Saturday, November 07, 2009

Worse employment behaviour

It was late 2001 and 9/11's effects shockwaves arguments posturing politicizing momentum everything was still fresh and for anyone out of a job it wasn't easy to navigate. I had been in software for seven years and software abruptly wasn't unless you were with Microsoft and I firmly was not. I had a long list of wasn't, to be honest. Wasn't employed, wasn't confident, wasn't in the best of moods, wasn't finding anything and wasn't exactly filled with trust.

I was, however, involved in a job-finding course with Employment Canada. I thought that it had to help. Or couldn't hurt. If it was in the feds' best interest to stop paying out EI in my direction, perhaps their rather formal job seminars would suggest interview/sourcing/resume/searching tips that I'd neglected.

This formality included a few mornings of cold-calling each week. We were to go through the want ads/phone books/job sites and find a company that we wanted to know more about (regardless of whether it was looking for able-bodied recruits or not). We were to call the company and not ask for a job, but to ask about what they did and what they were looking for in new employees. In a perfect world, the person on the other end of the phone would at least outline what the company was all about and maybe even ask for your contact information for that distant day when they might actually be hiring again.

I understood the point of the exercise: it made you comfortable asking questions and convinced you that cold-calling didn't have to be terrifying (it was, but didn't necessarily have to be). And if you actually got somebody on the phone and they gave you information you'd asked for, you were supposed to write a thank-you letter to that person c/o the company in question.

Formal, yes. The thank-you note seemed a bit much. But desperate times, desperate measures, right? And what harm could it do?

I had done this a few times with software and consulting firms and a firm I'm going to call Document/Action. They advertised their ability to 'help our clients surpass their own goals and meet their clients needs by helping them to communicate their services in plain-language and with common-sense tactics.' I had no idea what they actually did. Their website implied that they had a system for improving workflow and streamlining documentation. It sounded like something I could work at as an editor.

I called and had a chat with Robyn, a bored sounding woman who wouldn't outline their system ("It's proprietary, but if you visit any of the big law firms you'll see our name on their outgoing docs") and said she'd keep me in mind if they were looking for office staff or consultants.

Two days later, she called back. The head of the company wanted to meet with me to discuss their system and potential job prospects. I showed up at their office a few days later to meet Lesley, the company's founder. Her manner was weird. She over-enunciated and smiled a lot in a way that suggested an image coach had told her to smile when there was a lull in the conversation. Everything was framed with a too-big smile (her "Could you pass the cream?" at the coffee machine was sold with the force of Broadway) and everything she said sounded vaguely patronizing. "Robyn was impressed by that thank-you letter. Wow! We've never got one of those before. Good for you!"

She beamed in a way that asked for a response. I had nothing. "Uh, I'm glad it..."

"Really, good for you! It shows that you're polite and that you think about other people's feelings. That's good in a communicator. That's great. We forget that a lot. But it's all about feelings eventually, isn't it?"

Sure it is. She talked about feelings a bit more then she talked about 'the system' which was sort of a template for editing the documentation of your choice. You'd put the most important aspect into box one and the secondary material in box two and summarize in box three and stick it into a database and charge the client $75.00 per hour to get their own material back. She made a few other references to communication and caring and the client's feelings ("They have to feel like we've distilled their thoughts into something stronger than they first imagined") but it was really just an editing exercise. And I'd have to learn 'the system' if I was to work for her company, and it wasn't difficult but it required a certain mindset. Some people simply didn't get it. Some did. If I got it, I might be able to work for them. They actually led seminars to teach 'the system' to some of their well-heeled clients.

I waited for the part where she told me I'd need to take a test, or to ask me for my approach to writing or editing. We never got that far. She pulled out one of their seminar sales-sheets and said "Now, the price looks a little stiff at first, but when you think about the rates we pay once you've learned it and a client has taken you into their firm..." and I tuned out. I was horribly aware of what was coming.

