Google Duplex: To err is human

Image result for dr smith robot gifs

In early May, Google’s “Duplex” dominated the news (in addition to preparations for a certain UK wedding). Demos of the robo-caller, sounding disarmingly alive while scheduling haircut appointments and dinner reservations, had us humans talking.

Its authenticity was bolstered by a smattering of ums and uhs. All that was missing were a few “likes”, and an upward inflection at the end of sentences — as in, “I want to um, like, make a reservation for Saturday night?” The initial creep out factor for many was high.

Duplex raises a number of ethical questions, because it’s so lifelike. Among them: Should a bot be obligated to identify itself as such, when there’s a human on the other end of the line – especially if the call is being recorded?

A pre-recorded telemarketing message doesn’t necessarily start out with, “This is a recording…”, but then again it’s pretty easy to spot after a few seconds. If the first few sentences don’t tip us off, we realize we’ve been duped once we try asking a question.

Then, we usually hang up.

Duplex is interactive. It can pivot, for example, if the flesh-and-blood hostess replies that there are no tables available at 6:30. It will then inquire about a table for two at 7 p.m.

I’m not a product visionary. I don’t see a two-inch wire and think, “If I bend this a few times, I could use it to clip loose papers together and call it a ‘paper clip’.” But it’s easy to see the utility of a robo-caller that gets mundane tasks done, while sounding authentically human.

So, what if the task isn’t mundane, at least to some of the humans involved?

As I watched the Duplex demos, I flashed back to a job interview from a few years ago. It was a first-round screener — an exercise that doesn’t usually require much prep, but is a way for company and candidate to size each other up. Mostly it’s a forum to assess whether the candidate is fundamentally under/over qualified.

It’s also an opportunity for a candidate to get a first read on cultural fit. Occasionally, companies – especially the “hot” ones – forget this.

Overcoming Your Fear Of The Phone

The aforementioned interview involved a recorded phone screener. I had never heard of such a thing. I went through a 20-minute online “training” to learn how the tool worked, and how the interview would go.

I was issued an applicant ID, and could call at any time within a date range. A series of pre-recorded questions would be put to me, and when I was ready to answer each one I was to press a button and begin speaking at the beep. When I stopped speaking after each answer, the tool would take my silence as a sign I was finished, and move on to the next question.

It wasn’t like a voicemail message that could be re-recorded if I wasn’t happy. I had one shot.

I am not sure why I went through with the interview. I have no clue who, if anyone, even listened to my recorded responses. Because I spent that interview essentially talking to myself, I never got a sense of how it had gone. What’s more, I learned absolutely nothing about the role. There was no way to ask questions.

Here’s what I did learn about the company and its culture:

The company was more interested in checking boxes – “Did she confirm she has 5+ years of experience doing XYZ?” – than in interacting to assess personality and cultural fit.

The corporate culture was not for me. Whether I was, as I suspected, overqualified for the role, the company had demonstrated that employees were just numbers. Widgets.

The company misjudged the balance of power between us. I was interviewing them too, and they bombed.

I can easily imagine Duplex serving as a more sophisticated version of the unfortunate interview tool I experienced. It could certainly help move widgets along the assembly line faster, and at lower cost. But, does it stand to reason that a bot will be as effective at screening out the “bad” fits?

And what if the strongest candidates remove themselves from consideration, because they believe they deserve a flesh-and-blood partner for the interview dance?

I hope companies that ultimately gain access to Duplex technology use it appropriately. Booking a table for Saturday night dinner is a mundane task. The two-sided evaluation of a human being’s fit for a role is not.

This is not to say that a non-bot interviewer cures all ills. I also recall a phone screener where the interviewer – who sounded like a summer intern – read verbatim from a script.

But that’s a story for another post…

Rock’em Sock’em Robots

Fancy Meeting You Here!

Two bored meeting attendees balance pencils under their noses to kill time.While walking to work on Tuesday, I listened to a news story about meetings that has been popping into my mind ever since. At least once each day, I find myself thinking, “Hey this reminds me of that piece on NPR….”

I work for a large company. So, I go to a lot of meetings. A LOT. I guess I should consider myself lucky, though, because they usually last no more than 60 minutes. If I worked at the Ohio Department of Transportation, where meetings often last two hours… well, I guess I would be 50% grumpier by 5 p.m., and my red wine consumption would increase at a corresponding rate.

