High on the Hog

piggy bank

One of the trickiest parts of the job application process is broaching the matter of salary.  As money has a nasty little tendency to bring out the worst in all parties involved, we often try to hold off mentioning compensation until the last possible moment.  As we glide back and forth through the steps of the interview dance, we pointedly seek to avoid prematurely stepping on that sensitive dollar spot.  Instead, the prospective employee pretends that money is not an issue and that, in fact, it would be a privilege and an honor to work for this employer under any terms.  Often, the employer does nothing to counter this notion, making the most of its superior bargaining power in a job market in which employers can have their pick of applicants.

Some employers use “salary requirements” as a means of unceremoniously culling the daunting stack of applications down to a manageable level.  This part of the application form is often specifically labeled as required to avoid having applicants dodge the issue.  Ask for too much and your application goes in “the pile or the file” (the reject pile or the circular file, that is).

When I first graduated from college, I would ask my father for advice on how to fill in the spot on the application form where the employer would ask how much money I want.  He would tell me to just write “Scale,” an indicator of submissiveness that rises to the level of utter capitulation.  Some aver that this tactic is a clever way of saying “pay me whatever you think I’m worth,” but really it’s just a statement that the applicant needs this job and is willing to roll over and accept whatever paltry sum is offered.

I have read articles suggesting that an applicant that always negotiates his or her salary will, over a working lifetime, earn much more than those of us who simply accept whatever is served up by the employer.  The idea is that an employer has more respect for those applicants who are willing to ask for and justify the compensation that they feel they deserve.  The hidden implication, of course, is that the applicant must be willing to walk away from employers who will have none of it.  This may be possible in an economy that is close to full employment, something we haven’t seen in the United States for quite a while now.

Of course, applicants with sought-after skills will have more bargaining power than those with, say, a liberal arts degree and no job experience beyond fast food and babysitting.  The problem is that it can be hard to know what skills are valued by this particular employer.  I once worked for a small business for more than a year when the owner admitted that she had been so desperate for someone who knew how to work her finicky computers that I could have asked for much more money and she would have gladly paid it.

The fact remains, however, that applicants for many positions have absolutely no ability to haggle over their compensation.  Salaries are often set in stone, either by union contract, corporate policy or employer stubbornness.  Many employers treat applying for job like purchasing a gallon of milk:  The price on the sticker is non-negotiable.

And there will always be employers who take offense at the mere mention of pay.  I recall one phone interview that went swimmingly right up until the very end.  I had answered all of the interviewer’s questions to his satisfaction and he asked me whether I had any of my own.  That’s when I took the opportunity to ask about compensation.  It’s not as if I demanded a particular figure; I simply asked what the salary was.  The employer made it abundantly clear that I had a hell of a nerve to even bring up such a topic.  Obviously, I was more interested in money than in working for the company.  I was shocked, and of course I never heard from them again.

Another land mine that applicants can step on is the “salary range.”  Some employers advertise a range of compensation that leads applicants to believe that the starting salary may be anywhere in that range.  So, if I have a great deal of relevant experience and education, I could potentially start near the top of the range, right?  Wrong.  Most employers hire at the bottom of the salary range as a matter of course; the top number is the compensation to which an employee may work up to over a period of years.

These days, I am employed in government work, where salary ranges for most positions are matters of public record.  It is, at least theoretically, possible to start at a salary above the bottom of the range if you have particular skills that are needed and can’t be easily found.  I didn’t immediately understand how this works, but it didn’t take me too long to figure it out.

After two interviews with my current employer, I noticed that I had a missed call from Human Resources.  When I called back, I was told that they had started to call me but then realized that they would have to do further research and call me back because I had requested ham.

Excuse me?  Now, I am a Jewish boy from New York, and a vegan to boot, and I have never eaten ham in all my life.  Why would I ask for ham?

Well, what a doofus I was.  It turns out that HAM stands for “hiring above minimum.”  And it’s true:  Based on my years of experience, I had asked to be hired at a salary above the bottom of the range.  I ended up getting turned down for HAM, because they don’t offer HAM to unemployed people.  To get HAM, you must have a job which you may or may not leave for new employment depending on whether the compensation offered makes it worth your while.

Instead of HAM, I would have to be satisfied with BACON:  The Basic Agreement on Compensation Of New-Hires.  Oh my goodness, I had totally forgotten!  This is a union job!

Okay, it is what it is.  I very much need this job.  But that doesn’t mean that I have no negotiating power whatsoever.  I knew I had to stand up for myself and get everything I possibly could.  So I demanded the California Retroactive Income Supplement to Paychecks.  That’s right, if I’m going to bring home the BACON, I’m at least going to make sure it’s nice and CRISP.

Oh, and I wasn’t done yet.  I am no dummy.  I know all about the various programs for which state employees are eligible.  The legislature has been good to us and I plan to take full advantage of that.  So for my next move, I insisted upon being signed up for Salary Augmentation Under Senate/Assembly Grant to Employees.  You read that right, folks.  I demanded my SAUSAGE rights.

The poor HR lady sighed.  I could tell she hates dealing with know-it-alls like me.  Well, she informed me that, in that case, I’m going to have to choose one of the two SAUSAGE options.  If I have dependents, she told me, I should select a Partial Adjustment to Taxable Income for Employees of the State (PATTIES).  Otherwise, I’d be stuck with the Low Income/No Kids Subsidy (LINKS).  I ordered up PATTIES and thought that I was finally done with this whole unappetizing mess.

But, as it turned out, HR still had one more course to pile on my plate.  It was my own fault, really.  I stupidly admitted that we provide day care for our two-year old grandniece, and wouldn’t you know, that changed the picture entirely.  I was forced to take an additional payroll deduction for a savings plan based on the state’s acknowledgment of the effects that the Price Of Raising Kids Can Have On Personal Savings.

