In the Trenches: Could Acme's email gaffe have been avoided?

In this edition of In the Trenches, Acme learns something about the finer points of e-mail expertise.

Through no fault of his own, Terry Hote found himself out of work at the tender age of 48 years. The owner of the plant where he worked outsourced every single function and shuttered the entire factory, tossing 90 people out on the street. Nevertheless, Terry had built a solid history of success in manufacturing operations management during the 20 years he worked there.

His impromptu search for a source of regular income morphed into a full-time detective job that lasted for more than 16 months. Terry became quite adept at ferreting out any job ad that bore some rational relationship to the skills he had to offer. In the job hunt, Terry built a growing library of customized cover letters and resumes that could be fitted to every possible job. Terry became a job-hunting machine.

He had a good feeling when he saw the ad saying Acme was seeking an operations manager for its plant that manufactured high-end plumbing fixtures. It was good that the plant was only one town away from where he lived. This fortunate confluence prompted a diligent online research effort that armed him with the company history, the names and titles of the power structure at the plant, financial reports and some details about Acme’s plant operations. Terry gathered everything he could find on manufacturing ceramic fixtures. He was ready.

He crafted a very special resume version and a hard-hitting, one-page cover letter and, following the instructions precisely, submitted them via e-mail to Acme’s HR manager, Perry Winckkel, well before the published deadline.

Every hiring decision an employer makes is open to attack by a rejected applicant, whose numbers are legion in this downtrodden economy.

Thus began the waiting game. Terry knew that it was only the rare, courteous employer that acknowledges receipt of a job hunter’s resume. Still, Terry had a good feeling about this one. It was too perfect to be true.

About 10 days later, he received an e-mail that bore Acme’s domain name. Eagerly, Terry clicked it open and was surprised to discover it came from Jack Cousey, Acme’s CEO. The e-mail header showed that it was addressed to three other Acme employees (Terry recognized the names from his research). What was most confusing was Cousey’s annotation that read, “Damn. Check this out. I’m not sure what to think about this one. He’s probably an old guy wanting something to do.”

This is all some kind of mistake, Terry thought. So, he waited patiently, but received no more communication from anyone at Acme concerning his job application. After two weeks, he concluded that Acme rejected him simply because of his age. What else could it be? His credentials were good. His skill set matched what Acme was seeking. The pay range he requested was somewhat below market value.

So, like many of the protagonists in this monthly series, Terry filed an age discrimination claim with the state’s employment discrimination agency and another with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sent him a letter saying that he had a right to sue Acme.

How could this situation have been avoided? Is e-mail the best vehicle for submitting a job application? Is it the best for responding to a job applicant? What should be done to ensure that e-mails go where they’re intended to go? Is it the best use of a CEO’s time to get involved in hiring decisions? Should employers show enough courtesy to acknowledge resumes, solicited or not?

A plant engineer says:

This situation could have been avoided if Jack had taken the time to check his e-mail before he sent it. I believe people can become too relaxed and casual in business communications. Jack might receive a costly education in business communications if Terry elects to follow through with a law suit.

I believe e-mail is an acceptable vehicle for submitting a job application but not necessarily the best vehicle. The response to a job applicant should use the same medium by which the application was submitted. In any case, the response should be reviewed carefully by the Human Resources Department before it’s sent to the applicant.

The only way to ensure an e-mail goes where it’s intended to go is to carefully view the address line before sending it on its way. Even then there’s no guarantee that the person who receives it won’t send it to an improper address. We live in a world where little value is placed on checking or double checking our work, especially when it concerns communications by electronic devices. Texting and instant messaging communications have conditioned us to quick responses without much thought. In business, we must train ourselves to refrain from operating this way.

If this is the best use of a CEO’s time, it’s the CEO’s call. If he wants to see the applicants for a position, that is his decision to make. But, I believe a company should only acknowledge solicited applications.

Jeffrey L. Strasser
Bacova Guild
(540) 863-2656
Strasser.Jeff@bacova.com

An academician says:

Yes, e-mail is the way to go in today’s recruitment market. It seems that every company is doing it. And don’t expect a reply to the letter or resume that you send, particularly if the job was posted on the Web. Company recruiters tell me that they might receive as many as 5,000 to 10,000 responses to a job posted on Monster.com or some such site. Most of the people responding don’t have the qualifications, but try to put something in their resume that appears to relate to the job. So, recruiters are inundated with applicants (usually unqualified) and sorting them out is a major problem.

A suggested, and effective, process is to post the job and then have one of the HR people do the first sort, pulling out three to five applicants that seem to have the qualifications. For those not on the final list, you might send them a pleasant rejection e-mail letter. However again, this depends on whether you have the capability to handle the number of applicants. Then, call the short-listed candidates to get a better feel for who they are, where they’ve worked, get some references, what salary they’re expecting, etc. That often narrows the list. Also, check to make sure the information on the resume is accurate — a lot of resumes contain false information. This is usually the time that some other people would get involved, particularly the people to whom the applicants would report.

At this point the process has a couple of alternatives, however, each certainly should involve a face-to-face interview with the candidates and the key people (maybe the CEO) with whom they would be working. For the finalists, the acceptance and rejection should be done by phone.

Following this process should eliminate much of Acme’s recruitment problems and give it a good set of finalists. It would also keep applicants’ e-mail addresses out of the hands of the CEO.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
hjohnso@luc.edu

An attorney says:

Isn't this everyone's worst nightmare — the misaddressed e-mail? With the wonders of modern technology, a slip of the finger or in imprecise glance of an eye can land one in a cyberspace nightmare. Behold Acme.

There are three ways in which this catastrophe could have been avoided. First and foremost, Acme should make its hiring decisions not on the basis of age but on the basis of valid job-related and non-discriminatory factors, such as education, experience and skills.

Second, employers should be extremely careful about what they put in writing, whether that writing is an e-mail, letter, note in the file or diary entry. Anything in writing remains for all time to become evidence that might either help or hurt a company. In addition, employers should be very cautious in deciding which aspects of a situation to put in writing. For example, Terry might have been totally unqualified for the operations manager position at Acme. But rather than reflecting that fact in an e-mail, the CEO chose to be flip and to refer to the fact that he was probably old. This might not have been the sole reason that Terry wasn’t considered — or even one of the reasons. All the CEO had to do to improve the situation was to refer to some legitimate factor. Even a comment like, “Get a load of this guy. He's been out of work for more than 16 months — he's so desperate, he thinks he can do the plant manager's job!” Not a very flattering comment — but a perfectly legal one.

While employers have become savvy enough to know that they need to document an employee's problems that lead to termination, many don't think about the opposite end of the employment relationship. Every hiring decision an employer makes is open to attack by a rejected applicant, whose numbers are legion in this downtrodden economy. Hiring decisions should be documented as carefully as termination decisions, at least with respect to the company's reasons for not hiring an applicant.

Finally, employers need to avoid the “slip of the keyboard” phenomenon. Haste, as the age-old maxim promises, does indeed make waste.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
jbadel@ebglaw.com