Steven Rogelberg, who teaches industrial/organizational psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says there are telltale signs that a meeting you are leading or attending sucks, starting with everyone at the table doing something completely unrelated when they aren’t talking, like surfing the web on their phones, preparing for another meeting, or updating Facebook.

I am bit subtler; I put the cap back on my pen. It’s a meager act of protest, but its mine. I’ve never slipped on headphones, but I’ve been tempted.

Most bad meetings have at least one person who dominates, and that windbag completely tunes out only after he/she is exhausted. Like, “I’ve said what I came to this meeting to say, now if you’ll excuse me… TMZ is calling.” Later, when his or her engagement is required, it’s “Can you please repeat the question?” I’m not sure you can blame the meeting leader for such bad behavior.

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, I bet there was a guy who played solitaire during negotiations (the old school kind, with playing cards), and swore up and down that he really was listening. Solitaire just helped him relax and concentrate.

“Seriously, I can do both!”

Hey low-level-self-centered-civil-servant, isn’t that a little disrespectful to whomever invited you here? You accepted the meeting invitation, so pay attention.

DON’T BE THAT GUY.

Rogelberg also contends that many meetings are too long (duh!) and cites Parkinson’s Law, which states that tasks will take us as long as we allow for them. (I have a similar theory about handbags, briefcases and suitcases. Big or small, I’ll always fill them to capacity.)

Parkinson’s Law seems logical, but in my experience it has its limits. Some humans are incapable of resolving any issue – no matter how straightforward — in 30 minutes. They are efficiency’s White Whale. (Actually, I went to a 30-minute meeting on Friday that lasted just 10, and ended with resolution and next steps. The participants were positively GIGGLING with excitement.)

Cartoon: Are you lonely? Tired of working on your own? Do you have making decisions? Hold a meeting!Rogelberg argues that many meetings are not INTENDED to end quickly, or bring about decisions or resolution. In large organizations, they are often used to “diffuse responsibility” and delay making tough choices.

Remember the time you scheduled a meeting for a small team to come to a decision, and the invitation kept getting forwarded? And you eventually had to book a bigger conference room to hold everyone? Yeah, me too.

Bob: “I don’t think we can make this decision without Group A at the table. And Group B will definitely want to listen in.”

Joe: “If members of both Group A and B attend, we’ll need to invite Mary or she’ll be FURIOUS.”

Bob: “But if we include Mary, we should probably also invite her boss. He’s super hierarchical.”

Joe: “Yeah, but he’s on vacation for two weeks.”

Bob: “Guess we’ll have to push the meeting out until next month, then.”

I’d like to believe that someday, corporate America will crack the meeting nut. We’ll establish a magic set of rules for how often meetings can occur, how long they can be, how attendees should participate, and how many people should attend.

Let me guess. To get there, first we’ll need a cross-functional task force that meets weekly…

Dilbert cartoon. Let's have a premeeting to prepare for tomorrow's meeting.

Friendships: Tried or True?

Scene from the Universal Pictures film "Babe", as the title character pig talks gives direction to a group of sheep.
“Babe” and his friends

 

“If you ever win a trip to Hawaii, and it rains the whole time, at least one person you know back home will secretly get some satisfaction from that.”

My mom told me this once, when I was young.  I don’t recall the context of the remark, nor do I know why it has stuck with me for so many years.  As kids we lack the guile and emotional baggage of adults, so maybe the concept seemed so crazy I needed a few decades to decide for myself if it was true. Who would be mean-spirited enough to wish someone a crummy vacation?

I’m now a battle-scarred veteran of life, who is still waiting to win that trip to Hawaii. In the meantime I’ve had opportunities to test my mom’s theory in other ways, and I must admit: she had a point. Of course, our true friends want us to succeed and be happy no matter what. (If you doubt this for yourself, now is probably a good time to reassess your definition of friendship.) Facebook got it right, though; relationships are complicated.

I’m talking to all you single ladies out there.  How often have you seen BFF’s fall out, because one of them starts dating a new guy? Sometimes, she blows off her female friends for the sake of being a “good girlfriend”, which is hurtful and lame, and her friends have every right to be resentful. But often, it’s just a matter of the dynamic changing. What happens when your best single friend — your go-to weekend brunch and movie date — isn’t single anymore? It can feel like you’ve been left behind, and being left behind hurts.

