ve done with some success in my industrious, if not thoroughly illustrious, career. I was fully qualified and knew some board members who also encouraged me to apply, so I did. I sent a thoughtful letter expressing my interest and capabilities along with my resume to the appropriate person, and went about my business. 

At some point, the friend who referred the work to me inquired about the outcome, and I realized that three weeks had passed without any word, not even a note acknowledging the receipt of my application. My friend was surprised to learn this, but unconcerned, assuming that those involved in the search were probably overwhelmed and simply behind in getting back to people. Hmmmm. Well, fair enough. I supposed. As a former overwhelmed, overworked hiring manager, I was sympathetic.

Apparently, my application had been received, so I figured that the search committee would get back to me shortly. But I was wrong. They did not get back to me. In fact, they never contacted me at all. Six weeks later, I learned from a friend who has a neighbor who works there that they hired someone to fulfill the contract.

I was, I confess, more than a little peeved, not because I didn’t land the contract, but because I received zero communication from the organization. I didn't necessarily expect to be hired, but I did expect a local organization to extend the courtesy of acknowledging my interest. At the very least, I expected to be informed that they decided to work with someone else (who incidentally, I’m told is a nice, capable person who’s worked with them in the past). I thought that their total lack of regard was shameful.

I expressed this sentiment to a friend of mine who suggested that I shouldn’t take it personally (I don’t), and that I shouldn’t expect people who are so overwhelmed to respond to every application (and yet, I do). I’m well aware that it’s standard operating procedure nowadays to assess and reject job applicants without any notification. I just happen to think that this is wrong. 

I expect people to respond, if only in the form of an impersonal mass email notification, because to do anything less than that is at best, inconsiderate, and at worst, just plain rude, and since when is being inconsiderate and rude acceptable? After all, a basic premise of the hiring process is that candidates will be considered, which doesn’t ensure that all candidates will be considered equally worthy of the work, but surely all candidates should be considered equally worthy of a response. This is why it is common practice to end letters of interest with, “Thank you for your consideration.” In a civilized society, some basic respect is assumed. 

It is no measure of sanity to be well-adapted to an insane society.
— Krishnamurti

Of course, perhaps she’s right. After all, many companies fail to respond to their customers with any common courtesy and treat their employees like serfs, so perhaps I’m being unreasonable to expect organizations to maintain a modicum of civility with prospective consultants, candidates, and the like. Still, I keep thinking of Krishnamurti's astute observation, "It is no measure of sanity to be well-adapted to an insane society." Perhaps I’m not crazy to wish that there weren't so many so willing to adapt and adopt incivility as common practice. While I appreciate the efficiency of automation and understand the convenience of mass emails, institutionalizing the interpersonal skills of automatons offends me. Moreover, I happen to think that treating human beings as if they’re unworthy of one’s time is not only unkind, but also unwise.

The blatant disregard for job candidates (project-based or otherwise) that has become the new norm in all industries and sectors is indicative of the inhumanity that led to the widespread Wall Street corruption that most ethical people find so abhorrent. Yet, most smart, talented, self-assuredly ethical people in hiring positions who condemn the unethical practices of Wall Street fail to make the connection. There are human beings attached to each and every resume who deserve to be treated with courtesy, and every person who fails to treat others as such contributes to the systemic corruption of humanity in our world.

To be clear, I’m not equating the incivility of the job market with the malfeasance of Wall Street, but rather, simply observing that disregard for the well-being of others, whether large or small, is still disregard. Indifference, depraved or otherwise, is a matter of degree, not category. Furthermore, I suspect that normalizing indifference in small matters often leads to normalizing indifference in large matters. I firmly believe that good manners, whether in business or elsewhere, matter.

If people aren’t persuaded by good old-fashioned decency, perhaps they should consider the fact that treating people with respect is just good business and much more likely to contribute to their bottom line. Before my ill-fated interaction (can I call it interaction when there was nary a word to me from them?) with this organization, I had a generally positive impression of their organization and would have been inclined to donate my time and money to their good works.  

After experiencing their utter disregard, I have a negative impression that makes it unlikely that I will ever give my resources to their organization, despite their good works. Moreover, although I will refrain from public commentary about their organization, when someone asks me, I won’t have anything good to say. They just lost a potential donor, customer, referrer, and sponsor without ever saying a word to me because they couldn’t be bothered to say a word to me.

And imagine the negative PR that I could generate if I was someone who wanted to disclose their identity on this blog or through social media channels—not that one voice is always so influential, but sometimes one voice is so influential. That said, because this experience is so common these days, I fully expect that sharing these thoughts about my experience is not likely to garner much attention or wield much influence. However, all of you potential employers, human resource professionals, hiring managers, etc. who may happen upon these thoughts, my simple request is this:

Be considerate, and if you can’t be considerate, at least be smart. Respond to people when they take the time to contact you, particularly when their contact is invited or requested by your organization.  

A call, an email, a mass communication—you have options. It’s really the least you could do. To do any less demonstrates poor manners, which may cost you in the long run. Frankly, I hope they do cost you, not out of spite, but out of concern for our civilization and our humanity which deserves so much more than the least you can do.

Particularly in these times of economic crisis with millions of talented, responsible, hard-working people un(der)employed by no fault of their own, victims of the unnatural disaster that is our current economy, it behooves all of us to treat each of us with greater consideration and compassion. Have a heart. Refrain from adding insult to injury by making others suffer the indignity of indifference. After all, there but for the grace of God or luck or whatever go I, you, or any one of us. To think otherwise is a self-indulgent luxury for fortunate fools.  

Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.
— Pema Chodren

As I understand it, even God’s most devout believers are not immune to suffering misfortune, and Lady Luck is notoriously fickle. Thus, it seems prudent for all of us to inoculate ourselves from the Compassion Deficit Disorder infecting our society by seizing every opportunity, however seemingly small, to uphold human dignity and extend (un)common courtesy. Kindness, though clearly no solution, is both a preventative measure and partial curative for such systemic disease.

Meanwhile, un(der)employed job-seekers out there, my heart goes out to you. If you ever feel discouraged and unworthy in today’s job market that so frequently disregards your humanity, please know that it’s the inhumane organizations that are unworthy of you. It takes great courage to pursue work opportunities in the face of such pervasive ignorance, contemptible indifference, and unprecedented odds—and yes, I realize and regret that this truth offers little solace to you when you’re struggling to pay your bills. Still, please remember that you’re awesome, and if I could pay for you to contribute your wonderful “you-ness” to the world, I would. Your efforts are nothing short of heroic given the challenges of our time and those who don’t recognize this are sadly out of touch.

As for the remaining well-mannered, kind-hearted, clear-headed professionals among us who continue to observe common courtesy and preserve our humanity, thank you. I’m deeply grateful and count you among those making the world a better place with whom I’d be honored to work. Speaking of which, if you’re someone with an interesting project that might benefit from my involvement, please do get in touch.  I’d love to connect and discuss how I might contribute. And of course, you can be sure that I’ll actually respond to you. Thank you for your consideration.