Thursday, January 9, 2014

How To Get That Job Offer

I moved from New York to Chicago with my friend Greg in the summer of 1979, when I was nineteen. I had been singing opera and punk rock in New York, waiting tables to pay my rent. Greg had a friend in the national touring company of "Annie," which was playing in Chicago that summer. I hadn't been to Chicago since I went there on vacation when I was five. We went for a change of pace and to play music.
Greg and I had a hundred bucks between us when we landed at O'Hare at rush hour on a Friday afternoon in August. We spent seven dollars on a bus that took us downtown to the cluster of skid-row hotels between the Loop and the Gold Coast. We got a room at one of the old hotels that had been converted into housing for down-and-out alcoholic people, punk rockers, vagrants and retired prostitutes.
"This whole area will be skyscrapers worth billions of dollars," said Greg. "This is prime real estate, just like SoHo in New York. Come back in twenty years and see."
Our room cost fifty bucks for the first week, prepaid. We got dinner at DeMars, a diner close by in the no-mans-land north of the river. We went dancing at the punk club O'Banion's that night. Someone asked me "How long have you lived in Chicago?" and I said "Four hours."
Greg and I raced each other to get jobs on Saturday. I got my job around two p.m. at an outdoor cafe at State and Rush. Greg beat me by two hours. He got hired at a chichi punk-rock clothing store in the gleaming new indoor mall called Water Tower Place.
I had fun that summer working, walking by the lake, meeting people and going to parties. I learned my way around Chicago by walking for miles. I walked from Rogers Park to downtown, out to Six Corners and back to my home base at the Ohio East Hotel. I made bank at the restaurant and went dancing all night. I sang opera at a puppet theatre. I was nineteen and overjoyed at my good fortune.
Disaster struck a month into the Chicago adventure when my manager reminded me that the restaurant was a week away from shutting down for the winter. "I only need one server once the season ends," he said, "and it's going to be someone with more seniority than you."
No wonder they hired me on sight during the first week of August. Who else would be willing to work for a month and then get laid off? I looked for another waitress job. I had heard good things about the Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, so I started there.
"You have great experience and we'd love to hire you," said the lady in charge of recruiting at the first Lettuce restaurant I tried, "but you have to be 21 to serve alcohol in Illinois."
I was stunned. The drinking age in New York was eighteen. It hadn't occurred to me to inquire whether I could legally serve alcohol in Chicago. I couldn't make any money waiting tables unless I could serve drinks. I needed an alternate plan.
I knew how to do office work. I had just escaped from the basement on Wall Street where I met Godzilla for the first time.
Plenty of companies in Chicago were hiring office help that September, but they weren't necessarily looking for punk rock opera singers with waitstaff experience and two years of vocal training. Every job ad in the paper talked about some company's need for a Gal Friday to handle typing, filing and phones.
I could do that work in my sleep, I thought, but my background was quirky. I filled out dozens of applications and didn't get one interview.
In desperation I walked into an employment agency. I filled out forms. A lady came out of her office to see me. She wasn't much older than me. She asked me questions. "You worked in brokerage in New York," she said. "We don't get a lot of financial-industry openings."
"I am as much of a finance-industry person as Daffy Duck," I said. "I was a clerical bunny in that brokerage firm. I filled out forms and put flyers in inter-office envelopes. It was trained-monkey work. The industry doesn't matter to me."
"It matters to us," she said.
The agency sent me on interviews, eight or ten of them in a week. I went to fancy offices in Michigan Avenue highrises. I worried about having enough outfits to wear to work in those jobs. I worried that the dress code requirements would eat up my paycheck. I interviewed with a creepy print-shop owner in the south Loop, down a dark alleyway in a basement. I took the Clark Street bus all the way to Rogers Park where a lady hiring inside sales reps to cold-call local manufacturers out of a storefront told me to sell her the ashtray on her desk.
The sales manager had skin like leather. She smoked throughout our interview. Suddenly she stopped the interview and said "Sell me this ashtray!"