Clasped hands and forearms signifying supportChanges to dynamics at the office can have similar impacts. At my company, employees take a yearly survey to measure our engagement, with the recurring question, “Do you have a best friend at work?” It was confusing at first, but it’s not a suggestion that everyone’s best friend SHOULD BE a colleague. Rather, it’s intended to measure the depth of our workplace relationships, and how many of us has a teammate we believe really has our back.

I’ve blogged quite a few times about my job change last October. Reactions to my seizing a new opportunity were mixed, with good work friends – the ones I often socialize with outside the office – of course being the most enthusiastic and supportive. Other colleagues who had spent much of their careers in the group I was leaving were a bit more… reserved. While warmer wishes would have been welcomed, I didn’t much worry about what those folks thought.  I figure we’re just cut from different cloth. They were not my BFFs at work.

What DID worry me was the impact on relationships with friends at work who had been company in my previous misery. How much enthusiasm could I show for my new job without alienating one of them?  A few years ago, a close friend/colleague and I went through rough patches at work together, and spent many lunches and happy hours commiserating. But when I emerged from my funk before she did, our friendship went south. I’ve often wondered if I seemed insensitive or boastful. If I did, it wasn’t intentional.  I suspect in fact, we just weren’t as close friends as I’d thought we were.

Last week, I joined a particularly happy happy hour, with a group of colleagues who stood by and supported me in last year’s gloomiest days. We were five tipsy ladies, celebrating recent career changes that, without exception, had been positive. We high-fived and congratulated one another, and laughed a little harder and louder than we’d done in the past. Our work war stories lacked the bitter edge they’d sometimes had.

It wasn’t a true test of my mom’s theory because everyone at the table was in a good space personally and professionally – but even if that weren’t the case, I hope those who had found their happy place could have offered encouragement to the ones still struggling, even while celebrating their own good fortune without self-consciousness.  By doing so, they’d be showing there’s light at the end of the tunnel, if nothing else.

After all, isn’t that what friends are for?

Four kids who are friends, sit on a dock with their arms around each others'' shoulders.

Suits Me

Hillary Clinton in various pants suitsI wore a suit to the office today, for the first time in probably 5 years. It was a pants suit – a suit suited to Hillary Clinton, you might say.

Since my work team settled into our new high-tech, low-walled digs earlier this month (we’re all still speaking to one another, by the way), we have withstood regular “tours” of colleagues keen to check out our fancy space. This morning we were scheduled to welcome the granddaddy of all tours, by the biggest of our company’s big wigs. And so, we were expected to dress up.

Years ago I pledged myself fully to business casual, and so have only two suits tucked away in my closet. Trying them on last Friday evening was a nail biter. If they no longer fit, I would be spending my weekend shopping, instead of Olympics-watching while the soothing rain beat against my windows. Luckily, everything buttoned, snapped or zipped as intended, and my cocooning weekend was saved.

On this morning’s commute to the office, I had flashbacks of living in Manhattan after college, and riding the E train to work. We were packed in like veal, and condensation ran down the bus windows while perspiration ran down me. As I suffered, I remembered how happy I was to say goodbye to pumps and pantyhose, and layer-upon-layer of dry clean only. Denim breathes, am I right?

In New York, you’d have to look closely to spot the difference between Friday attire, and what we wore on every other workday. Business casual at a bank only meant your blazer and skirt could be made of different fabrics. Jeans at an office? Not unless you were paid to clean it.

Later, when I moved to San Francisco and joined a large brokerage firm, business casual had morphed a little – but some in senior management fought the trend. Even after it was officially sanctioned corporate-wide, the head of my division prohibited shirts without collars for men. I don’t care if you were wearing a silk Armani t-shirt under a cashmere sweater… if he spied you, he sent your boss a curt email threatening to send you home next time.

Twenty years later, nearly everyone I know is casual, every day. So it’s strange, when you think about it, that interacting with the C-suite still means full business attire. As one of my teammates pointed out, we ride the elevators and share the lobby with these executives; surely they’ve seen what we usually wear?

(Besides, I’m not sure I stood up from behind my desk during the tour; I could have been wearing culottes and high-tops under there, for all they knew.)

I suppose one explanation is, formal business attire is a known quantity. Instruct a team to wear it, and everyone will understand: men in ties and jackets, women in dresses or suits.  But business casual can run the gamut from polished… to looking like something best worn to clean out the garage.  Remember interns in flip-flops at the White House?

