This is the second installment in the pathetic saga of my short-lived employment at a New York City university. I recommend that you read the previous article so you will have the full story.
There is something that I need to explain. It’s a bit complicated and I readily admit to probably not understanding the full dynamics myself but, to the best of my knowledge, this is the back story.
New York City wants to be the major tech hub in the country. Nothing wrong with that. In order to achieve that goal (I actually believe that I heard on the news last week that NYC is, in fact, Number 3 in the country for tech!), a multi-million dollar non-profit/fund public-private partnership was created, funded by the federal, state and local governments, to provide funding for programs with the mission of advancing tech in New York. Again, nothing wrong with that. But here is where things get strange:
One of the programs is the program that I was hired to work for as a career coach. Career coaches focus on “soft skills” such as resume and cover letter writing, networking and interviewing. Additionally, there are teachers offering courses and guidance when it comes to the “hard skills,” the actual tech knowledge and how to do a “technical,” as opposed to a “behavioral” interview. Those courses are “industry-inspired” meaning that tech companies have told the program what they are looking for in college graduates. The purpose of the program is to get graduates paid internships or full-time positions. The tech companies informed the program organizers what skills – languages, platforms, etc. – they require and graduates are supposed to have those skills when they graduate.
Here’s the not-so-funny part. The university has Computer Science departments. One would think that those departments would be teaching students what they need to know to get internships and jobs. Apparently not. If they were, there would be no need for the program. So the program offers “industry-inspired” (my words, I forget the actual term) courses. But, as it was explained to me, those courses are not recognized by the university. In other words, this government-funded university program is offering classes for which students receive no academic credits. It is as though a non-accredited trade school has been created within the framework of an accredited university.
Bottom line: Hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars are going to a university that does not prepare its students for the job market and for a specific program, designed to overcome that flaw, for which the students receive no academic credits. Why not just have the computer science departments train students so they will have necessary skills to, I don’t know, get jobs?
(For the record, one of my responsibilities would have been to reach out to the computer science departments to see if it would have been possible to have them recognize our courses, as well as to work with college career counseling services to see if we could standardize our “soft-skills” development activities.)
If you are confused, get in line – behind me! I was here first.
So now you have the entire background.
Having read the previous article you know of the sexual harassment charges. I discovered the details on a Tuesday. That Thursday, I gave a talk to 14-15 students on Networking. On Friday my boss, who was in attendance, wrote me up. This is what he wrote. The only changes I have made are to delete anything that would identify the program or the people involved. I do not want this to become about individuals. The problem is not the people, it’s the mentality. That is what needs to change. These articles are not an attack on my former colleagues but on the political correctness mentality of which, frankly, they are also victims.
I sat in on your Networking workshop lecture (evening, August 24th, 2017) and appreciated your enthusiasm and a good deal of your content. I know you worked hard to try and adjust the last version to better match students and what you thought they needed.
However, there were several aspects of your presentation that worried me. Their inclusion was even more worrisome given yesterday’s extensive discussion of how you needed to be extra thoughtful and careful about your choice of words and topics – regardless of your intent – following the recent HR scuffle. I will explain what I mean below.
I was struck by at least four instances which could easily be seen as sexist, culturally insensitive, or religiously inappropriate. It seemed as if you did not realize how they might be interpreted or misinterpreted.
I never said the man was rude. The “HR scuffle” to which he referred was what I wrote about in the previous article. As for comments being “interpreted or misinterpreted,” I have literally given scores of speeches over the years to groups including every possible demographic. I always begin my speeches/talks, including the one I gave to the students, in the same exact way. First, I ask attendees to shut off their cell phones and, second, I tell them to feel free to interrupt me. I explain I have no problem stopping to answer questions or to respond to comments. In fact, I like it because it makes for a better presentation and, of course, avoids misinterpretations. Apparently, the boss did not hear that. To be fair, he may have been bringing chairs into the room. But the students heard and while they did interrupt, I don’t recall them interrupting about any of the following:
1) I will start with the most obvious one. You used [a] slide with a cherubic face and a title including the word heavenly. Not great but probably not over the line. But then you said something along the lines of “God gave us/you two ears and a mouth.” Although I agree with your point about all of us, students included, needing to listen twice as much as we speak, I cannot reiterate strongly enough that we should not mention God in our professional capacities. It is not necessary and it is a red-flag topic as creed covers Atheism as well as other believes [sic] which may be at variance with what you said.
