In addition to my PR responsibilities, I am also in charge of the employee hiring process. I field cover letters and resumes, handle initial interviews and administer our agency writing test. Sometimes this work is interesting and even enjoyable. Sometimes it’s baffling. Not to mention irritating.
My most recent HR experience certainly fell into the latter two categories. I had received via e-mail the cover letter and resume of a young woman who had graduated from a local university two months before with a degree in mass communications. As we were looking to fill a summer part-time internship, I invited her — let’s call her “Jane” — to interview.
She performed satisfactorily in the interview, demonstrating confidence in her abilities and familiarity with the agency. But she didn’t really impress me, and while her resume had several internships and showed some relevant experience, I was not in a rush to hire her. So I thanked Jane for her time and asked whether she would agree to take our agency writing test. She said she would and I e-mailed it to her. As always, I did not give a firm deadline to return the test, believing how long it takes an applicant to return the test is a fair gauge of how much she wants the job.
Our writing test has a part where the applicant is asked to write a one-page press release based on about 25 bullet points from which to select content, a PR savvy section where a problem is posed and the applicant proposes a solution, and an editing test where we assess the applicant’s grasp of Associated Press style, basic grammar and spelling, and attention to detail.
The interview was on a Wednesday and I received Jane’s completed test the following Monday — five days later. I looked through it and found it to be a generally lackluster performance, with poor writing, lack of organization, uninspired ideas and a profound inability to edit. I knew I was not going to hire this person, so I shuffled her test to the bottom of my to-do stack.
A couple of days later, Jane sent me an e-mail inquiring after her test results. I felt a little bad about not responding right away, so instead of my usual “thanks for your interest and we’ll keep your resume on file” note, I decided to offer Jane some positive criticism about her test and provide links to Web pages with writing tips and exercises.
As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.
The following day I received an e-mail from Jane — a snark-filled and angry missive questioning my grasp of AP style and ridiculing our agency’s press releases. Jane actually thought that her press release — full of sentence fragment bullet points and poorly organized as it was — still was better than one written by our agency:
Again, I appreciate the critique, but I just wish that if I did have to compare my release with one that your firm formulated, I hoped it would have actually been one that was at least somewhat better.
After I recovered from being gobsmacked, I got angry. I responded to Jane’s critique of my critique with a point-by-point refutation that a colleague who I asked to read it before I sent it characterized as “restrained.” I thought that was the end of it.
Two days later, agency co-owners Andy Newman and Stuart Newman both received an e-mail from Jane that claimed I was harassing her and requesting I be prevented from communicating with her. Her version of our exchange conveniently left out her snarky response.
But wait, there’s more! At the same time, Jane sent me an even angrier, snarkier and, frankly, crazier note than before — which she did not copy to either Stuart or Andy:
I am very surprised that such a “busy” individual as yourself, or as you should be, would even have the time to respond, I guess business is slow- not surprised! especially from a company that has less than a handful of clients. I’m actually glad I didn’t get the job, it seems like with all the “seasoned” or rather “old” professionals your company has, it won’t be around much longer, especially considering all the other younger pr companies out there who actually understand what a concept such as “social media” really is.
I shared all of our correspondence with the Newmans. Andy wrote a brief note to Jane to say that I would not be communicating with her again and that in turn, she should not contact anyone at the agency.
But Jane wrote back two more times, once to thank Andy for handling the situation quickly (probably assuming I was reprimanded) and once more to ask that we dispose of her “portfolio” and not contact the references she included in her resume. Andy did not respond to either e-mail.
Should I have handled it differently? Maybe. I mean here is a young woman woefully unprepared to be a contributing member of a PR agency staff and yet who is incredibly confident, nay, cocky to a fault, regarding her own abilities. That’s why I felt a critique of her test was in order — I don’t think she’d ever been told by anyone that she couldn’t write, neither by her professors nor her employers nor her mom.
In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have sent that second note, except that Jane seemed so pigheaded, continuing to deny what to me was so obvious. And something about having a youngster fresh out of college preach AP style to someone who has been editing professionally for three decades just stuck in my craw.
In any event, she confirmed my decision not to hire her. But that brings up a final point. The South Florida public relations community is not all that big, and Jane doesn’t know how well connected I am in that community.
The cautionary tale here for job applicants is that someone so young should be wary of burning bridges at such an early stage of her career.
Oh, and just because constructive criticsm is free doesn’t mean it’s worthless.