The theatre gene kicked in. I went into a cheesy sales pitch.
"Now this, lemme tell you, this is one amazing ashtray," I said. "This is an ashtray that has a heft to it, really the finest ashtray that most people have seen for this price. I can't even keep these things in stock. People keep asking me why they're priced so low." I laid it on. I went into full-tilt sleazeball sales overdrive.
"You're a natural!" the sales manager said. The place was down-at-heels, a boiler room sales operation. The air reeked of sweat and despair. Dear God, I thought, that was an act for my amusement. I'd have to kill myself to do that character over and over all day - and for close to the minimum wage!
Some of the offices were friendly and lively. I had a long conversation with a VP at a realtors' association on Michigan Avenue. The VP told my counselor "I like Liz, but she'll have to come back before I could consider hiring her. We had a great conversation, but we never got around to business!"
Back at the personnel agency, I told my counselor, "Let me save you some time. Half of these jobs are okay. I'd take any of those jobs if I got the offer. Half of them are awful. Once you hear which employers are considering me, we'll know which companies like me and vice versa."
She looked at me in horror.
"It doesn't work that way!" she said with finality. "You don't understand job search. You go after every job offer, no matter what. You have to stay in those hiring pipelines. Get the job offer first. Then you can decide which job to take, assuming more than one manager wants you."
"I don't understand," I said. "If I already know I don't want a job, why go for a second interview? That's only leading them on. Some of these places gave me a visceral reaction. My gut was screaming RUN the whole time I was in there. I couldn't work in those places."
The creepy print-shop guy had put his hand on my knee. The ashtray lady in the storefront had asked me "Do you want to make this your career? I need a protege. Do you to work hard and have my job one day?"
Maybe in an alternate universe, I thought. Maybe in a bizarro world where my life's goal is to hawk crappy industrial tools over the phone in a smoke-filled white-collar sweatshop.
I wanted to ask her "Where did you get these tools, anyway, that are piled up in crates all over the office? Did they fall off a truck?"
 The employment-agency counselor got up from the seat and closed the door to the tiny windowless interview room. She sat down again and looked at me intently.
“If you don’t go on the second interviews that our clients request,” she said, “the agency will drop you. We won’t represent you. And I could lose my job.”
I thought she was conning me. “Oh, come on,” I said. “That’s ridiculous. It’s a waste of your time to send job-seekers on interviews they don’t want to go to for jobs they don’t want.
Anyway, what about my time? You’re not paying me. I’ve spent hours on buses and trains this week. Don’t I have any say in the equation?”
“No,” she said. “You don’t.”
She looked at me, and I saw something naked and scared behind her eyes.
“Then I guess you’ll have to send someone else on those interviews,” I said.
The employment agency lady’s shoulders shook. She started crying.
“Don’t!” she said. “I’m a single mom. I have a one-year-old baby. I have to keep this job. I can place you in one of these jobs. That placement will make this month’s quota for me.”
I couldn’t speak. I didn’t understand what she was saying. “Wait a second,” I said. “They actually tell you to strong-arm people like me to go on interviews for jobs they don’t want?”
“Of course,” she said between sobs. “That’s our business. I have to tell the applicants to take any offer they get.”
“That creepy guy at the print shop in the South Loop,” I said. “He’s a lecher. He’s gross. He doesn’t want a Gal Friday. He wants a playmate. Why don’t you send a male applicant down there?”
“The client specifically asked for a girl!” she practically wailed. “I don’t know anything about your job,” I said, “but isn’t that illegal?”
the underemployment trap
“Yes,” she sniffed. “It is illegal. But my boss says  ’He’s the client. Give him what he wants.’ The last girl quit because the guy wouldn’t leave her alone. That’s why I hate this job.”
I had seen criminal activity before. I had worked in restaurants and bars. I saw a guy get shot and killed on 42nd street in New York in a drug deal.
I knew that people did illegal things. I just didn’t know those things happened in offices, such that sweet single mothers would have to choose between breaking the law and feeding their babies.