This one I had to read a couple of times. He agreed with my point but objected to my mentioning God because atheists don’t believe in God! Let’s do a little ad absurdum.
As we all know, there is a movement today to remove history from the South. Specifically, monuments to, among others, General Robert E. Lee, are being removed. I read history. General Lee was a great general. If memory serves, Lincoln wanted him to stay with the Union. (I even think there was talk of offering him command of the Union Army!) He refused. He was a Son of the South. I have read the autobiographies of Grant and Sherman and I do not recall them ever saying anything negative about the man. He was an honorable soldier fighting for a dishonorable cause. To the best of my knowledge neither according to the standards of his day, nor the standards of ours, did he permit the men under his command to commit any war crimes. He had the misfortune of serving the wrong side. And now the Political Correctness (PC) Police literally want him removed from history. Out of sight, out of mind.
But he is not alone. Christopher Columbus is also on the chopping block. Technically, the man never set foot on the American continent. But he led the way for Europeans to come here. And when they arrived they (unintentionally) brought with them diseases that killed hundreds, if not thousands of inhabitants. And, of course, eventually, and intentionally, the descendants of the original settlers brought genocide. Of course, Columbus was long dead, but still, he led the way so he is, according to the PC Police, responsible so, let’s get rid of the statues, the circles, the avenues, the streets, the roads… and the university?
But we can’t stop there. According to no less of authorities than Barack Obama and John Kerry, the greatest danger facing the world today is climate change/global warming. And it is caused my man! What is it that men (and women) are doing? Polluting! And how do they pollute? By industry. And why do we have all of these polluting industries? Because of electricity. And who, literally, electrified the world making industrialization possible. The devil himself, Nikola Tesla. So why aren’t the PC Police going after him? After all, he’s as much to blame for climate change as Columbus was for genocide.
Ad absurdum. I may have offended atheists. I guess I was lucky I was only fired and not taken out and shot!
Sin Number Two:
2) You showed an image of a person receiving a business card with two hands and brought up the subject of cultural sensitivity. That’s great and we talked about this concept in our last review. However, your presentation left much to be desired. Essentially, you explained that there are different traditions surrounding business cards based on race and/or cultural origin. So far, no foul. I did some research and found that using two hands to accept and receive business cards in indeed widely documented as the recommended etiquette for business people working in particular countries including Japan and China.
Unfortunately, you did not provide that critical context. You never limited or circumscribed your statements to “when traveling to relevant geographic areas” or “only in situations where you clearly know the origin and preferences of the individuals with whom you are networking”. So what students and I ended up hearing was that if someone was Asian then they are expected to either give out business cards with both hands or receive them as such. Asian is a dangerously blanket term whenever talking about behaviors / stereotypes given the vast number of countries and peoples that may consider themselves Asian. Plus what about people that regard themselves a [sic] fundamentally Asian but have happily adopted the practices of their current country of residence, like America. For them this statement might be doubly culturally insensitive. Honestly, even I felt offended when I paused to parse what you had said. After all, I regard myself as Asian, but I happen to be an American citizen and I have never thought about giving out business cards in this double handed fashion.
If you were advising students how to handle networking with international visitors then [sic] a much more specific set of statements might have been appropriate. But for our … diverse undergraduate students from XYZ, there’s little need to address this specific concern. They are unlikely to be travelling [sic] abroad for networking or business and
I honestly don’t even know where to begin with this one. First we have a Godless society and now we have a nationless/raceless/cultureless society?
We have students from around the world. They are in IT. IT is probably the most international of all industries. Students are going to be attending networking events. News flash: New York City is an international city. I once heard someone say that there are180 languages spoken here. This is not about their “traveling abroad,” it’s about them going around the corner to a tech event where they will meet people from around the world. “…few NYC events, if any, are so international or formal that the students would require this level of care / depth of knowledge.” Sorry, boss, you are wrong. I have been to many that are just that. As a matter of fact, half of my former students now follow me on LinkedIn and I recently invited them to attend just such a networking event.