Business casual is here to stay – it’s too late to un-ring the bell.  And I’m very happy about that. It saves me a bundle on dry cleaning. But at least in my industry, putting on the dog for senior management isn’t going away either — and that’s OK. We have one more tour this week, and I’ve got one suit left before I have to repeat today’s ensemble.

Come Wednesday, I’ll be getting my denim on.

Office Cubism: A Survival Guide

Traditional office cubicles

One of my favorite movie quotes comes from When Harry Met Sally. The two visit their friends Marie and Jess, who have just moved in together. They arrive to find the couple embroiled in a heated argument over a coffee table that Jess brought to their new apartment. When Jess defends his aesthetic sensibilities, Marie sets him straight.

“Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor, but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.”

Research has shown that we humans give ourselves more credit than we deserve, thanks to a phenomenon known as illusory superiority. In studies, most subjects – regardless of their grasp of basic arithmetic – describe themselves as above average in terms of IQ, work performance, driving, etc.

To paraphrase Marie: We all can’t possibly be better than average. By the same token, we all must fall victim to illusory superiority from time to time, right?

Friends and colleagues who know me well can attest: I need peace and quiet to concentrate. In high school and college, I was a library girl. I couldn’t even study with background music. So, it’s probably no surprise that I am finicky about noise levels at work. Stuff that other folks can tune out… I just can’t. Because I realize my needs are a little outside the norm, I usually keep my lips zipped. I make mental notes, though, that sometimes wind up on Facebook. Mmm hmm. (No names, I promise.)

I’ve had cube neighbors who carried on conversations in baby talk, watched YouTube videos on their laptops without muting them, clipped their fingernails at their desks (snip, snip), cursed out their spouses or cable TV providers by phone… I could go on. I wonder how many of those folks would describe themselves as above-average residents of cube land?

Or what if the person with a case of illusory superiority is (gasp!)… me? Well, I am about to find out.

An example of open cubes, courtesy of Tab Office Resources
Photo: Tab Office Resources

This week, my work team began planning our move to another building – and a space with an open floor plan favored by tech start-ups: limited offices, low cubicle walls and smaller desks for the sake of closer collaboration.  The new space is very cool, with some hi-tech amenities. Still I have to admit, I’m a little nervous about it.

A recent New Yorker piece titled The Open-Office Trap warns of everything from lost productivity to increased stress to health risks from sitting in such close quarters. The article also points out that less privacy and more shared space mean everyone has less control over their environments. When surrounded by four high cube walls, you can decorate how you like and generally be as messy or neat as you want to be — but when your next door neighbor risks a paper cut from the teetering pile of papers on your desk, your pack rat tendencies become a community issue.

Our team drafted an etiquette guide for our new space. Nothing extensive, just a few reminders about being respectful, discreet and volume-conscious in our new home. In case that fails, I’ve also splurged on a pair of noise-canceling headphones. (I’m the man, yes I am.)

I figure the team will hit some rough patches, but I have my fingers crossed that as a group we’ll all defy the odds – and the math – and be better than average at the open-office stuff.

If it turns out I don’t land in the upper half of the cube mate bell curve, I’ll still have my above-average driving.

You may be an excellent driver, but I’m even better.

All The Rookie Moves

Goldfish jumping from one fishbowl to another.
Photo: K&J Communications

How long does it take for a new job to no longer seem new?  For the rookie on the team to no longer feel like a fish out of water? I can’t say precisely, but I know it takes more than one day.

Today was Day One in my new position, and I am exhausted. Awake half the night thanks to a wild windstorm that knocked out power to parts of the Bay Area, I dragged myself into the shower this morning… where my shower rod inexplicably collapsed. Water everywhere, wet shower curtain and liner underfoot.  This was not on my morning agenda.

My bus was late and crowded, and as I’ve previously shared, I had no badge to enter my floor in my new building. I only managed to slip in without being late on my first day, because I decided against ironing any of my clothes this morning.

I have a new job I’m really excited about – or I will be, once I can start doing it. Today was all about typical “getting settled in” stuff.  My laptop was ordered weeks ago, but has not yet arrived, so I was forced to use a loaner – which took more than 30 minutes to boot up and log on to.  This will be a daily occurrence, until the new computer shows up.

