Employment in the 21st Century
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – Even though I haven’t any idea yet if my cancer is completely localised, with treatment to be no more than a quick snip or two followed by some follow-up meds, or if it has metastasised throughout my system and has become impervious to any treatment at all, I find myself worrying more than I ever have about my freelance, self-employed lifestyle. Except for very brief periods, I have always worked as a freelancer, as a writer or speaker, or as a contract employee, like I did as a journalist, in the film business, or as a university visiting lecturer, writer, or scholar. It was the only lifestyle that really suited me; it allowed me freedom, sufficient income, travel, the option to tell any employer to fuck off, the freedom to take a vacation at the time of my choosing, the right to refuse work that was distasteful or boring; but it has its drawbacks. Freelancers don’t have guaranteed paycheques every week, they usually don’t have employer-provided pensions, dental, medical, or life insurance, or even employment insurance, and there are occasional (some would say frequent) dry periods between gigs.
As a curtailed lifespan has become a distinct possibility for me, and I have a wife and four-year-old boy who could use some stability, I have found myself doing what I haven’t done since I looked for summer jobs in university and high-school – I find myself glancing at employment want ads. It occurs to me that there must be a business or corporation out there that would pay me to do what I’m good at for a regular salary and some kind of benefits that would help out my family in the event that my employment with them is relatively brief. But I’m here to tell you that it’s a wasteland out there!
Fortunately I have my own (sporadic and unreliable) ways of bringing in some income, and a loose network of those who make editorial decisions or who will occasionally or frequently publish me; if not for a lifetime of practice at living by the pen (or keyboard) and finding places to publish my work, I’d have some real trouble…immediate, how will we eat tonight kind of trouble; the current zeitgeist that permeates the world of the seeker of employment is grim and inhospitable.
It’s not just that our ostensibly recovering economy only seems to have created crappy, low-paying, dead-end jobs….that’s all too apparent; but the corporate attitude toward potential employees has assumed a demeanour that is elitist, arrogant , and virtually entirely one-sided. If you are unfortunate enough to be in genuine need of meaningful and reasonably well compensated employment, you have a real problem. That you may be experienced, educated, talented, and capable makes little or no difference…you are on the outside, looking in. Those on the inside are so fear-ridden and careful of their precarious security, that once they have entered the safety of the fortress of the employed, they spend their time ensuring that the drawbridge is pulled tightly up and the portcullis is firmly blocking any access to outside interlopers who might want to participate in the world and society of the 21st Century.
Over the years I have probably hired a hundred or more people. People for special events, contractors, employees, assistants, NGO staff, and even volunteers; one thing that I never needed anyone to tell me – it seemed self-evident – was that you acknowledge every single applicant and you respond to those who don’t make the cut with a personalised note offering advice for future applications and interviews, and an honest appraisal of why someone else was selected, and encouragement for their prospects. If there was anything of value seen in the application or if I was in any way pleasantly impressed at the interview, I always made a special effort to think of possible peers or colleagues who might be interested in hearing about the person for whom I couldn’t find room. To me that always seemed, and still seems, not just like standard business etiquette, but simple human decency.
Each time a person aspires to a job, goes through the soul-baring function of sending a life, education, and employment history, writing a persuasive letter explaining one’s suitability to carry out certain functions in exchange for compensation to do something to help the profitability of someone’s company, that person is putting him or herself out there and taking an emotional risk. They are volunteering their intelligence, their charm, experience, and education, even their character to be judged and weighed and compared with others’. When that kind of personal exposure is demanded, it is extremely personally crushing to be found wanting. Those (including myself) who occasionally make those sorts of judgments have a moral obligation to exercise human compassion along with their authority and power over others.
But business etiquette has declined in lockstep with the human compassion and simple decency that one could once expect in the business world.