If I may be permitted a relevant aside: An article this long has to be carefully proofread. A break is necessary. I just took one. I went to a Small Business Expo in mid-town Manhattan. If was not industry specific. After I checked-in I walked straight ahead. And who were at the first row of tables? Representatives of the governments of Pakistan, Nepal, Barbados, Belgium, Iceland, China, Sri Lanka and, around the corner, Turkish Airlines. But let’s get back to my lecture:
I chose to focus on the exchange of business cards because I have seen it happen hundreds of times. Even with my Asian students, when we would role play, they always took my card with two hands. If he had bothered to interrupt me and voice his concerns (more on that in a moment) I would have explained and expanded. For example, I would have mentioned the fact that Orthodox Jewish women, as a rule, do not shake hands with men, and Orthodox Jewish men, as a rule, do not shake hands with women. So the culturally appropriate thing to do is to not offer your hand but to take the lead from them.
In any presentation, there is a time limit and the need to eliminate topics/examples. The exchange of business cards suited my purposes. I said it scores of times and never has anyone been offended.
As for his comment about Asian Americans, I cannot believe they would be offended by someone presenting their business card to them with two hands and, if they took the initiative and handed their business card to someone with one hand, what’s the problem? You respond in kind.
Sin Number Three:
3) Touching and personal space. You said that outside of shaking hands, there is no need to touch anyone during an interview or networking situation. Awesome! But then you kept going. You added an aside about gender differences with a blue/red or blue/pink slide. You talked about how sexes interpreted body proximity differently. You talked about men on men and men on women and women on women dynamics. You talked about how men might worry that approaching a woman might be considered hitting on her. I’m not even going to delve into whether or not these views are broadly accepted by the scientific community or not. Simply put, attempting to address complex gender issues in this context was NOT needed. Some individuals – including students 18-24 yrs of age of both genders- might see this as a sexist statement.
Similarly, you also spoke about how men and women learn differently – something about rate of speech and conceptual understanding, the exact details escape me. You did mention that they all do reach the same level of achievement. Even so, these kinds of statements – whether or not they are broadly supported by the scientific establishment, are highly risky and easily offend people. There was recently a massive well publicized issue with Google about statements made about the difference between men and women with regard to programming. You’re talking to a mixed group of college students studying computer science and our mission is to encourage diversity and the hiring of under-represented groups in the high-tech field. Why did you bring this up? How is this relevant to networking? I was shocked when you started talking about this subject and considered interrupting you just to get you to move off of this topic but I didn’t want to undermine you as a teacher. Bruce, this kind of exploration of possible differences between the sexes does not contribute to the topic and definitely moved into the realm of very easy to be misinterpreted as sexist.
Again, I have given this talk countless times. And, as I explained to the students, in the past I have said that crazy thoughts go through people’s minds. I gave the example of men thinking that women will think they are “hitting” on them. I related the story that once when I said that in a presentation, one woman doubted that I was correct. Immediately, no exaggeration, 50 hands went up. The men confirmed it and the women told about their phobias.
I knew my audience because the majority were my students. I had met with all of them. With maybe one exception, they all admitted to being shy. Networked scared them. It does most people. That was the context in which I was speaking. I was talking about overcoming shyness. In fact, I had given my five rules for overcoming shyness. If the boss had raised his concerns, I would have been happy to address them.
As for the differences between men and women, I made it clear that my comments were based on lectures I had attended. Men and women are different. Be aware of the messages you might inadvertently be sending by your body language and not just your words. I gave some concrete examples. I stand by them. And, unlike the idiot from Google, and as the boss clearly noted, I made it clear that while men and women process information differently, we all wind up in the same place. So this is about process not end results. I never said that one gender was better than another. Different means different, not better or worse.
But the worst part of the letter, and the one that, frankly, I believe, should disqualify him from overseeing a university program, is when he wrote, “I was shocked when you started talking about this subject and considered interrupting you just to get you to move off of this topic but I didn’t want to undermine you as a teacher.” Interrupting a teacher undermines them?!? NO! Interrupting a teacher is how students learn. It is how teachers improve. Interrupting a teacher makes them a better teacher. Interrupting a teacher makes for a better class/presentation. My best classes/presentations have been those when students/attendees challenged me. Sometimes I “won,” sometimes they “won,” but in reality, we all won because we all learned from the exchange. We learned how to challenge. We learned how to respond. And we learned about the subject matter. “Interrupting a teacher undermines them?” Disgraceful.
