Friday, November 06, 2009

Employment behaviour

It's October 2003. I had just been laid off from a small consulting firm (rather politely: the office manager cried when she did it) and was heading to an interview at yet another consulting firm while waiting for a job offer from a software firm (which I was sure I was going to get) and from one of the big Canadian banks. I went to the consultants believing that it was a 'safety' option since I was sure I'd get the software job. I was also sure that I didn't actually know anything and I shouldn't turn down any interview when looking for work.

The job posting called for somebody with copy writing and proposal writing experience. The office was downtown in a charming old building that had been a small hotel in the 40's and 50's and a swish wine bar in the 70's and 80's. I'd gone there with my sister and her friends a few times when it was still a cool place for U of T students to waste time in. Those days were long gone but I recognized the oak-lined walls and leather chairs. In fact, it still looked like the swish wine bar to the extent that they'd just taken out a few tables and re-purposed the bar (it held coffee makers) and left the rest of the furnishings.

I looked around for computers, printers, offices, cubicles, etc. Nothing except a few closed doors. "The rest is all downstairs," was all I got out of the Hiring Manager, which wasn't entirely unreasonable. I understood the outside office was for the clients. She wouldn't even show me the downstairs which was a bit troubling, but she was within her rights as an employer.

She asked me for some proposal and marketing samples and to explain my approach to work. And did I know how to use Nexis/Lexis (I didn't) and did I mind working late? I told her that I used to work in software and would frequently work weird hours, coming in at noon and leaving at 11pm.

She said "It would be more like coming in for 9am and leaving at 9pm. Sometimes. Not always, of course."

"It happens," I said. "How often does it happen here?"

She changed the subject. She also wouldn't exactly outline what the position required. She asked if I'd written sales scripts (I had) and had I ever delivered them to an audience? That sounded like a sales job and I'd never done sales outside of scripting and I didn't want to be involved in sales or to be interviewed for a sales position under false pretenses. I said that outside of scripts, sales didn't appeal to me and she changed the subject back to working late and still wouldn't say how often it happened.

She finally asked if I'd mind taking a test, "an advanced behavioural & IQ test employed by our firm." It was a fairly standard grammar test with some logic-testing questions at the end. I filled it out, shook her hand and went home.

That evening, she called and said that the owner of the firm would be calling me sharply at 7pm the following night. "He's very busy and tied to tight schedules so he won't phone you back if you don't pick up," she said. "And you did very well on our IQ test. You got 89 out of 100. We usually don't call anyone who doesn't get over 90, but your answers were very interesting even when they were wrong."

That sounded strange, if sorta-kinda complimentary. I said "Can I ask what IQ testing method you use?"

There was too long a pause on the phone. "What do you mean?"

"That test...was it Mensa, or that Yale test that they give to US students, or..."

"It's something we've compiled from the best of all the tests our clients have recommended," she said very quickly. "And you did well, Michael. You really did."

In all of our other conversations, she'd been more formal. I became Michael when I asked a potentially awkward question. This suggested that the standard test wasn't as 'standard' as they'd made it out to be.

They were, of course, free to use whatever kind of test they wanted, even if it'd been compiled from a few self-help or management books that the firm's owner was into at the time. But they'd implied that it was something different and I thought it was a bad omen for the rest of the proceedings.

The next morning, the software company called and told me I wasn't going to get the job. The consulting firm's position was suddenly a lot more tempting and I wasn't so bothered by the prospect of another test.

At 7:00pm that evening, the owner called. It started with a careful, slightly echoing voice saying "Michael, I'm on a speaker phone. I like to walk around my office while I interview somebody and even though you're not here I'm still going to walk around my office. I'd like you to be sure that nobody interrupts you and that you're quite comfortable because, although this isn't going to be a long phone call, it's very important that we not be interrupted and that I have your full attention. This might be a very significant step in your career and I think you should take it all seriously. Now. Are you comfortable?"

