A Tale of (Mis)Communication in the Corporate Workplace

This is a tale about poor communication in the American workplace. And why, when companies are struggling and unemployment remains high, we sometimes have no one to blame for our problems but ourselves.
05/20/2010 01:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

This is a tale about poor communication in the American workplace. And why, when companies are struggling and unemployment remains high, we sometimes have no one to blame for our problems but ourselves. This is a long tale. I promise to offer some positive ideas at the end.

The temp recruiter's phone call seemed promising: a financial publishing company, its name not revealed, needed someone to "manage its blog." The company, I was told, uses the hugely popular WordPress, an open-source content-management system, so fluency with it would be crucial. As it happens, my blog, The Clyde Fitch Report, is "powered" by WordPress, and it is indeed a remarkably versatile system. Together with my Web designer, we devised a clean, unique layout in lieu of a prefab template. I have blogged for more than a year using WordPress. My resume states as much. Which is why my name popped up when the temp recruiter scoured her database for a candidate for the job.

More obvious on my resume are my core competencies: journalist, editor, all-purpose writer, author. Obviously blogger, too.

Not that software is foreign. Over time, I have acquired familiarity with many programs, and not just the ubiquitous Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but proprietary software fashioned for specific tasks, projects and companies. One is not only expected to learn new software but to do so on the fly, on the job. I am proud being able to do so. Even though there was little information to go on, I told the temp recruiter that, yes, she could forward my resume to the client. Work is work. Opportunities are opportunities.

A full day passed without a word. The following day, a Friday, the temp recruiter emailed me at 10:30am. Could I start at 11am?

Mind you, there had been no discussion of responsibilities, site location, compensation or -- again -- even the name of the company. Tactfully, I suggested I could start on Monday. After all, we agreed, I needed to fill out some paperwork and to hash out the details.

At 2pm, I was in the temp recruiter's office. Finally I had the name -- impressive -- of the company. Key details were discussed. Most important, I was given a job description. It totaled 73 words. It featured vague phrases -- "a temp to manage their blog," "should have a blog of their own or be a writer," "interface with internal & external writing staff" -- but it was better than nothing. The temp recruiter confirmed it was all the information she had. I was asked to arrive for work on Monday, 9am.

And I did. But the person to whom I was reporting did not. Building security called upstairs. I called my temp recruiter. Waiting, waiting, followed by more calls upstairs, more calls to my temp recruiter. At one point, security, calling the supervisor of the person to whom I was reporting, asked for the number of my temp recruiter at the same time that my temp recruiter, talking to me via cell phone, asked me for the number of the supervisor from security.

Time passed. My temp recruiter called again, this time confirming that the person to whom I was reporting was, in fact, missing in action. Some minutes later, the temp recruiter called again. This time, she assured that the supervisor knew my name. Would security please call upstairs again? Security did. Then I was told the supervisor had no idea who I was or why I was there.

Waiter, I'll have the Kafka Salad, please. Hold the dressing.

The time is now 10:15am. My temp recruiter called yet again, for I was still loitering in the lobby of the building in which I was to have started working 75 minutes earlier. The company, she explained, had a change of heart back on Friday and asked that I start on Wednesday, not Monday. The temp recruiter pleaded that no email, nor any other communication, had been received to this effect. Judging by how earnest she sounded, I suspected this was true. I thanked security for its marathon phone effort and left. The temp recruiter's instructions: return on Wednesday, 10am.

And I did. And the missing person was no longer missing! She turned out to be a lovely young woman in her 20s. Let's call her Maria. She was mildly harried, but very pleasant.

After Maria brought me to my workspace, I spent 45 minutes in a tornado of log-ins and passwords. I also had to call tech support to install the company-preferred browser. At 11am, Maria furnished me with a grand tour of the company's blog -- there are nearly 20 of them, it turns out. There are dozens of contributors to it from within the organization (what remains of its recession-thinned staff) and literally hundreds from without, in a conscious mimicry of the Huffington Post model.

At 11:30am, I was asked to join a conference call with an off-site colleague. Let's call him Buehler. For the next 25 minutes, Buehler spoke without interruption, whizzing by such topics as taking over his job the following week (he's taking a long vacation) and the "importance of diplomacy." What his job was, exactly, he never said.

Buehler did pause long enough to ask if I was up to speed on a certain type of project-management software. Diplomatically, I said no. He then asked if I knew WordPress MU (the initials stand for "multiuser"), an advanced version of the blog software I use for the Clyde Fitch Report. I assured Buehler, who I pictured gasping beneath an oxygen mask, that I could learn it quickly.

Now Buehler began to debate Maria: Should email communication with blog contributors offer generic signatures ("Thanks for your inquiry-- Blogsupport") or should they see specific names they can refer to later on ("Thanks for your inquiry-- Maria")? "Leonard," Buehler asked, "what do you think?" What do I think? I said I thought it would be best to defer to whatever they thought would be best. Remember, this is just two hours into my new temp gig.

At 12:30pm, Buehler emailed me privately on a new topic. "I see no reason you can't write for our blogs," he declared, wanting to know which editor I wanted to meet and when.

At 12:40pm, the managing editor emailed me. He asked if was "the new helper" and where I was sitting? I never heard from him again.

At 1:10pm -- after asking Maria for the location of the men's room -- I was encouraged to leave for lunch. I was also asked to visit human resources for a photo ID to be taken.

By 1:40pm, I was in the office of human resources, where the clerk confused me with a new hire. Boy, was I ever tempted to let her confusion reign! But diplomatically, I explained that I was a temp. It meant a slight paperwork change.

