Thursday, September 20, 2007


(This is story #7 of my employment stories. For an introduction to these stories, click here. Other stories are below this post.)

How do you really know someone? Time and familiarity turn acquaintances into friends, but interviews are brief and - frankly - adversarial. Resumes may or may not be honest. I have seen fabrications of schools attended, degrees earned, and jobs held. These days, most former employers will not give references beyond the verification of dates of employment, and an employer who raves about someone may simply be hoping you'll hire their former employee so that they will no longer have to pay his/her Unemployment or Disability costs. So, how do you really judge someone in the space of a brief interview?

Our business had grown, necessitating the hiring of additional staff, and, as it happened, two of them were young, attractive women. They enjoyed the work and enjoyed dealing with the variety of applicants and hires who came through the office. They especially liked Tommy.

Tommy was a college student who had come in to apply for work for the company who provided food services at his school. He was blonde, very charming and cute (picture Brad Pitt in his Thelma and Louise role), and he was an A student. One of the girls placed him, and they all looked forward to him coming in on a Friday to pick up his paycheck or popping in to pester them about when he might get "hired on" at the college. At such times, all work would stop and there would be good natured chatter between them.

And then it happened: Tommy told us that his supervisor had offered him a "permanent" job. He would go on the customer's payroll and thereby have work through the summer and beyond until he graduated. The girls congratulated him and wished him well, remarking after he left how they were going to miss seeing him.

A day later I received a phone call from one of the college Vice Presidents: "I want Tommy out of here. I don't know how this happened, but he is not supposed to be anywhere on this campus except his classrooms. He has no business in the cafeteria or anywhere else."

Stunned, I asked what had happened and learned that Tommy had been attending the college on a prison release program. He had served three years in a State prison for the violent assault and rape of a co-ed. He had broken into a dormitory of a college he was not attending and brutally attacked a Resident Assistant, someone he apparently didn't even know.

The caller then told me about his former colleague at the college, a man who worked in the personnel office for several years and then moved to a "better" job at a business downstate. As all H.R. people must, that man occasionally had to lay off or terminate employees, and one of those terminations at this new "better" job returned to the work site with a gun and killed him. "So please do not tell Tommy that I called you."

I assured the caller that I would terminate Tommy - would simply tell him there was some reorganization and "the college" realized they could not hire anyone new at the moment - and I would certainly get to the bottom of how Tommy managed to be hired by us.

For several minutes, I sat at my desk absorbing what had just transpired, then called staff together and told them about the phone call. Faces went ashen, then the interviewer who had hired Tommy said she had checked references and they were fine. She couldn't believe what I was saying.

I decided to check the references myself, calling on the pretense that I had just interviewed Tommy and was considering him for a job: "He seems like a good kid. What can you tell me about him?" I asked. As the interviewer had said, Tommy's references were good - although knowing what I knew, I could see that one of them was undoubtedly covering for that three-year stretch of time when he was in prison. The "reference" was supposedly a self-employed contractor, but I suspect he was simply Tommy's friend or relative. "He was a good worker. He worked on and off when I needed him for big jobs. He's a good guy." Another reference was more recent and raved about Tommy. Tommy had "kept the books" for her at the tiny corner grocery, a grocery that I'd always suspected of dealing in more than food...

I called Tommy and broke the news that not only would he not be hired on by my customer, but that because the semester had ended, his assignment with us was also finished. He took the news cheerfully, thanked me for the job, and was in every way a complete gentleman. He never asked why, and so I did not offer reasons - although I was prepared to. I told him I would mail him his final paycheck so he wouldn't need to stop in the office for it.

What he had been convicted of is awful, and I certainly can't excuse his deceitful dealings with my business, but it also rankled me a bit that the college was willing to take his tuition money without allowing him any of the usual "privileges" that come with that purchase. It seemed to me that either he was dangerous or he wasn't. Why would it be okay to let him into a classroom but not a cafeteria?

Three years later I hired an acquaintance to patch some brick-work on the front of my building. The fellow was a member of A.A. ("Hello. My name is Jim and I'm an alcoholic.") He said he'd bet I meet all kinds of people in my work, to which I responded with a couple of stories, one of them the veiled story of Tommy, of course leaving out the names and specifics. Suddenly the brick-layer stopped me: "Wait a minute. I know who you're talking about. That's Tommy. I know him and I know that story. I know it because we used to be drinking buddies and I was with him that night. Tommy was so drunk that there's no way he physically could have done it. He passed out. The cops picked him up near the college. He was framed."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Who's the Bigger...?

