Thursday, March 02, 2006

And it is March, Part II

I go to the third interview for the benefits company, let's call the firm Ecumedical. This time I meet with a senior VP who likes to work from home, and home for him is around Yonge and Lawrence. We meet at a local Starbucks. The first thing he says is, “Hi, nice to meet you. Can you tell me why Vanessa wanted us to meet? ‘Cause she never told me.”

The previously dormant warning bells began to rattle. Not an outright chime, just a gentle vibration to remind me that, yes, those bells exist. Why didn't she tell him? Did she try and he was too busy to take it in? Is this a sight-unseen deal? Or is this a technique to see if I give him the same answers as I gave her? That's paranoid and unlikely, actually - most interviews are neither that duplicitous, nor that organized. So the VP and I simply have a nice long chat, where he asks why I want to work at this company (challenging, looks like a good environment), could I deal with the commute (I was willing to buy a car), and then, the issue of 'fit.' Do I think I could ‘fit’ into the office?

Ah. I asked what the criteria for a proper ‘fit’ required.

He said it changes, but its very important that there be a ‘fit’.

I said I respected the idea of ‘fit’, and here are my defining characteristics – my work habits, my approach to writing, my out-of-office hobbies, my past employment history, my willingness to alter my present lifestyle to take the job, my work as a proposal writer and approach to same. There. Does that ‘fit’ with the company?

Again, politely, he returned to the concept of ‘fit’. “You have to understand that we run a small office, so everyone has to fit, I respect that Vanessa is being careful…” etc. He, nor the aforementioned Vanessa, ever listed exactly what ‘fit’ required.

I was beginning to feel that this was a waste of time, but the job description and salary were enough to keep me interested. When he asked if I was interviewing elsewhere, I said yes, one can’t afford to not interview when one needs a job. He then asked if I was going out for the position at his company simply because I needed a job, ANY job. And…

…and I flashback to 2002, where I did need a job. Rather badly. ANY job, to be precise. Post-9/11 was not a good time for anyone involved in tech. But this time around, I had some savings to live on (that I didn’t want to touch, but could if I needed to), and I could claim EI (or ‘join Team Canada’ as a co-worker once referred to it) if I needed it.

The can-I-afford-this calculations in my head were getting simpler with the number of interviews I secured. There were fewer formulas- I’d stopped thinking “If I don’t get a job for X weeks, we can still pay rent and bills for Y weeks, plus Z weeks for EI and savings…” etc. I’d actually started thinking that if I didn’t land an offer before my last day at DCSS, I’d take a week off and go to my late Grandmother’s house in Port Colborne for a few days, to walk along the beach, eating a peach, trying to hear the mermaids singing each to each.

But any time between paycheques, savings notwithstanding, was a luxury that was exceedingly finite. If it was few weeks, that wasn't a problem. If it stretched into months, that would be another matter. And I have a son. So I answered his question very carefully, and said that I did want a job, but not simply 'any' job at this point. And that I’d turned down one offer already because it wasn’t quite right (a proposal/marketing position for a corporate travel firm), and if I just wanted ‘a job’ I could find one in 10 days if I wasn’t fussy. I don’t know whether that last statement came across as arrogance or matter-of-fact, it was intended as the latter. There were lots of admin roles that I could have landed quickly if I needed to.

Finally, I said that I was interested in this position because it looked like a good company, end of story. I wasn’t applying simply because I needed a job. If I had what they were looking for, great. I'd be interested in seeing an offer. If I didn't 'fit', so be it.

We shook hands; he said he’d get back to me in a day or so.

Over a very quiet week later, I went to an interview in Etobicoke at a financial institution owned by two Canadian banks. Let's call this firm Exchequer. Suffice to say that Exchequer handles money and debit cards and credit card transactions and other fiddly bits for the banks who own it. It is, essentially, an extension of those two banks. It is governed by the same federal regulations that apply to banks. But since it’s a joint venture owned by two banks who can’t legally merge, Exchequer can’t be called a bank. Keeping up? There will be a short test after the entry.

