Used to thinking about email as a wonderful device for connecting with those I want to reach and hear from, I was caught somewhat by surprise the other day to hear the story of a friend who had applied for a job and was notified by email that she did not get it. Had her application been one of thousands submitted electronically and so dealt with, perfunctorily, the same way, I would have understood. But she was first interviewed on the phone, then brought at some expense for a personal interview and even further, as a finalist, brought back for a two-day behavioral assessment and second round of in-person interviews. In short, she had forged a personal connection with the selection team and, she thought, they with her. Why, then, the "you didn't get it" email?
Perhaps this was just an efficient way for the selection committee to handle the matter. Perhaps it enabled them to send a difficult message without having to confront her personally - where they might be asked questions such as "why didn't you select me?" Needless to say she was disappointed at not getting the job - but even more disappointed at the way she was told.
By way of contrast, my sixteen year-old grand-daughter recently decided to break up with her boyfriend. They had been dating for about nine months, and they had enjoyed each other's company. But it seemed time to move on. Familiar with the use of texting by friends to deal with such break-up scenarios, she didn't hesitate not to send the message this way. She did text him - but to ask if they could meet (but did not state what the meeting was for). When they did, she gently explained that she wanted to end their relationship - and why. This was clearly not an efficient way to handle the matter - as someone who spends a lot of time texting, this took time. But I like to think that the young man left not just disappointed but with a measure of understanding and continued respect for her.
Texts, tweets, and emails are ubiquitous. But as technology, they are value-neutral. The values they reflect come from us. Efficiency is one of those values, but it should be weighed against others, such as compassion, sensitivity, quality, trust, and honor, to name just a few. In the case of my friend, it drove out the others. In the case of my grand-daughter, it got ignored for some others.
The promise of such technology is its ability to connect us. The danger is that, despite the technology, we become disconnected from each other, from our emotions, and from our impact on the people and the communities in which we live. There is no shortage of help on how to get value from using the technology, whether through a manual, salesperson, online help function or a friend. But there can be a shortage of help on how to infuse the use of the technology with human values. My grand-daughter got that help at home. If the people who used email to turn down my friend for a job learned sensitivity and compassion at home, they forgot them when they got to work - or became part of a workplace culture that taught them to value efficiency more.
In last year's hit movie, Up in the Air, Anna Kendrick plays a young woman who hits on a great way to help her firm, which is in the business of firing people for clients who do not want to do it themselves. Instead of the time and expense of traveling to do it in person, she suggests the use of computer conferencing. Sit down in front of a Web-cam in your office and fire someone a thousand miles away sitting in front of a Web-cam in their office. Forced to go on the road to see the real (as opposed to the virtual) world by George Clooney, a master at in-person firing, she eventually abandons her idea (and the firm itself) and decides to take a job counseling people who have been fired. She just cannot let efficiency trump emotional connection. As the movie ends, we're left wondering whether she is a lone iconoclast in a world driven by the bottom line or whether there is a way to balance high tech with high touch. There is, if we are not so driven by efficiency that we don't take the time to look for it.