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.

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