(This is story #6 of my employment stories. For an introduction to these stories, click here. Other stories are below this post.)

We had a deal. They didn't waste my time; I did what I could to place their people: Probation and Parole respected that arrangement because their populations didn't have many good options, and I'd worked in the so-called "justice system" myself once upon a time, my heart a bit soft for people trying to climb out of holes.

Jack was the first parolee I placed, so he had to be a good gamble. Stick a customer with a guy with a criminal record and no desire to straighten out, and you'd never get the chance to do any future sticking. Jack's parole officer truly believed that what his "client" really needed was a chance to prove he was worth something, and so I hired him. There was only one customer willing to ride that horse with me, but all it took was one, and so Jack began gainful employment.

Three days later I was manning the front desk at the office. Myra was in an adjoining office interviewing a guy whose claim to fame was being a carnie; Jane was out of harm's way back in the accounting area. Suddenly there was the sound of the downstairs door banging and someone coming rapidly up the steps, stomping down the hall, and then our door burst open, presenting an obviously furious man of about 25.

"I want a job!" he yelled. "You gave my brother a job, and I need a job! You gave my brother a job, and he's a bigger crook than me!"

The guy was irate. He cussed me up and down, the gist of it being that I was an idiot for hiring his brother. If I understood his logic, I should have hired him, the lesser crook, instead - even though this was my first knowledge of his existence.

Meanwhile, the carnie in the next room rose to his feet and asked Myra if she wanted him to "take care of that guy out there." Somehow she managed to convince him to stay put, possibly helped by the fact that I jumped to my feet, drew up all of my 5'2" of red-haired height and started around the desk toward Mr. Wonderful, loudly proclaiming that when he had a parole officer who would vouch for his hirability, I would consider him, but until then, he had better get the hell out of my office.

Lucky for me he retreated, shouting obscenities all the way down the stairs, and the office settled back to relative peace and quiet.

Jack, by the way, was successful in the job and as far as I know has never been in any further trouble.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Older Professions

(This is story #5 of my employment stories. For an introduction to these stories, click here. Other stories are below this post.)

The toughest day of the week was Friday. Others might chant “TGIF!” but I just tried to keep my nose to the grindstone and my shoulder to the wheel, plodding through the interviews so that they would be finished in time to get to the week’s lay-offs and firings before throwing together a late dinner. Saturdays and Sundays I’d be phoning potential hires, trying to make the placements that would begin working at 7 AM on Monday.

The State Job Service provided space for me to interview applicants. In the early days they also administered the tests required of electronics assemblers. I’d show up as they were concluding, look quickly at the test results, and begin interviewing. Eight was always the number scheduled, but there were usually as many walk-in referrals whom I would screen and then perhaps schedule for the next week’s test.

On one morning when I’d arrived well ahead of schedule, one such walk-in approached me. I invited her to the applicants’ chair before getting close enough to get a whiff of her. Bad body odor wasn't often the reason for not hiring someone, but it occasionally caused me to do a bit of pre-hire counselling, and occasionally there was a stinky worker – someone already hired who just didn’t bathe often enough or maybe couldn’t afford deoderant or perhaps simply didn’t have running water at home – and I’d have to have a talk with him or her about the problem. Those were never easy chats, but they could save an otherwise good prospect from being passed over, or keep an otherwise good worker from losing a job.

On this Friday, though, it was her breath that I could smell, and the smell was reminiscent of the old drunken roommate on the morning after: stale smoke and alcohol in a combination that was just downright nasty. And it was nine o’clock in the morning. She handed me a completed application, I gave a cursory interview then told her I would be in touch if it seemed she was the best qualified applicant for a job matching her skills. Dutiful, honest, legal, and at worst I had wasted ten minutes.

She rose and left, and I then turned to Sheila, the youngish Job Service clerk, and said, “Phew! A bit of alcohol on that one.” to which Sheila replied, “Oh yeah, she spends her mornings down at Campy’s Bar giving blow jobs to the old guys.” “EEEEeeewwwww!” I replied, “You mean that wasn’t alcohol on her breath?!?!”

Heaven help me, I thought, if I ever have a job opening for which she is the most qualified applicant. And if I did, what Worker’s Comp code would it be? What industry?? How would I determine the prevailing wage???

It was the beginning of a very long Friday.