In praise of bridge-burners

"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it." - Matt Goukas

There aren't too many principles of proper business conduct with which just about everybody will agree. Two come to mind: 1. Unless you're a professional athlete, don't offer co-workers encouragement by patting them on the butt, and 2. Don't burn bridges.

While I haven't come across anyone who argues for breaking the rump rule, let's take a moment today to say something in praise of bridge-burners.

What got me thinking was hearing from Wendy Jones of Albuquerque. She's a human resources person who has been looking for a new job and has taken umbrage at the treatment dished out by her fellow human resourcers. When she told me of her frustrations, I told her that it would make a good topic to write about, but that I understood that she wouldn't want to be quoted and risk being an outcast in her profession. She responded that she wasn't worried about burning bridges; indeed, she'd been writing letters to the chief executives of companies who'd treated her shabbily. That's going beyond mere bridge-burning; that's bridge pyrotechnics.

Let's back up and have Wendy explain what got her burning mad: "I recently left a very high-level position because I was not happy with what I was doing. My role became more about legal issues and benefits than what I was hired for. I left on good terms and even helped replace myself. Now I have begun a job search, and I am shocked and astonished by how companies treat job-hunters. I knew it would take awhile to find exactly what I want. What I did not expect was that companies would call me, arrange an interview, tell me I sound great and that I'd be a wonderful addition to the team and then . . . nothing. No phone call, e-mail or follow-up in any way. One company told me that they'd get back to me as soon as the interviewing was finished. That was six weeks ago. Maybe I misunderstood - they must have meant when the universe is completed."

This treatment comes as a surprise to Wendy because on those occasions when she was responsible for recruiting, she and her team followed up with every single candidate they interviewed. She defines her philosophy on hiring as, "If a company isn't going to hire me, they should at the very least leave me wanting to work for them." In contrast, her own experience as a job-hunter has left her feeling that "for the first time in 12 years, I am embarrassed by my profession and might just leave it."

I hope not. Every profession needs a few bridge-burners, and this is especially true in human resources. Employees, both coming and going, make themselves take a vow of silence. In exit interviews, employees are cautious, wanting to "keep their options open," and thus don't tell the company the real reasons they are leaving. And, of course, job applicants take the psychological lash without complaint, unwilling to do anything that would have them assigned the kiss of death: "Not a team player." And this is even when they've been barred from the team.

So what happens if someone sets the bridge on fire and writes a letter to the chief executive? Nothing. So far, at least, Wendy hasn't received a reply from even one of the chief executives. Then again, they probably have assistants who routed the letters to the human resources department.

No one expects human resources to respond to every unsolicited resume - that would be akin to writing a nice handwritten note to every advertiser who mails an advertisement to your home. But when someone interviews a candidate, it seems only civil to make a call or at least send an e-mail. I know, I know . . . we're all too busy for civility here in the Time of No Time.

But a wise chief executive ought to have this revelation: The company is spending a lot of money building a brand and creating goodwill, and it makes no sense to look the other way while one department is doing just the opposite: Creating ill-will and undermining the company's image. Shabby hiring practices amount to turning human resources into the antimarketing department. Give human resources the budget and the mandate to make the company the place everyone wants to work, and that includes making it a place where honest criticism is a way of building bridges.

Dale Dauten is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at dale@dauten.com.