Thursday, June 24, 2010

My life as cautionary tale: In which I scowl at my CV and curse my own stupidity

Like most fools with a baccalaureate degree  in the  liberal arts, I struggled to find a suitable career out of college.   Once I realized that teaching was not going to be an option, I had no back up plan and so simply jumped on the first thing to come along.  In my case, this meant starting with a temp job at a pharmaceutical company.  That's not strictly accurate, as I never really met anyone from the temp agency.  I was actually interviewed and "hired" during a time when the multi-billion dollar company had enacted a "hiring freeze".  This is a meaningless term as they continued to bring on staff.  It simply meant that they wanted the same work done at lower salaries and no benefits by people they could terminate more easily.  I can understand such a policy as a short term, probationary measure.  Unfortunately for me, that's not quite what it was. 

About three or four months after I was hired, the company completed plans to move the department into a newly built wing and convert most of the temps to permanent employees.  There weren't quite enough permanent jobs for everyone, but it seemed mostly fair, with a few exceptions.  Two of those were people who transferred in from other departments, neither of which had any experience doing the sort of lab or automation work that or group did.  They were permanent employees already, so their transfers cost two people a shot a benefits for a job they were already doing.  The other major hurdle was the political "I'll hire the people I hang out with" nature of it, but I was somewhat (very) naive and oblivious to that. Even with these problems, it seemed that if one wasn't hired in this wave, there would be another soon enough and the rest of us would be hired then.

Having no seniority, I didn't really like my chances of getting hired, and I wasn't.  I took it hard anyway, because that's how I'm wired (and because some/many of the hires were true slack-jaws, losing out to them makes a person question his worth) but I eventually got over it (obviously not :) ).  What I wasn't prepared for was the discrepancy in treatment between the newly christened permanent employees vs the temps, and the fact that the anticipated new hiring wave was never coming.

From a practical standpoint, my day to day job didn't change much, but the environment or at least my perception of it certainly did.  The temps and permanent employees generally did the exact same work.  The company went out of its way to make sure contractors could not be confused with employees (this was done to protect them from liability), while at the same time expecting loyalty in the form of non-disclosure agreements and contact terms with the temp agency limiting where you could work upon leaving (i.e. not for another pharmaceutical company, nothing like building experience that you won't be allowed to use).  In addition to better pay and health insurance, "real" employees had desks, bonuses, tuition reimbursement, vacation time, picnics & holiday parties (for a while we were banned from these, before someone decided to allow us).  It really hit me that first X-mas, when the VP of our division presented bonus checks to the employees in the middle of the lab, right before the temp got a one week lay-off at Xmas for the holiday shut-down.  The project bonuses really hurt, as there's no way to adequately describe how frustrating it is to work in tandem with people on a project and see the others get a bonus that you won't.   It's baffling to me that none of the upper-management seemed to understand that such things might just sap the morale of the temps.  Actually, it's not all that baffling, but I digress.

Another slap to my ego came when the temp agency actually started providing new staff, with the same qualifications to do the exact same job, who were being paid 25% more than those of us who were already working there.  I'm not sure how it came to light, but when found out, people rightfully asked why we were less valuable than even the new temps?  The department head (may have been a decent scientist, but was absolutely horrific at dealing with people) responded with "they're lucky to have jobs at all".  Eventually, someone bolder than I contacted the VP, who agreed that it was unfair, and increased our rates.

In retrospect,  I should have left as soon as they announced who'd been hired. But, true to form, I listened to people who said that holding a job for less than a year was a resume-killer, so I stayed and hoped for the best,  began hemorrhaging confidence in myself and my employment prospects.   I count it among the worst decisions of my life, right up there with attending a Catholic high school to be with my friends, and convincing myself that I'd be better served trying to be a history teacher than an graphic artist. 

Fast forward two and a half years.  Yes, I am that stupid.  It's a quality I inherited from my beloved grandfather.