This interview was the opposite of the Ecumedical process. I met with a somewhat stressed looking woman, and it went like this (with only the smallest amount of paraphrasing for the sake of brevity):

You’re a communications consultant?
Can you write internal communications on a national level?
That’s what I’m doing right now.
Can you draft a full newsletter?
Done it before.
Ever create a communications plan?
Last week.
Got work samples?
Right here.
Know any HTML?
Enough to get by.
What is your rate?
This much.
We can match that. Works for you?
Works for me.
Can you start in a week?
If need be.
Thanks, Michael. I’ll be in touch.

And that was it.

No games. No ‘who’s the real Michael,’ no surprises.

As I’m leaving that interview, the recruiter for Ecumedical calls. It appears that during my third interview, the VP liked me but wanted to refer the question of ‘fit’ back to Vanessa, since she brought it up in the first place. So would I be willing to meet with her for a FOURTH interview in an informal environment like, oh, let’s say, another Starbucks somewhere?

And with this, decided I wanted nothing else to do with Ecumedical. I no longer had any idea about how organized the place was and I had very little faith in their understanding of what the role required. They have the right to be picky, yes. But I no longer believed they knew what they were being picky about.

I liked their recruiter, however. I didn't want to waste his time. I was upfront with him and said that I didn’t think that a fourth interview would result in anything other than the same circular questions about ‘fit’ that I dealt with while speaking to the other VP at Starbucks. If they weren’t willing to give me any criteria about what constitutes ‘fit’, we weren’t on a level playing field. And if I were to be hired, buy a car, and work for three months simply to find out that somebody thought I didn’t fit. He had been completely professional, he didn’t do any of the gotta-get-my-fee recruiter tricks I’d heard about while I was working at a consulting/recruiting firm.

He asked “On a scale from 1 to 10, how are you feeling about all this?”

I hate that question. I think it’s dippy, most times. I said “A very solid 4 out of 10. I think I have to withdraw from this process. I don’t think they know what they want.”

He agreed to let them know.

The next day (my 3rd last day at DCSS), he calls back with a Vanessa-suggested compromise- would I be willing to work on a contract for 9 months, to see if there’s a ‘fit’? This contract would be at my present rate (or maybe a bit better) with full benefits kicking in after 6 weeks.

Another peek through my soul…and I said no. But it was tempting. It would be a bird in the hand. But the compromise wasn’t much better than the hire-me-and-change-your-mind scenario I wanted to avoid, benefits notwithstanding. And it wasn’t what I was interviewing for when this whole business began. I told the recruiter that it wasn't a fit on my end. I thanked him for his time, told him I was sorry it wasn't going to work out.

The next morning (my second last day at DCSS), he calls me. Ecumedical was couriering an offer to me. Apparently, I’d won.

Very surprised, I said “Listen, I’d written this off. I’ll read the offer, but I want you to know that I don’t feel good about this situation. I’d washed my hands of it the last time we spoke.”

“I realize that,” he said, “but when I told them the contract deal with not acceptable to you, they told me that it was just a suggestion, and that they were willing to go all the way. They’re very excited. And I’d suggested that they compensate you for this extra time.”

‘They’re very exited’ struck me as suspicious – that kind of language wasn’t present in the negotiations, or from the recruiter before – but ‘compensation’ is a nice word. “What are they offering?” I asked.

“Four weeks vacation instead of the regular three. And benefits kicking in immediately, waiving the three month probation.”

This was a concession, yes. I told him I’d pick up the offer on Monday, but I made no guarantees that I’d accept it. He said that was fair and that was that.

Two hours later, Exchequer called me. They wanted to make an offer.

I now had two job offers, and hadn’t even left DCSS. Of course, one offer had taken over a month to secure. The other had taken just over a week. And I hadn’t heard from the pricey law firm, but that was a dark horse, they really seemed to need a writer with some legal experience – I might be able to handle prĂ©cis but context was another matter.

I spoke to my boss at DCSS, who was herself an escapee from another bank (she also gave me a glowing reference every time she was called by an employer, so thanks and thanks again). She suggested that I take the job with Exchequer, saying “It keeps you in finance, you won’t have to buy a car, it looks great on a resume. Remember- quality of life.”