My iPhone arrived, and I spent more than three hours trying to activate it. Note the word trying here. Tomorrow, I’ll climb right back on that horse and hopefully have more success.  The experience almost makes me long for my old blackberry.  Or a Palm Pilot.  Even a Franklin Planner.

My predecessor left a pretty messy desk for me to clean, and only three of my moving boxes arrived this morning – the fourth is MIA – which means I am only partially unpacked.

I have a new office phone number for the first time in nine years, that I haven’t yet memorized, and I did not have time to set up a new voicemail message for it. I was almost successful in setting up my wireless headset, though: I can listen to conference calls, but unfortunately no one can hear a word I’m saying.

Logically, of course, I know all this will pass. By next week, my desk will be clean and organized, all my technical devices will be working properly and I won’t need to ask directions to the restroom or kitchen.  But it was incredibly frustrating to spend nine hours at work, without successfully completing even one task I started.  This must be how members of Congress feel. (Boom!)

There is some good news: I met with my new boss this morning, and discussed some high level deliverables for the rest of 2013. I have a good idea what’s expected of me, and I like that.

Even better, after work I got a haircut that turned out OK, and still had time to buy and install a shower rod. That means tomorrow, I can wake up and shower… and start the whole process all over again. I may even have time to iron.

Pray for me?

A Chunk Of Change

Photo of Von Trapp children singing "So Long, Farewell", Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music
“So Long, Farewell”, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music

Today was my last day in the division of my company that I’ve worked in for nearly 10 years. Ten years! I am looking forward to my new role doing something quite different, but it still feels strange.

I am someone who is energized by change, so I have no regrets — but personal goodbyes often throw me. And this wasn’t even a BIG goodbye, or a LONG goodbye. My new building is only a few minutes’ walk from my old one, so I can grab lunch or drinks with friends there any time – until they forget all about me, that is.

Last night, my boss generously organized a small going-away happy hour for me, and I had a subtle case of butterflies beforehand. As a rule, I don’t like being the center of attention, so that was part of it. I was also conflicted: What if tons of people showed up, and I had hours and hours of small talk ahead of me? Even worse, what if NOBODY showed up?

In the end, the group was big enough to keep the conversation flowing, yet I only had to run through my new job description once, after which I had time to stuff my face with pub food and wash it down with Newcastle Brown. I was even able to leave early enough to do laundry before crashing in my PJs, in a carb coma. And when I weighed myself this morning, I’d only gained three pounds! (Ah, the joys of partying in one’s 40s.)

I’ve determined that some of my finest hours in a job come after giving notice, because based on personality tests like Gallup’s StrengthsFinder — I’m highly responsible. I obsess about leaving everything in perfect order, all tied up with a bow. Unfortunately, the stress that accompanies that usually manifests itself as flightiness and forgetfulness, and I end up losing the security badge to my office building.

You can’t make this stuff up – every time I have changed jobs, I have lost my security badge. I can hang on to the same badge for YEARS, but sometime during my 2-3 weeks’ notice, I will misplace it. Two jobs changes ago, I was also moving apartments so my life was insane – and I lost multiple badges in just a few weeks. The security office in my building threatened to start charging me a per-badge fee. It was that bad.

So in keeping with tradition, today I had to confess to the administrative assistant for my new team that he’d need to order me another badge, because I’d lost mine. In other words, I pissed off the office admin before I even started. Excellent!

Find new job: CHECK! Participate in one happy hour, with ambivalence: CHECK! Lose security badge: CHECK! So I guess that means my job here is done, and it’s time to start a new job… over there.

By Monday I’ll be ready, so bring it on? No wait, that’s not right. I mean, BRING IT ON.

Job Searching Highs and Lows

An exhausted woman falls asleep at her desk, amidst paper and notebooks.I recently accepted an offer for a new position at my company, and will transition to the role in one week — but I am still tying up a few loose ends from my months-long job hunt. To start, I am closing out a partnership with a resume writer I hired to develop both a resume that would stand up against the dreaded scanning software used to screen applicants, and a new LinkedIn profile.

Using a resume writer was not a decision I took lightly. It can be a big investment, as well as time-consuming. I did my research, sifting through a long list of vendors and methodically rejecting those who didn’t have the right accreditations, a Better Business Bureau rating, good references or yelp reviews, and a compelling website. I also eliminated writers who collaborate with clients only by email – a questionable approach in cases like mine, involving a shift in career direction. Finally, I required a brief introductory meeting with a writer before I would commit, to test out our creative chemistry. (Remarkably, some resume writers refuse to do this.)