My photo taken, my signature on confidentiality agreements, the human resources person warned me that an ID might take a few days to generate. How would I get into and around the office? Have a nice chat with my old pal in security, she said, and ask him for an "extended pass."

Security, alarmed to see me again, was just relieved not to have to make more phone calls. But alas, there was no such thing as an "extended pass." He did allow me to return upstairs, though, where I now learned that Maria's department would be moving in 48 hours. So we decided I would call her in the morning to get into the office, and would borrow her ID when nature called.

By 3pm, the real contours of the job were crystallizing. The job description had also included phrases like "handling blog requests" and "processing blog requests," but these were euphemisms, clearly, for "tech support." Unfortunately, beyond Maria's 30-minute grand tour at 11am, this was the extent of my training.

I should add that during Buehler's 25-minute speech, he also mentioned "creating documentation" as a secondary focus of my work. What this meant was also fast becoming clear. Each blog contributor is emailed a PDF file with instructions on how to write a post; the document was not just incomplete, but horribly written, with two-letter words like "or" spelled wrong all over the place. Inevitably this led to all kinds of nutty inquires. For example, one internal blog contributor emailed to complain that she forgot her user-name and password and didn't know what to do. Consulting the PDF, I saw that no recovery instructions existed. My job -- as Buehler proclaimed in an email at 3:30pm -- was to write any and all missing documentation by the following Wednesday, when I would take over his job. (Buehler and Maria loved to remind me of this.) I had never written documentation before -- and, very diplomatically, I said as much. But I was game.

Buehler and Maria had yet another definition of "documentation." Decision-makers at this company, it seems, are obstinate -- cheap might be a better word -- when it comes to adequately staffing for 20 or so blogs with more than 1,000 contributors. Every action in the office, from the smallest to the largest, must be accounted for, they said, so their jobs wouldn't be in jeopardy.

In other words, I had to document my documentation with documentation.

No doubt you can sense where this is going. The company's unwillingness to staff appropriately left Maria with a half-dozen jobs, from customer service to tech support to meeting with editors who, she said, handed her lists of people every day that they wanted her to recruit as contributors to the blogs, and she desperately needed help keeping up with legal paperwork and back-end registration issues.

Worse, she told me, there was a chronic issue of blog contributors not actually blogging. I asked her if anyone worked with the contributors to generate ideas. She said she had never thought of that. I asked if any contributors were trained on using the blog. Basically they receive the PDF file, she admitted, and wished good luck.

Like Maria, I am accustomed to going beyond the boundaries of a job description. And the chance to gain a host of new skills is exciting. But I also had to proceed smartly. So, in an email, I asked Buehler if the PDF file was the only document of instructions that blog contributors receive. Not one, not two, but three emails passed between us without him ever answering the question. Sigh. There is always day two, I thought, so I went home at 6:10pm.

And all night I was concerned.

The next morning, 9am, I called my temp recruiter to express those concerns. My resume includes WordPress skills but fundamentally, again, that's not what I do. Even Buehler, in his 25-minute rant, noted that he had read my resume thoroughly. When he email me about contributing to the blogs, he mentioned my reporting background specifically. This job was really about tech support, however, and I feared it was beyond my realm. Without training, I would be sunk. The temp recruiter told me not to worry: Maria had sent her a "fabulous report" on my first day of work.

In the office at 10am, I read an email from the same internal blog contributor who complained the day before that she couldn't remember her user-name or password and didn't know what to do. Now she had another question. This time, I guessed the PDF file might contain an answer. To be sure, I double-checked with Maria, who agreed. Her advice: Send the person the PDF file and say "look it up." After all, she said, Buehler had issued an email dictating that bloggers needed to become "self-service." Leery of writing anything undiplomatic, I asked Maria if maybe, in addition to emailing the PDF file, I could also paste the relevant instructions right into the body of the email. Good idea, she said. Please cc Buehler.

At 10:10am, I received an email from Buehler, but not about the PDF. Visit the project-management software, he said, and start "creating documentation" for the tasks that were "piling up." I took a look at the tasks, quickly. One consisted of three words in quotation marks. That's it. After a quick chat with Maria, she suggested that I call Buehler and ask what the three words mean. I decided I would also convey my concerns to him about "creating documentation."

When I did, Buehler said the following: "Your lack of industry and your lack of initiative is disturbing." I was stunned and apologized. He hung up. Maria, overhearing my call, called Buehler. I called my temp recruiter. Buehler now sent another email: "Nice answer, but you answered the wrong question." This did not exactly reflect well on Maria, who by now was standing beside me and reading Buehler's email. Clearly, she was embarrassed by the whole thing. "We did a terrible job of communicating what we needed," she said. At which point we each agreed this was not the right fit and we shook hands before I left.

From a vague job description to confusion about what day I was working; from zero training to zero direction; from human resources thinking I'm a new employee, not a temp, to the "extended pass" boondoggle; from a rave first-day job review to being attacked for sloth -- what a dispiriting adventure into corporate America this had been. That the corporation in question is in financial journalism made it even more perplexing.

In America, can't we do better than this?

If I were this company's managing editor, I would reevaluate full-time staffing for the 20 blogs and also look at how people communicate. In this case, bad communication wasted time and money.

If I were this company's managing editor, I would also weigh the costs of giving people no training.

If I were this company's managing editor, I would look at other companies that have created bigger, broader, more efficient blogs that can drive revenue and learn my lessons from them. Fast.