Quality of life...I liked my boss at DCSS very much, she was blunt, honest, and very patient with me when I was walking around in the prerequisite ‘my wife is pregnant now how did that happen?’ stage early in the year. She also works a mad schedule – gets up before 4am to squeeze a few hours of work into the day before taking her kids to school, working a full office day, being available by Blackberry 24/7. When she says “Quality of life”, I’ll listen.

I picked up both offers on my last day at DCSS. And Ecumedical’s offer was sweet indeed, paying a little more than I expected, plus the four week vacation, the above-average benefits package. And two noted omissions – I’d been told that the option to work from home would be written into the contract, it wasn’t.

And there was a bonus offer coached in very vague language, something along the lines of “A bonus that can be paid out if the employee meets criteria to be set with their presiding manager at a percentage dictated by the manager dependant on the company’s performance and the manager’s discretion…” meaning, essentially, that there were no hard-set rules.

It could just as well have said that there was a bonus, but we don’t know on what terms, and we can decide that you haven’t earned it, based on those terms that we haven’t thought of yet, and which you can’t influence. To be fair, this doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have suggested a fair bonus structure, it just meant they didn’t have a sound, repeatable and documented method of doing it. Not a good sign.

Which is one of the reasons I took the job with Exchequer – their process was what an interview should be. And was recommended by an employer I respect. And was closer to home. And if (God forbid, things went south, I wouldn’t be saddled with a car. And I like banks – they’re not exciting but stable and challenging. A business decision. “It’s just business, Mikey.”

I call Exchequer, agree to the offer, FAX the forms. I call Ecumedical’s recruiter and decline the offer, telling him that I’d appreciated the way he’d acted completely above board, very professional. He said he was sorry it didn’t work out, but best of luck in the future. A real pro.

10 minutes later, his boss calls.

“Michael! What happened?” she said in a loud, but consciously jokey tone of voice which was either a weird manner or a way of laughing one’s way out of losing a finder’s fee. And THIS was not professional. I’d given the recruiter a play-by-play at each stage, he knew exactly where I stood and had not objected at any stage. Why was his boss calling?

A 15 minute chat resulted, 14 minutes of which was filled with me considering whether hanging up the phone was a mature thing to do. I told her exactly what I’d told him – I didn’t like the process. I had two problems with the terms of the contract. I didn’t trust the company any more. I’d decided to stay in finance. I’d said all along I was interviewing elsewhere. And the entire operation had taken over a month before being settled shortly after I said that I didn’t want to play anymore.

She dropped a lot of terms in the same jokey tone of voice- Vanessa was ‘heartbroken’, they were ‘really looking forward to welcoming me’, they ‘wanted to be sure that they hadn’t been misunderstood’ , they ‘were so impressed with how professional and friendly’ I had been (‘fit’ notwithstanding, apparently). All emotional language, consciously manipulative language in a transaction that, until that point, had all been professional and arms length. And I seriously doubted that I'd broken Vanessa's heart after a single meeting.

I finally said “I made my decision, and its final.”

“It’s too bad,” she said with the same forced chuckle, “That you hadn’t decided what you really wanted before this went so long. You wouldn’t have wasted Ecumedical's and our time.” And as a quick afterthought, “And yours.”

A lecture on wasting time was not something I believe that Ecumedical had any right to aim in my direction. And the straight-as-a-line recruiting firm, who is more than willing to kiss a client off once they cease to be potentially profitable is not exactly qualified to call for a parting shot in a snippy tone of voice. I finally just said “A lot of things can happen over a month when you’re not sure of where you stand. I'm sure you'll find another finders-fee.” And hung up.

The start date for Exchequer was not long after my last day at DCSS. In fact, I would be unemployed for exactly one week. I took a deep breath. This would not be 2002 with a baby to clothe and feed. Exchequer is not the most organized workplace, but it's familiar. My boss is overworked but approachable, my other boss is disorganized and needs a good editor and trusts me to help him. I liked him on sight. It looks and feels like a good arrangement. I understand the kind of work they need from me, I like the fact that, along the lines of my favourite past employers, they give me something to do and leave me alone.

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