The funny thing is that that is the only part of the letter that really bothered me. The rest is so ridiculous I do not know whether to laugh or cry. But not understanding the role of a teacher? Sorry, that can’t fly.
And now for my final sin:
4) You told a story about how you had received a real cover letter, I believe from a client, after describing yourself as an executive recruiter and not just a XYZ career coach. Then you explained how this cover letter was filled with excessive self-congratulations and was hilarious. You stated how you posted this letter and then revised your statement saying you changed the name of the individual before posting it on linked-in [sic]. Then you highlighted how many hits it had got and how funny it was. I was saddened to hear you say this. One of the things we treasure at XYZ is preserving the privacy and confidentiality of students to the absolute best of our ability. I imagined myself as one of your students. Perhaps someone with a really bad cover letter. Would what I wrote be published publically and mocked? Is this how you would treat me? What you thought of as a harmless story about how not to write cover letters really could easily come across as a red-flag to our students regarding your perceived near total disregard for privacy and sensitivity as a career coach.
This was told in the context of a slide showing the icons of various social media sites. I was explaining what we were not going to cover. My lecture was about real-world networking, not virtual-world networking. But I am something of a LinkedIn expert and mentioned an awful cover letter that I had received, not from a client or candidate but just “blind.” I had posted it on LinkedIn as a “photo” and the number of views within a short period of time was staggering. I used it as an example of the impact of LinkedIn.
Now if the boss had interrupted me it would have been an occasion to discuss confidentiality. I would not have told the students that the representative of our funder has access to their personal information – something that is truly unique and, I believe, totally unacceptable. Maybe he was worried that I would have spilled the beans, so to speak. But that’s conjecture and I want to stick to the facts.
If he had interrupted I would have thanked him and assured everyone that I had removed any identifiable information from the letter. I would have explained that that is standard operating procedure on LinkedIn. But I then would have done something that I chose not to do: I would have expanded and talked about the relationship between confidentiality and networking. These are all young people just getting started in their careers. But they may have been interested in knowing that once they have a job, and want to leave it, there will be an inverse relationship between networking and confidentiality. In other words, the more you network the more likely your boss will find out that you are looking to leave. A missed opportunity…
I hate having to write this long letter. You probably hate receiving it. The last thing I want to do is once again bring up another facet of these same issues. I know you are eager to help students and you are now deeply concerned about doing so in an appropriate way. And as your manager it is my responsibility to help you do so.
I hope this email does not just clarify my serious concerns about parts of your presentation but also makes you supremely aware again of how what you say can be offensive, misperceived as offensive, or just inappropriate in the context of XYZ and how critically important it is for you to exercise much more care as a professional in these current circumstances.
I cannot say I look forward to talking with you about these issues but I know we will have to do so.
My response was to thank him and to tell him that I was looking forward to meeting with him. I doubt if I would have been successful, but I don’t believe in throwing people away. Perhaps I could have given him some insights into why I believed he is so wrong. Clinically, if that’s the right word, this is cognitive bias and Occam’s Razor on steroids.
So first, apologies for the length of this article. But as you will note, I didn’t even respond to everything. But this is important so it deserves depth.
Now I end with a question to the parents of college and university students: Do you want your children to be taught that they live in a society without God, without gender, without race, without nationality, without culture? Do you believe that that mentality will prepare them to be productive members of society? And if you don’t, what are you going to do about it?
The final article in this trilogy will be on how, as a career counselor, I did not see this coming. How could I have avoided this? What have I learned from the experience that can be of help to job seekers?
Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor. He has helped scores (thousands if you include attendees at his presentations) of people, including veterans, not only change jobs but, on occasion, change careers. Having successfully transitioned from academia to non-profits to the recruiting industry, he has been there and done that!
Bruce is a recognized authority on job search and career issues, having been quoted in over 700 articles, appearing in some 500 publications, across the United States and in more than 30 foreign countries. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 350,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention, including television appearances on Fox Business Network and Headline News (CNN). Visit his website to learn about all of his services, view his most recent videos, and to take advantage of his free Library. Follow him on Twitter at @HurwitzStaffing.