Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My Recent Adventures in Job-Hunting Land

Monday (July 23), I worked for one day at a Tech Support job and emailed the owner yesterday morning early to say I would not be returning. I was feeling quite down about it all day yesterday, mainly because I have been out of work for close to 2 years now and thought I might have finally found a good job. I thought writing about it might help me process what happened so that I can learn from it for the future.

Alas, there were many signs ('red flags') early on that should have alerted me to trouble in paradise. The position had fallen into my lap almost miraculously. I had applied for the position a long time ago, probably through one of the web interfaces that have sprouted like so many mushrooms on the Internet. I may have found the opening on Craigslist, a site I often use, as the company's name was still vaguely familiar to my ear when my phone rang last Thursday. But I did not remember what position I had applied for, a memory lapse that only caused the person calling to laugh. The employer in this case is a company that resells a popular European accounting software package and then supports it after it is installed. The owner\managing director, a gentleman of middle-eastern descent whom I'll call 'Haroun,' interviewed me personally in his office on Thursday of last week.

Now this interview was passing strange as Haroun asked me only "what kind of money are you looking for?" and mentioned an hourly rate of $20-35/hour. When I said I was comfortable with that range and that I had made close to the upper value in my last full-time position, he moved on to talking about the company. At no point did he ask me about any of my past job experience. Nor did he ask for any references from previous employers. No asking me what my goals were or are, nor what my strengths and weaknesses are. Red flag #1, except that I thought that meant I was not going to get the job. So I tried selling myself and didn't lose a lot of sleep over what I saw as merely a practice interview.

I must be one hell of a salesman. Imagine my surprise when, barely 24 hours later on Friday evening at about 6:00, Haroun called me to offer me the job. Red flag #2. He was only offering me 32 hours a week and at $20/hour. The other 8 hours per week I was supposed to teach myself this company's software on my own time so that I could get "certified" on the software. The way Haroun explained it, I would be a 1099 contractor for 30-90 days until such time as I got certified on the software. At that point, I would supposedly become a regular employee with health insurance and other benefits. I had not really thought about it, but I suppose had I thought about it, I wanted a full-time job, not a 32-hour per week contract job. But at the time, I could not summon up the presence of mind to state that clearly.

I was so surprised to get the offer that I stupidly said I would accept it without any bickering about the hourly rate. I have this aversion to discussing money and, indeed, consider it not the highest priority in the known universe. So Haroun and I slipped into a discussion of mechanics, like start time on Monday (10 a.m.), clothing (business casual) and parking. Red flag #3 (although I did not know it then) - Haroun told me to look for the building with the yellow awning and park there. I did not ask Haroun whether he would validate parking. But maybe I should have.

Alma and I were both happy that I would be starting on Monday and, even though I had misgivings occasioned by red flags 1 and 2, I  set those aside. Alma and I spent a happy weekend together and I resisted the urge to splurge on anything truly expensive. But on Sunday we decided to go to the beach and to buy foot-long subs at Subway to take there for a picnic. I put them on my credit card. "I thought you were only putting groceries and gas on the card," Alma said. "That was before I got the job," I jauntily replied. "Now I'll be able to pay the balance quickly. So the old rules don't really apply." Alma looked a little skeptical but swallowed whatever misgivings she might have been having.

Monday comes and I show up at the office in Beverly Hills, having parked in the building with the yellow awning: $7 early-bird special. I put the ticket in my pocket to get it validated later. Haroun shows up about 10:15 and I'm sitting outside the office in the reception area. First couple hours pass by routinely, with me setting up a profile on the computer and configuring the email client and testing everything. So far, so good. Weird thing, though. My workstation desk is littered with detritus: a spoon with a napkin stuck to it, the external shell of some electronic component and all of its set screws and connector thingies, and a large number of Microsoft Vista CDs. Very weird. But I figure Haroun, the 'Managing Director,' is too busy to do routine housekeeping.

So at around noon, this guy I've never seen before sticks his head in. Short and stocky with a block-like face, he reminds me a bit of Joe Pesci, except his hair is blond and he exudes this vaguely threatening vibe. The guy I'll call 'Thug' stands there silently but expectantly. Finally Haroun notices him. "Oh," Haroun says, "how much?" "The first five days," Thug says, "are $35 . . . " Haroun looks suitably puzzled. "The guy never came back," Haroun says. "He worked here five days and never came back." The thug guy stands there unmoved. Haroun goes, "So it's just for five days?" "Yes," says Thug. "So I can write you a check. I'll come down in a few minutes." Thug maybe grunts his approval. The weird thing is that he and Haroun keep exchanging significant glances as they each look in my direction. I have the funny feeling that Haroun is signalling Thug not to say too much in my presence. Finally, Thug slinks away. I have been doing some math in my head and think "Hmm. $35. Five days. That's $7/day. Sounds like parking. Wonder why the guy never came back."