I settled on my guy, and prepared to pay his sizeable down payment, then stumbled across the job opportunity that next week will become My New Job. I knew I was a good fit for the role, but there was no guarantee I’d come out on top. What if I put my resume writing on hold, and spent weeks interviewing, only to lose out to another candidate? With the holidays approaching, that could mean pushing my search into 2014. 

Enter Murphy’s Law: Based on my personal history, I had a hunch that once I plunked down cash to begin the process, my job search would take off. And it did.  In fact – I kid you not — I accepted the job offer a mere two days before I approved the final version of my resume. Suddenly, I felt all dressed up, with nowhere to go. 

This is the first time I’ve had my resume professionally written, so I don’t know if my experience was standard — but it was exhausting. So much self-reflection! There were multi-page questionnaires focusing on my strengths, interests, work style, accomplishments and fundamental values, which I spent several hours each evening completing, until I collapsed – emotionally drained – into bed.  There may also have been a bit of gentle weeping.

I’m not sure all the information I provided made it into my resume, but the introspection and rereading of old performance reviews turned out to be great interview prep – an ancillary benefit I wasn’t expecting. 

Now, the writer and I have moved on to my LinkedIn profile. For better or worse, as more recruiters adopt LinkedIn as a tool, a trend has emerged that one’s profile must be different from (yet not contradict) one’s resume. No more cutting-and-pasting. Thus, a new industry is born.

That said, in some ways LinkedIn still has a touch of the Wild West to it. There are profile photos of children, pets, and stuffed animals, as well as glamorous pics of female subjects that are just one spaghetti strap shy of a boudoir shot. Occasionally you will even see a profile photo of someone doing something incredibly dumb – wearing a red foam clown’s nose, or making the “rock on” hand gesture – presumably to appeal to recruiters from The Improv club?

Image for "Photo Not Available"Some LinkedIn members don’t have any profile photo at all, which reminds me of the sad “photo not available” graphic in high school yearbooks. Generally speaking, kids without yearbook photos were not the coolest kids. So, invest in a professional head shot, guys.

For a brief period, I subscribed to LinkedIn Premium for Job Seekers – a service purported to boost one’s chances of landing a job. I never really understood how most of its features would benefit me, though. For example, the service provides detailed information about anyone who views your profile.  Yes I’m nosey, but why would I want to see a list of people who checked me out on LinkedIn and said, “Meh, I’ll pass”?

Job Seeker Premium also has a private LinkedIn group, with a members-only message board. Some of the posts are helpful, others are just plain odd. Quite a few posts ask how to shut off the Premium service, which isn’t exactly a strong endorsement. It does, however, prove that the Job Seeker Premium message board is censorship free!

I’ll be thrilled to conclude the resume/profile writing process, and launch the output online for the world to see. For better or worse, these days professional networking is an ongoing activity, rather than something done only when you are actively seeking a job change.

Thankfully, networking doesn’t involve interviewing – possibly the most frustrating, demoralizing part of the job quest. Another day, another blog topic…      

Anyone have tales from depths of job search despair to share?  (No gentle weeping permitted, though.)

Giving Up My Day Job

Professional woman reading career section of a newspaper.
Photo credit: Getty Images/George Doyle

I feel like I haven’t posted to In Write Field in weeks. Hang on – it HAS been weeks. Two and a half weeks, to be exact.

When I started blogging nearly two years ago, I set a goal to post at least bi-weekly and generally stuck to that. (At the end of 2012 I had blogged EXACTLY 100 times. How’s that for follow through?) More recently, I guess I just fell out of the habit of blogging, and there’s a reason for it…

Most of my non-working hours in 2013 have been devoted to job hunting. “The search” was all-consuming, exhausting — and for a while, maddeningly fruitless. So now that I have at last received (and accepted) a job offer, and my imminent departure from my current position is public knowledge, I can finally blog about it.

I’ve been squirreling away material, with no public outlet for my frustrations and amusing anecdotes. Now, I have a few things to get off my chest.