So smugly superior are those offering positions on websites and print employment ads that it is becoming rarer even to find an advertisement that includes such basic information as the salary offered, let alone the benefits provided. You want the job or you wouldn’t be looking at the ad….why should they tell you anything? If you won’t jump at any offer they make, don’t bother writing in or sending your CV…you are simply not important enough to be bothered with.
To emphasise your insignificance, the corporations have taken to including a sentence at the bottom of the advertisement that says something to the effect that only those selected for an interview need expect a response of any kind. In a time of such ease of communications, when these applications are being sent by email, there is no excuse beyond sheer unbridled arrogance not to set up a simple thank you and acknowledgement system at the email address one sends one’s application. There is no excuse for HR professionals who are too lazy and too full of their own sense of importance to personalise a quick note to those who have put themselves out there for judgment, or at least an automated note that says something like:
” Thank you for your application. We will contact you within 2 weeks should we decide to proceed to the next recruitment stage. Should you not hear from me, please accept my best wishes and encouragement in your search for suitable employment. Please let us know if there is anything further we can do to help.”
Easy to do and the most very basic courtesy imaginable to extend to someone for whom your response is quite possibly the most important communication they might ever receive; hardly overly onerous when seen in that context.
We in the writing business have all become inured and somewhat calloused to receiving rejection slips for proposals for publication. Years ago, when I first started in this business, I got more than one personal rejection slip from editors whom I greatly admired. They were often gems of writing on their own, but they were all cordial, collegiate, and clearly sympathetic to an aspirant to the rarefied profession into which the editor in question had already achieved some degree of success. They were often charming encouraging suggestions for alternative e sources of publications and even personal good wishes. I treasure some of these from legends in the publication business.
The less professional and more artistic world has sunk to the corporate role in many cases. Editors simply spike proposals or finished stories for which they have no use. It is a rare editor who even sends out a form rejection slip to an enthusiastic and hopeful young writer. I get letters or emails from editors with specific requests for changes or tone, length, scholarship, or attitude, Sometimes I get outright rejections, as` a thirty-year-plus year veteran of the business I get some reaction, but new aspirants to the business are frequently not even treated with the courtesy of a form rejection.
The world should not be like this. There ought to be attention paid. Courtesy makes the world a slightly better place. It’s not hard. Kindness to people who want to join society as productive citizens ought to be treated with courtesy and respect. They’re not any more.
Apart from the regrettable erosion of business courtesies and standards of professional conduct, one can’t help but become more and more aware of te one-sided nature insisted upon by those in a position to have need for employees. No longer are people hired by a company, treated with respect, courtesy, and loyalty, with an expectation of the same. Wherever possible, corporations are hiring what once would have been lifetime devoted employees, but calling them contractors and paying miniscule “success fees” rather than salaries or benefits. Companies are exploiting the educated but inexperienced young people by giving them the key to the old boy’s network only after they have laboured thanklessly for a year or more as unpaid “intern”…what once used to be a paid trainee position.
More and more businesses are setting up pyramids where others assume all the risks, make a minute portion of the profits and spend their time recruiting even more of their own type to work for them, for an ever diminishing piece of the pie.
The upshot of the contempt in which the unemployed or underemployed are currently held is a painfully bifurcated society. We see the results whenever we look at the rapidly growing schism between North American society’s wealthiest and poorest citizens. We see this when we watch a US Congress that considers it sinful to increase the marginal tax rates of billionaires and subsidises history’s most profitable corporations but sees it as a reasonable cost saving measure to cut off food stamps that ensure that children don’t starve, or reduce medical benefits to the elderly and veterans. And, of course, as goes the US, so goes our Canadian Republican wannabe, Stephen Harper and his corrupt government.
I don’t think we’re going to see a society of respect and kindness until we start to realise that compassion is not a dirty word. That, despite Gordon Gekko, greed is a BAD thing, not a virtue to be cultivated. It’s the self-centred, sharp-elbowed, “fuck you, Jack, I’m fireproof” attitude that needs to be risen above before this society will once again be worth saving.
Right now, it doesn’t seem to me to be worth the effort.