Haroun doesn't say anything about it -- owner's prerogative, I guess - and we go back to orientation and I put it out of my mind. At about 2 p.m., Haroun leaves the office without a word to me. I have no idea what I'm still doing there, since I am starving, but I figure I can't leave until Haroun returns. Haroun certainly said nothing about a lunch break. Haroun returns after about an hour with a salad and rolls for himself from a local restaurant. I tell him I've got to get something to eat and he says, "No problem." I leave and go find the cheapest spot I can find -- $4 for a Chicken half-sandwich. Just a few bites but enough to hold me over until I can get home and eat a real meal. On my way back in, I stop at the reception desk - the receptionist apparently answers phones and does front-office work for several firms on the floor. I take the parking ticket out of my pocket. "Hey," I say, "do you validate?" "I'm sorry," she says, "We don't validate. You need to take it up with Haroun." She throws a weird look in the direction of his office. "That's OK," I say, "I didn't know."

Well, 6 p.m. approaches. In between lunch and then, I've called Alma a couple times to tell her how weird the vibe is and about how the guy before me left after 5 days.  At about 5:30, I ask Haroun about filling out forms and so on. He goes, "Well, you don't have to, because you're a contractor. I mean you'll have to file your taxes and pay them, but you don't have to fill out anything." I go, "Well, do I need to fill out a time card?" Haroun hems and haws, "There's an application form and I need copies of two forms of ID." "Ah, OK," I say, "we can do it tomorrow." Haroun looks relieved

"So," I finally ask, "do you validate?" Haroun hems and haws. "I think I have to wait until the first to get you a pass," he says. "So what should I do, just keep my receipts?" He goes, "Sure, just get a bunch of them together and I'll write you a check." I take my leave, retrieve my car, pay the $7 parking fee and put the receipt in a safe place.

It is only when I am driving home that it all starts to fall into place. Somehow the person who worked there before me had gotten Haroun to commit to paying his parking. But he had left after five days when he realized Haroun had no intention of paying him in a timely manner. Haroun only pays bills when the dunning noise reaches a crescendo. (I learned about 'dunning' from reading the company's software manual :) If I returned to the place, I would be looking at spending additional hours only to see a real prospect of not getting paid at the end of the period or of having to engage Haroun in a loud and lengthy argument about it to get paid.

I suppose I must have already suspected as much while I was there, because I had sent myself emails from the work domain to my personal email, ostensibly to test the service. But really I knew in my heart of hearts it was to document my presence there. As I'm driving home, I start thinking, any place where I feel I must document that I was there to keep from getting cheated is probably a place where I don't want to be working.

I get home and tell Alma that I don't think I should go back. She has already had more than her share of run-ins with unscrupulous and shady employers here in LA so I don't think she is too surprised. And she agrees that I should not return.

So yesterday morning, I sent Haroun a nice, non-specific email telling him I've decided to pursue other employment opportunities. He tersely replies within 30 minutes asking me what it was specifically and that he will use my answer to improve his hiring process. I don't reply. Because, really, what could I tell him that wouldn't trigger his defenses immediately? How do I explain that I can't work for a place when I start off by suspecting that the boss cheats his employees?

Even today, I don't know if Haroun was running a legit shop or if, as I suspect, he's close to going broke himself so every payday represents a  look into the abyss for his employees and himself. I doubt I shall ever know, just as I am sure Haroun will find many other desperate Angelenos eager to work there. I also have little doubt they will end up with the same feelings I did. So I am keeping the parking receipt as my souvenir of my recent adventures in job-hunting land. And the $12 credit-card receipt from Subway will be my reminder to myself not to count my chickens before they're hatched. Maybe Subway is hiring. Or maybe the Thug needs some help muscling Haroun. We'll see.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

James Holmes and the Dark Knight of American Violence

I woke up this morning to news that a deranged individual had gone on a shooting rampage at the  Aurora, CO midnight debut of the newest Batman movie. Right now, 13 have died and scores of others have been wounded, many critically.