“Why don’t you tell your boss that the horrible companies didn’t want me?” I suggested.
“My boss talks to the clients every day,” she said. “She’s going to hear about it if you refuse a job interview.”
I was angry. I didn’t understand why I bore the brunt of this screwed-up situation. I tried to think of a solution, but I couldn’t focus.
“I have to go home and think,” I said. “Maybe something will come to one of us overnight.” I was disgusted, and exhausted.
The next morning my counselor called me at home, excited. “I just got a job order in,” she said. “It sounds perfect for you. It’s a greeting card company, very fun, growing fast. We’ve put other people in there. It’s a customer service job for four seventy-five an hour.”
I went on the interview and got the job. I called the employment-agency lady to tell her the news and to thank her. The woman at the front desk of the employment agency said “She’s gone. She left. She quit an hour ago.”
“Get the job offer, no matter what” is the worst job advice one person can give another. If your mom or dad gives you that advice, we can give them a pass because they love you and their love can manifest as fear.
If an employment-agency person or a job-search counselor or someone who’s supposed to have your back advises you to be someone you’re not just to get an offer for a job you’d hate, I recommend that you get your advice somewhere else.
When you tell a person to ignore his gut and do or say things he’d never do or say just to get a job offer, you’re doing him a horrible disservice. You’re saying “You don’t deserve to get a job that deserves your talents. You don’t get to make that choice. Go undercover, instead. That’s what it takes to earn an income.”  
Don’t let anyone dampen your flame like that. You have to say no to the wrong things in order for the right ones to come in. When you tell the universe that you’re a victim, a sheep, and a person without choices, you set the tone for the way your life will go. Run away from people who advise you to shut down your sturdy gut and your six senses. Those people are not your friends.
Downloadable E-Book: Career Altitude InventoryI started my customer service job the following Monday, a lovely fall day in Chicago. The company grew, I became an HR person and I never heard from the agency lady again. Nevertheless, she’s a patron saint in the Human Workplace.
She and I pierced the scaly hide of Godzilla together, just a tiny prick but a momentous event. We did it in a windowless conference room in a joyless office where greed had overcome humanity.
She told me the truth about her struggle with Godzilla, and I’m grateful to her for that. Sometimes it’s enough just to know that it’s not you, that you’re not crazy, that people around you really are doing and saying things no person should do or say.
We need to give each other that reinforcement whenever we can.  That’s how we’ll keep Godzilla at bay until our collective Human Workplace flames drive the monster back into the murk he crawled out of.

Note from Michael, Human Workplace Operations Manager:
“Dear friends, sorry if you had trouble getting a connection to our blog today. We have had terrific website traffic since we launched our new site in November, but we were blown away by the surge in traffic to our site today after this story was published on LinkedIn. We are scrambling for more bandwidth now!  Sorry for the inconvenience. Thanks for supporting Human Workplace! My email address is if I can answer any questions for you. Have a tremendous day!”

Some comments :

  1. André says:
    This is a great story, and you are such an amazing storyteller!
    The heart of this story is so simple and yet so complex. I think it can happen instantly that moment when you start valuing yourself and stop playing a role. But this is a paradigm that comes to us since we are born. First we have to fit our parents’ expectations, then at school you have to fit a certain role, then you want to fit those kind of relationships you see in the movies, etc. We are constantly being pushed back to be ourselves therefore to run away from that standard is really hard.
    It has been a process for me more in the personal side, but currently because I have a job I don’t like (and because I started Reading your articles) I so value myself much more, and I am never again going to accept an offer without thinking: is this the right thing for me? Am I going to be able to be myself? Because then I ask myself…if we are not being ourselves, what are we being? And is this what we call living?