She'd highlighted one of her seminars and the fee (around $1800) and took a very long time to very gently explain that I couldn't work for them until I'd learned 'the system.' And it was possible that I wouldn't 'get' the system so I couldn't work for them. And Lesley wasn't just the presenter, she was also the adjudicator. She'd be the one taking the money, judging the results and placing me with their clients. If there were any clients. I saw seminar salesheets but very little staff and no client list.

This had not been a job interview. It had been a pitch. It had to look like an interview to get me in the door. It was so blatant a pitch that I actually was confused by it for a few hours. I didn't think that anybody would try to pull something that was such an obvious cash grab. She could have simply said "Give me $1800 and I might give you a job" and saved both of us some time.

Worst of all, it wasn't even a full-fledged scam. It was a functioning business with some decent clients (who were revealed to me on the way out the door). It just wasn't as groundbreaking or essential as their website and general attitude suggested. They probably had four or five full-time employees and a handful of consultants they'd trained to work offsite. Their primary revenue-flow was training. You wouldn't know it until you got there.

And the weirdest part was the barely concealed contempt behind it. No false sincerity, just a faint impatience that I wasn't signing-on immediately ("We take Visa and Mastercard," she'd said hopefully). I said I'd think about it, which was reason enough to shoo me out of the office, which was a blessing. I was a rube, sure. Having discovered my rubeness, I wanted to go home and wash it out. But she insisted - with the biggest smile of all - that I simply had to meet Robyn, my initial contact and the recipient of the thank-you note. Robyn was well dressed, grey haired and radiated 'you're an easy mark' with everything she said.

"I'd never gotten anything like that before from a phonecall," she said. "We thought this Michael person, he must be pretty special." And she didn't even sell the line. If you're going to scam, you've at least got to go for it. She was on script but was phoning it in. I was a potential $1800 and it wasn't worth her effort to go for it.

What's the next step past cynical? I can't describe it, but just I'd met it. When you're too bored to scam and its a large part of your lifestyle choice, it's straight downhill from there.

I went home and spoke to a few gainfully-employed consulting types and asked their take on it. They all said that learning a technique is sometimes part of a position, but it's part of doing business. Anyone who offers to teach you something for a fee under the auspices that it might land you a job with them has a seriously flawed business model or really likes collecting fees. I was disappointed but not surprised. I was also not entirely freaked out and desperate at being employed - that came later - so I wasn't going to shell out and hope for the best. But I knew there was a point where I would have done that, if the resources were available. Maybe a lot of people did.

Lesley called that evening with - surprise - a special offer on her next seminar. It would only cost me $1500 to possibly get work with her firm. I declined and said I wasn't interested, there were too many variables.

"Whatever do you mean by that?" she asked pleasantly.

"I can't see myself paying for training for a job I might not get."

"I can understand that, Michael. But between you and I, and trust me on this, I think you'd really get it and..." and a few other polite words and when it was clear I wasn't interested she made some disappointed noises and that was that.

Rick (aka The DI) wrote me later that night. We'd worked at the same software firm for a few years, he'd been laid off around eighteen months before me. I gave him a short account of the day's events and asked if I simply should have flipped them the finger of my choice and taken my leave most ricky-tick. He replied with:

"Based on your story, I personally would have whipped it out and pissed on their desk then and there but for an old bit of advice I hold dear.

Whenever anyone tells you 'trust me' when offering money or asking for it, think of this:

Who do you trust?

Trust in the lord.

You did okay my son

I went to bed and remembered the three-word message I'd sent him when he'd been laid off: Bastards. Bastards all. It applied equally well to the day I'd just lived.


STAG said...

Sometimes I feel that my business is not a business at all, but merely a hobby. Expecially when it comes time for me to hire somebody to take the excess load off. That of course is when I discover (yet again!) that my prices are way too low.

I try to put myself in the position of somebody who is coming into this job...and I blanche at the depth of knowledge which is required that I simply cannot pay for.

Its a puzzle all right.

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