My last three jobs have been with the same large financial services company, and it has been nearly 10 years since I conducted an external job search. The process has definitely changed. When I graduated from college – in the dark ages known as “pre-internet”– I decided to try my hand at public relations in New York. Perhaps eager to bump me off the gravy train, my father bought me a P.R. directory as a gift.  It listed every agency in North America, its location, size and client list, and the names of its senior management. Each day, I would zero in on several firms in the directory, pick a few executives’ names, TYPE a cover letter to each, and send it by mail along with my resume. Protocol dictated I make follow-up calls no more than five days later.

Resume inside a bottle.Networking? Back then, networking was for electricians. Sure, we all kept our ears to the ground.  We asked friends to watch for openings at their firms. The very creative among us even scoured alumni directories for someone who might take pity on them. But mostly, a job search essentially meant cold calling.

A few years later, when I finished graduate school, there was a greater emphasis on nurturing alumni connections – yet job hunting was still mostly paper based, consisting of letters of introduction, requests for informational interviews and the ubiquitous three-ring binders filled with hard-copy resumes. Binders full of women… and men!

Now candidates and recruiters have LinkedIn, which has in turn spawned an industry around LinkedIn profile writing. Oh, and let’s not forget behavioral interviews. (I’ve heard we have Google to thank for those.)

One of my favorite behavioral questions, found online:

Q: Do you listen? Give an example of when you did or when you didn’t listen.

A:  Huh?

All topics for another day, and another blog post. See what I mean? Job searching is like breaking rocks – but now I have so much material!

Rise Above It: Staying Grounded In An Escalation-Happy World

Two arguing children stick their tongues out at one another.Gather ’round, workers of the world.  Today I am voicing my exasperation with behavior that has lately been chapping my hide: superfluous escalations. Corporate America is stinking with them

Don’t get me wrong, escalation can be warranted, like when a project team has tried every avenue of negotiation and bargaining to resolve a difference of opinion but has reached an impasse.  Raising the discussion up to more senior leadership can break the logjam.

On other (rare) occasions, when a rogue colleague is having a toxic effect — proving immune to charm, logic, reason, and pleas for civility and partnership — a constructive chat with his/her manager can be a reasonable course of action.

What a pity that many workplace escalations do not resemble either example.  Instead, they are little more than tattling, with some lipstick smeared on to pretty things up.

Such tattling takes many forms, but is usually based on the perception that escalation is the surest path to “yes”.  Hoping a colleague will take on a particularly nasty task that falls outside his job description?  If you ask him, he could say “no” so why not just head straight to his boss to get buy-in?  It may alienate and disfranchise your colleague, but don’t worry — if he gets huffy you can always escalate!

Sometimes it is less about speed than effort.  You could invite Sally to coffee to iron out your differences, but resolving conflict is so awkward and time-consuming, and a trip to Starbucks is a long walk in those three-inch heels of yours.  Meanwhile, Sally’s boss’s email address is so handy…

Tattling-type escalations are part of a zero sum game.  They are not meant to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, and move things forward, but to score a “win” by excluding the opposing party from the conversation.

Over the course of my career, I’ve determined that organizations where escalations run rampant have one thing in common: manager overreaction.

Humans are hardwired to find the path of least resistance, and keep to it – like lab rats that memorize the quickest route through a maze to reach the Velveeta.  Likewise with managers who fail to react thoughtfully to escalations.  They set a precedent, and reward the behavior until it is pervasive.

A few years ago, a colleague complained that a member of my team, P., was stepping on her toes on a project.  She was frustrated, and wanted me to set P. straight.  “Have you shared your concerns with her?” I asked.

Clearly this was not the response my colleague was anticipating.  “No I didn’t tell HER.  I’m telling YOU!  You are her MANAGER.”

I didn’t bite.  I suggested that the two at least try to work out their differences without my intervention.  And guess what?  I never heard another complaint.  They may have butted heads from time to time, but they sorted it out.  The project launched successfully, and the futility of tattling to me as a first resort was established.

In some organizations, consensus is king… at the expense of constructive conflict, which is a natural byproduct of workplace diversity, innovative thinking and healthy debate.  Fear of escalation can become punitive, so workers go into self-preservation mode by playing it safe.

What do you think, workers of the world?  Do you agree that workplace escalations are on the rise?  If so, what’s causing it?  How can organizations better encourage professional adults to collaborate and negotiate, rather than tattle?

Your ideas are welcome, no escalation required.