  2. Dave says:
    It’s only recently I’ve begun reading your posts and every time, I learn something new. Truth be told, not having been employed for the past two years, I had begun to questions my capabilities. Now, thanks to you, I’ve got my mojo back. I’ve gone to a few interviews recently, have used your ideas during the interview, and feel very positive about my performance. At one place, I called the company’s bluff (it’s a Hispanic TV network, not publicly owned, and I’m not a Hispanic!). I didn’t get the job for the most contrived reason, but I’m relieved because I’d have to work for a neurotic female who’d have tried to second-guess and micro mange me because of her own insecurity about how her experience would have stacked up against mine! I do hope I’ll land somewhere that deserves me, and when that happens, you’ll be on my list of “thank-you” note recipients. Meanwhile, keep these illuminating, insightful posts coming to my Inbox. I can’t thank you enough. Happy new year.
  3. Linda says:
    Be true to yourself and know your value, and these will help you choose a job or career that you can feel good about being in, every day! Great article.
  4. Afedziwa Hayford says:
    What a story! I had an interruption mid-story and could not wait to get back to it to finish reading. This story called attention to the importance of the human element that we need to use all our resources, not only our brain but also our instincts to fulfill our objectives.
    Though it was focused on the job hunter, it could apply to the person hiring or anything else. Thank you for sharing this story!
  5. Phil says:
    I am so glad that I read this today! I needed a shake back into my own reality.
    You see, I’ve worked in the staffing business for many years and recently shook myself free from Godzilla and started my own recruiting firm…out of my home…with an insanely tight budget. It may have been premature with not enough planning, but it has been my Chicago. The end of my savings is near and I’ve thought about going back into the workforce to find my next Godzilla. You have stopped me from making the worst decision of my life. Sure, it will be a paycheck, but at what cost?
    Thank you, Liz!
  6. dkw1975 says:
    I was unemployed for several months this year. I wish I’d read your article first. It wall worked out. I’m in a great place, but I went on so many second and third interviews for jobs I didn’t want and then was made to feel like the criminal when I turned down the offers….
  7. Jonathan Streeter says:
    Speaking only for myself, it takes a lot of self-confidence to stop the interview process when I know it’s not going anywhere. The advice sometimes I’ve sometimes received is “it’s great experience to interview, even for a job you don’t want”. But that doesn’t make sense because the experience I need to have under my belt is presenting myself in a genuine manner, expressing myself honestly, and being engaged with the interviewer.
    A few years ago I was interviewing for a firm where the hiring manager and I really hit it off. But when I had a chance to meet the CEO (who was rude and officious), I called her back and said “This isn’t a good fit, and I bet you will find someone who really will make this job work!” At that time I was under the gun financially, but I knew that working for a leader who rubbed me the wrong way would make me resent the job and feel trapped.
    Again, speaking just from my own point of view, walking away from the process at that point –as difficult as it was– ended up giving me more confidence in myself.
  8. Anuja says:
    Love the story! Perfect timing for me, as I am interviewing for my next opportunity. I have already come across some pretty shifty recruiters, so this story gives me the fortitude to deal with them. Will consider your advice seriously. Thank You!
  9. Jessica Tseng says:
    I absolutely LOVE this story! Thank you and thank you for sharing. I’m in HR and in the recruiting services. That’s something I believe too. Don’t place people in any jobs jsut to gt the money and move on to the next one. Do it with dignity and compassion if possible. This Godzilla will be my favorite inspiration from now on. :)
  10. Sally Burgos says:
    Thank you for sharing, this is a great story. The complexity of life, finding your niche and getting the job you define a success is a common goal to most. You must value yourself but how do you get employers to see your value without a stigma (age, seniority, or any other underlying factor for that matter). You could succeed academically with honors but apply this in a real world setting… To have great negotiation and communication skills very important because I feel you will always have something to prove.
  11. Andries says:
    This story was inspirational! For the last couple of months, a lot of insecurity was generated around me with people’s contracts not being renewed, other people leaving, etc. I was so busy at the time, that my approach was to get my work done and then look at some opportunities. During this time, I applied for several jobs, but either I wouldn’t hear anything or I didn’t get a good feeling during the interview. In the new year, all of a sudden some opportunities presented itself, which I thought was lost and forgotten. And some new ones. Your article/story, really armed me with the approach I should take for the upcoming interviews. Thank you very much! :)

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