Shortly after 9-11, I remember thinking that terrorists could and would find many soft targets of opportunity in America, places where large groups of people gather for cultural happenings. Living in Southern California, my thoughts immediately jumped to Disneyland or any of the other theme parks around or to Hollywood. But there is something very unsettling about the idea that it is no longer safe even to attend one's neighborhood movie theater.

The news of today's mass shooting is but the latest installment in the ongoing saga of America as a land of violence. Canada has more guns per capita than the U.S. but has far fewer incidences of gun homicide per capita, so it's not purely a gun ownership issue. I think it's a deeper cultural issue, one where societal norms preach that violence can solve problems.

We inhabit a brutal world with only occasional flashes of lightning to illuminate the darkness. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Romney Agonistes: Baingate, Cognitive Dissonance and Voter Psychology

Josh Marshall published a great piece about the timing of Baingate recently. The final 3 paragraphs bear repeating:

Think about . . . this: when do you think the next time will be that Romney talks about Bain Capital on the stump? What will people be thinking about when the 15 minute convention video about Romney’s life gets to the part about Bain capital? The Obama camp is working to build a mental roadblock in front of any persuasive discussion of Romney’s professional life, something which should be the major predicate of his whole campaign. They’re not quite there yet. But they’re getting close.

While I was writing this post a friend emailed and asked “Why now? Isn’t it better to hold this for the convention or some time later?”

In a word, no. The Obama team’s goal here is to make the entirety of Romney’s professional life toxic and off-limits before Romney even gets the chance to introduce himself to much of the public. And they’re off to a pretty good start.

I would go further and credit the campaign strategists for Obama's campaign with understanding and exploiting a fundamental concept of social psychology, cognitive dissonance. Basically, cognitive dissonance is the concept that people who hold two contradictory ideas about the same issue experience anxiety as a result of the contradiction and will look for a way to reduce the anxiety by reconciling the contradictions. Outside of politics, the example of smoking illustrates cognitive dissonance. People who smoke by now know that smoking shortens life spans. By the same token, though, people who smoke wish to lead long and healthy lives. So the anxiety between these conflicting positions will cause smokers to seek out any number of rationalizations to lessen the anxiety caused by the conflict, such as the idea that only a few smokers will actually have a shortened life span.

Baingate offers similar examples of cognitive dissonance galore. Romney has offered his tenure at Bain Capital Management as proof of his executive competence. But only through 1999, when the Olympics supposedly prompted Romney to leave Bain. Good thing the Olympics came along because, after 1999, Bain engaged in really nasty work, outsourcing jobs, hollowing out companies, taking federal subsidies while stripping private pension funds. Ah, anxiety. How to reduce that anxiety? Romney left in 1999, before the really nasty work began. Or did he? The SEC filings have him at Bain's helm through 2002 while the nasty work was going down. Anxiety again. How to reduce the anxiety? One way to reduce the anxiety is to modify one's view of Romney's executive competence. No longer is he the CEO genius. Now he's the CEO parasite, gaming the system and getting something for nothing. Or the CEO liar, saying whatever he needs to say at any given moment for expedience alone. In both cases, anxiety among the public is reduced but at the expense of Romney's persona.

And no matter how Romney wriggles to reduce the public's anxiety, his squirming only makes the anxiety worse. Because Romney embodies cognitive dissonance in the two tales he has told about his tenure at Bain. In 2011, he told the Federal Elections Commission that he left Bain in 1999 (before the nastiest Bain activity began). But, in 2002, he told the State of Massachusetts that he left Bain in 2002 and, indeed, the documents filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commitee support this latter position. But Romney cannot have it both ways: either he left Bain in 1999 but lied to MA and the SEC or he left in 2002 and lied to the Federal Electiosn Commission, No wonder Romney looks like he's on the verge of coming apart at the seams in his most recent public appearances - he's a walking contradiction, a living specimen of cognitive dissonance in action. A few more hours of this and he may suffer a full-blown breakdown in public.

Do I think Obama should apologize for causing this acute cognitive dissonance? Hell no. Even CEOs and bullies do not get to have their cake and eat it too. Do I feel sorry for Romney? Again, hell no. If he had shown the slightest remorse for what he did to John Lauber or his Irish Setter Seamus so many years ago, I might feel a twinge of pity. But, as it is, I see karma working itself out within this lifetime and I have to confess to agreeing with LaRochefoucauld's observation that there is something in the misfortune of our "friends" that does not deeply displease us.