A new manager was hired to go between our supervisors and the department head.  I pretty much knew he'd be trouble from the second I laid eyes on him. He was a tall, skinny guy with a smug demeanor who fancied himself a cyclist (of the worst sort, the spandex clad, mega-serious Lance Armstrong wannabe. The guy who's a terror at linear parks, barking commands at pedestrians, dog walkers and roller-bladers who dare to be obstacles in his daily time trial.).  The last led to the usual sycophants suddenly acquiring an interest in cycling as well. Also, the people who'd met him in his previous job described him as  "very driven" in glowing terms.  For me, "driven" usually means "Overbearing, petulant, asshole, who is not be trusted, ever".  I can't say for sure whether I had this definition in mind before dealing with this guy, or whether he inspired it. 

At the first meeting he conducted,  he did the usual synergy and paradigm riddle flowchart and powerpoint tedium, and casually dropping "I will not let the culture here be determined by default" into his closing remarks.  Translation: I'm getting rid of as many of you as I can, and bringing in my own people.   Which was fine.  I was confident in my value to the team, and sure that I could make myself essential enough to the process to survive.  I wasn't about to start cycling, though.  Spandex is a terrible look for a short fat guy and I really should avoid anything that involves balance, dexterity and moving at high speeds with nothing but dorky looking helmet between my skull and Macadamized doom.  After the meeting, we were each to have a review  with the aforementioned manager so he could assess our get to know us and determine our value.

During the review he asked a few questions about  my opinions of the lab, what I saw as positives, negatives, how it worked, etc. Being me, I had no choice but to give honest answers.  I told him frankly that I was worn out by being a temp, that at some point I needed the full benefits, and that I wondered what exactly I was working toward.  He seemed interested and agreeable. Naturally, I was summoned by a temp agency rep (who I'd never met. I'd never dealt with them) a few days later because the driven new manager had expressed concerns over my attitude (admittedly bleak at that point) and because (and this is spectacular) "He had concerns about my loyalty to the company".  I was quick to point out that to the sniveling temp agency rep that I didn't actually work for the company.  He was taken aback, as people tend to be when you make a simple honest statement, and stammered some nonsense about a negative review I gotten 3 years earlier.  I was uncharacteristically witty that day, mockingly asking why if such an easily dismissible employee was in fact, a problem, was I still there?  He spluttered out some more nonsense but needn't have bothered.  I finally knew the score.

The next bombshell came a few weeks later.  The next hiring wave had finally arrived.  We were all about to finally have health insurance, and everything that we groaned about lacking!  The temps were all given one to one meetings with the temp agency rep where we were notified that they would not be hiring any of us, but that they wanted to stay through the hiring process, and train the new hires, while dangling a "severance bonus" as an incentive.   The severance bonus had a whole slew of conditions where you might not get it, and for once in my life, I was able to plainly recognize a bad deal.  I stated my concerns to the rep, and asked that as my actual employer, he transfer me to a new assignment.  He explained in his oily way that his job was to see that we finished the contact with the pharmaceutical company and that only after I was unemployed, could he see about finding me something else.  I stewed for a weekend then made a rare bold move. I quit.

Of course, that was a bad move, too.  Had I been able to tolerate their terms, I'd have been able to collect unemployment for a while and would have been better off letting the temp agency find me a job in field than going back to the pawn shop for $10 an hour.   It didn't help that I was emotionally broken down and ill-suited to dealing with the more reprehensible pawn customers at that point.  Pride will get you every time, I guess, and I have no one to blame for any of this but myself.  Every once in a while, when charting my missteps, I go back to this period and cringe at how far off track I let myself go.  The worst part, I think, is that I was never really going to be happy working in a lab anyway.

If I'm wrong, and there really is a benevolent deity out there,  I'm calling a do-over on my early twenties.  Since I've passed on Pascal's wager, I don't expect to get one.


Anonymous,  June 24, 2010 at 12:49 PM  

Nice thing is, you're probably no longer bound by the NDA and almost certainly no longer bound by the employment restriction agreement. Though you never really were anyway; those are borderline unenforceable.

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