Technology   //   October 27, 2023

IRL career coach vs. ChatGPT: Who offers the better advice?

Picture this: You’re a young professional in the workforce struggling to understand work politics, how to ask your manager uncomfortable questions and how to climb the corporate ladder.

In the past, someone in that situation might turn to a mentor or a career coach for advice. However, young professionals are struggling to find mentors since they graduated into a remote workforce and have struggled to boost their soft skills. A majority (67%) of 18-to-21-year-olds can remember a time where they needed a mentor but didn’t have one, compared to 62% of Gen Xers and 55% of millennials, per a study from nonprofit MENTOR.

But the acceleration of generative AI is helping plug some of those gaps. And when it comes to using tools like ChatGPT — there is no such thing as asking a “dumb question” at work. People can ask anything without feeling shy or embarrassed that they don’t know the information. 

But does the technology really stand up to the test of questions someone might ask it?

We asked the same five questions to ChatGPT and Tom Dowd — director of career coaching at career opportunity platform Guild, who has more than 12 years of experience in career development. Both were given the same parameters: Pretend I’m a young professional asking these questions and answer concisely.

Here’s how they compared:

Q1: Is it appropriate to ask for additional training or development opportunities, and if so, how should I approach it?

Dowd: Yes, it’s absolutely appropriate. An employer will like to see that you are trying to better yourself and you’re trying to grow. Approaching it depends a little on the environment. What opportunities exist? Would you be asking for additional funding for this or not? Focus on what the impact of the additional training is. You want to think about what it is for you, but also for the immediate team. You really want to emphasize how the additional training and professional development will make you better as a professional and ultimately the entire team and company. Tie it to those key metrics to further the conversation.

ChatGPT: Yes, it’s absolutely appropriate to request additional training or development opportunities. Approach your manager with a clear rationale for why this additional training is beneficial for your role and the company. Highlight how it aligns with your career goals and contributes to your ability to excel in your current position. Ask for a meeting to discuss this, and be open to their suggestions as well. Show your commitment to continuous improvement, and be ready to discuss how this development will ultimately benefit the organization.

Q2: How can I make myself stand out at work?

Dowd: I would look at this like principles. You want to be focused on the work and be so good they can’t ignore you. The second is looking at how you show up as a colleague. What is their impression of you? Is it the one that you want? How can you make sure in every single interaction you are trying to live up to that impression you want. The third thing is getting feedback around your strength and growth areas. Continue to double down on those areas you know that you might not do very well. You don’t have to solve all of your weaknesses, but instead think about how you can mitigate those or get help in those areas to continue to push yourself forward.

ChatGPT: To stand out at work, focus on exceptional performance, initiative, continuous learning, effective communication, problem-solving, reliability, adaptability, leadership qualities and a positive attitude. Consistently demonstrate these qualities, and you’ll be noticed.

Q3: How do I handle conflicts with colleagues or supervisors while maintaining a positive work environment?

Dowd: One of the first things to think about is getting to the root of the conflict. If there are conflicts with colleagues, challenge your assumptions and get other perspectives about what’s going on. You will have your own perception, but find ways to think about what else might be going on. Try to get really clear on what that conflict is and what might be happening. Start by being curious as opposed to judgment. From there, you start to uncover what the real conflict is and how you can handle it. A lot of times we think it’s one way, but then you uncover there is something else going on that we didn’t know about. Then you can go into a plan to communicate.

ChatGPT: Begin with a private, non-confrontational discussion to understand their perspective. Express your viewpoint and feelings, aiming to find common ground and collaborate on solutions. Agree on a resolution and follow up to ensure it’s effective. If necessary, involve a supervisor or HR for mediation, always maintaining a respectful and professional tone throughout the process. The goal is to address the conflict while preserving positive work relationships.

Q4: How do I deal with a toxic or hostile work environment, and when is it appropriate to consider leaving the organization?

Dowd: It depends on your own situation. If you’re thinking about leaving without another job, that’s a whole different conversation of what needs to be true for you to do that, like how long would that be and what’s the impact. Pay attention to the signs outside of your job — mentally, physically — what are the indications your job is taking a toll and really impacting your overall life and health? Pay attention to the signals if it’s a more dire situation, versus you can’t grow anymore.

ChatGPT: Dealing with a toxic or hostile work environment can be challenging. Start by documenting specific incidents and behaviors that make the environment toxic. If possible, address the issue with HR or a supervisor. Seek support from colleagues and maintain professionalism.

Consider leaving when:

  1. Your health is at risk: If the environment is negatively affecting your physical or mental health.
  2. No resolution: If the issue persists and there’s no resolution in sight.
  3. Values misalignment: When the organization’s values or culture fundamentally clash with your own.

Leaving should be a last resort, but your well-being and career growth are important. Evaluate the situation and potential opportunities elsewhere before making a decision.

Q5: I’m ready to look for a new job. Where do I start?

Dowd: As a career coach, I’d want to know a lot more about you. I would start with getting clear on what your target is. “I want a new job.” How clear are you on that and what can you do to get more clear? Let’s say you have an idea of the jobs you want, but you don’t know where the employers are. I would start a list of the top 15 or 20 employers you might want to work for and then the top roles you might shoot for. Get as much information as you can there. That will really inform your strategy for how you search for the job and how much you’re networking, who you’re networking with, where you’re applying and how you want to tailor your resume based on that position. If there’s a don’t list — don’t go scrolling job boards. It’s not going to be good and is wasting your time if you’re not clear.

ChatGPT: To start your job search, begin with a self-assessment. Identify your skills, strengths, values and career goals. Update your resume, ensuring it’s tailored for the job you want, highlighting relevant experience. Pay attention to your online presence, optimizing your LinkedIn profile and maintaining a professional online image. Network actively by reaching out to professional contacts, attending industry events and joining relevant groups. Use job search engines, company websites and industry-specific platforms to find job openings. Customize your applications by tailoring your cover letter and resume for each role. Prepare for interviews by researching potential employers, practicing common questions and preparing your own inquiries. After interviews, send thank-you notes to express your appreciation. Stay organized by using a spreadsheet or tracking system to manage your applications. Job searching may take time, so be persistent and patient. You can also consider seeking the support of a career coach or job search services for additional guidance.

The verdict

Some of Dowd and ChatGPT’s answers were almost identical — questions 2 and 4 in particular.

At the same time, ChatGPT didn’t claim to know it all. In fact, it even suggested a couple of times to reach out to a mentor (question 5). In another question that we didn’t feature in this finished article due to length restrictions (“What steps should I take if I feel that my skills and qualifications are not being recognized or valued by potential employers during the job search?”), ChatGPT recommended seeking mentorship to go deeper within its response.

Plus, Dowd’s answers are a lot more nuanced than ChatGPT’s answers, and a lot more, well, human. His responses are just more digestible and less cookie-cutter — therefore an in-person conversation with Dowd would naturally be a lot more tailored to an individual and their needs. And he would be able to push for more detail and answers himself to get to the solution.

So, it’s clear ChatGPT can’t replace the human element and years of experience a career coach or mentor has, especially when you’re looking for hyper-specific advice. However, this test does prove that the technology can get professionals off on the right foot. Dowd agrees.

“ChatGPT can be really useful in accelerating the impact that a career coach can have with someone,” said Dowd. “You can get a lot of great information that you can take in. Where a career coach comes in is when you think about putting that information into action and start to ask questions like, ‘Is this the right move for me?’ That’s where you see the one-to-one connection with a career coach and help personalize it and make people feel confident.”