'Comfortable' doesn't come close. It didn't help that he sounded like Hans Conreid, aka the voice of Snidely Whiplash in countless Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. A milder, polite Snidley. Sort of what Snidley would sound like if he had you over for cigars and sherry. But the resemblance was uncanny. And the interview was holding less and less appeal for me. It felt like a lot of fuss over something that should take far less time and hold far less drama.

But I didn't have a job. So I said "I'm very comfortable, thanks. And what would you like to know?"

I can skip over most of the rest: his questions were along the same lines as the Hiring Manager and were almost entirely proposal based. I didn't particularly like proposal writing but he appeared to like my approach to it and kept suggesting that other forms of writing (marketing, technical) were in the works and I might be the guy to bring them into regular rotation. Between topics, he'd say with great gravity "It's important you answer this question honestly: on a scale from 1 to 10, how is this experience feeling for you?"

He was scoring solid sevens and eights until he asked about my salary expectations. I quoted the range that was listed on the job posting and put my expectations on the higher (but not highest) end, which was a bit higher than my salary in consulting.

He said, "That's very interesting. Now, if I said that we could start at..." and listed a far lower number (lower than I had been making in either software, government or consulting), "...with a guarantee of making up for it in time-and-a-half overtime every month?"

"That's interesting too," I said. "How much overtime is average?"

"We get a lot of rush jobs," he said. "Not every week, but enough to make a little extra. Maybe a lot extra. It's the kind of thing that I think would be very good for you, Michael."

That was the fourth or fifth 'This would be good for you, Michael' comment and I'd never heard anything like that in any other interview. He might have been deeply concerned about me as a person and I'm a bastard to mock it. Or he might just have been manipulative and pretentious.

"Can you give me an average number of extra hours?" I asked.

"It's hard to get an average. But you'd be busy. It'd be a great chance to work your way up very quickly."

I didn't ask 'Up to what?' because I thought the answer would be useless. He finally played the number game again and said "On a scale from 1 to 10, how do you feel about our salary discussion?"

I felt that the manipulative and pretentious scenario (not to mention cheap) was looking more apt by the moment.

"I'm saying 4 out of 10 for this one," I said.

Without missing a beat, he said "Alright. Now, what would get you up to, let's say, 8 or 9 out of 10?"

"I think another six thousand dollars per year would do it."

It sounded arrogant. It wasn't meant to. His offer was very low and the overtime details were very slow in coming.

He took a few seconds and said "I'm going to be honest with you," (as if this should be an option, or as if it was a favour bestowed upon me and few others), "I like your writing samples. I usually don't like that sort of thing because I want my people to write the way I want them to write. But I liked yours right when I read them. I think that this sort of firm is what a younger writer needs, especially somebody like you. So, Michael...I would we willing to put in writing that we would have a salary review every three months based on your performance and the amount of overtime that's required. This means that if you've had an above average level of time and a half and a salary increase isn't warranted, we'd let it slide for another three months. Does that appeal to you?"

My salary-score stayed at 4 out of 10, something he said he wanted to "take away and think about if I get some spare time tonight." He repeated his belief that his firm was just what I needed a few times more and it's not that it sounded insincere. Quite the opposite. It was polished. It was the sincere belief of somebody who sincerely needed a cheap proposal writer who might get lured in with the promise of great overtime for unspecified clients and a salary review guaranteed in writing which actually guaranteed nothing more than a chat every 90 days.

We parted cordially. I wasn't going to say no to anything. But 'yes' was going to be a difficult point to reach.

My wife and I went away for a week for a family wedding. While away, the bank called me and offered me the job. I accepted the terms with barely concealed glee (it had been a dark horse and was a good job) and called the consulting firm upon my return to politely withdraw from the process. I did, and they fell off the radar immediately.

Less than a year later, their office closed and re-opened as, you've got it, another wine bar. The oak-lined walls are still there, now festooned with a quasi-French look rather than the British gentleman's club aura of days past. This 'worldwide consulting firm' disappeared from the city and even the internet. I google the owner's name from time to time and he's listed as a senior partner in a number of other companies, all consulting/recruiting related, all of them about to hire exciting new people. I wonder if they all need to take IQ tests.


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