You guessed it, folks.  I’m stuck with PORK CHOPS.

The Accidental Peach Tree


Sitting in heavy traffic on the 5 freeway for two solid hours, my wife and I munch sunflower seeds and pass the hull cup back and forth. The stream of vehicles increases with every on-ramp merge and we wonder when this will ever end. Not anytime soon, apparently. The radio informs us that President Obama is in town and that some of the local streets have therefore been closed. And the long-distance travel to job interviews just keeps on coming. This trip: 850 miles for what turns out to be a 40-minute interview.

I am the last candidate of the day; it is easy to see that the panel has been at it for hours and is ready to go home. The questions are printed on a laminated sheet that is taped to the conference table. It must be boring to have to ask the same questions over and over again to wannabe employees, the management detritus of God only knows how many companies’ staff reductions, washed up on the shores of unemployment. When I ask about their timeline for making a decision, I am told that they will still be conducting interviews for several more days. “It’ll probably be several weeks before we notify candidates about who has been selected to continue on to the next phase of the process.”

I know what this means, and it puts me squarely between a rock and a hard place. Either I will receive a rejection email or I will be asked to make this expensive trip again to participate in another round of interviews. This was already our second trip to southern California for this position; the first occurred in April when the employer invited me to take a series of tests. The expense and stress of these trips does not seem to blip on their radar. Some days, I feel like a TV game show contestant. “Uncle Guacamole, come on down!” I think I’m supposed to go screaming down the freeway with excitement, waving a flag or something. Someone please tell me when it’s my turn to open Carol’s box or spin the plinko wheel.

To break up the trip, we stayed over at my parents’ house in the Central Valley last night and will do so again tonight. This allowed us to do only eleven hours of driving today rather than nineteen.

In the morning, it will be a three and a half hour drive to Sacramento to sit for testing to derermine whether I am worthy of an interview for another in an interminable lineup of positions for which I have applied.

This morning, I was shocked to discover that I had received a voicemail from an employer that wishes to schedule an interview with me for next week. This very thoughtful employer plans to conduct the interview by phone so I don’t have to go to the expense of traveling. I am so grateful for this generosity, particularly since this job is located in Chicago, nearly 2,000 miles away. My wife is very unhappy about the prospect of relocating so far from both our families. I feel that her view is valid. No employer, however, is tripping over itself to hire me. I cannot stress out over a decision that it is extremely unlikely I will ever have to make.

Meanwhile, we get to visit my parents, whose home has been serving as our way station. My mother took me out in the garden to show me her “accidental peach tree.” She had thought it was a wild, weedy thing that was choking the life out of her rose bushes, so she cut it down two years ago. Much to her chagrin, the unwanted visitor returned last summer. She cut it down again. This year, the tree made its third appearance, twisting among the thorny branches of her roses. Only this time, it triumphantly returned in all its fruited glory, displaying dozens of huge, juicy, sweet orange-yellow peaches.

My mother also pointed out that a mourning dove has made a nest in one of her hanging baskets on the back patio. Two fledglings recently left the nest and now, she told me, the trespassing bird that has proceeded to make itself right at home has laid another egg. When I took a peek, lo and behold, two eggs were now sitting in the basket! Looking out the kitchen window, one cannot help but notice the mother bird returning to the nest every few minutes to check on her babies-to-be.

When I arrived at my parents’ house yesterday, among the first things I noticed was the hooting of an owl. But it’s not an owl, my mother corrected me. It’s those damned mourning doves. And indeed, a cursory glance revealed that an entire flock has taken up residence in my parents’ back yard.

My mother is sick of all the mourning doves. She says there’s only so much you can put up with, particularly when you’re constantly accosted by avian grieving and every day sounds like another funeral.

Free Parking


(c) Hasbro… please don’t sue me, I’m unemployed.

God is watching over us. Of this I have no doubt.

We drove down to the Central Valley yesterday to appear at the first of six job interviews (yes, six!… can you believe it?) I have scheduled this week and next. The employer was located in a huge office building downtown, which can only mean one thing: No parking!

In the name of honesty, we could have left the car in a nearby parking garage and paid by the hour for the privilege. The plan, however, was for my wife to drop me off and come back for me in a couple of hours. I had to take a written test and then attend a panel interview, so I knew this would take a while.

The problem: Where should she drop me off? The information that the employer sent via email instructed me to use the entrance on a side street. This seemed relatively straightforward until we drove around the block four times before finally verifying to our satisfaction that there was in fact no entrance to the building on the specified side street! We saw a woman unsuccessfully attempting to use a locked side street entrance to what appeared to be the building next door. We had no idea what to do and I started to worry about being late. I knew I had to get out somewhere and look for an entrance. The wind was blowing and, remember, I have been battling agoraphobia for years. As you may imagine, I started to panic.

Finally, I agreed to be let out at the main entrance in front of the building. Although most of the area was a “red zone” (no parking or standing any time), we found the loading and unloading zone. I figured that I’d hurry up the steps, duck inside the building, do my breathing exercises and find someone who could tell me where the hell I was supposed to go.

I took the elevator to the second floor, where the interview was supposed to take place. Having no idea how to navigate the maze of corridors and offices, I stuck my head into the nearest doorway and asked how to get to HR. The young lady at the desk didn’t know and had to ask her superior. Make a left, walk all the way down to the end, turn right, walk all the way down to the end again, then pick up the red phone and someone will talk to you. Clearly, this was not going to be a good day. For this I got dressed up and drove two hours down the freeway? I was a nervous wreck before I had even arrived at the interview.

Walking the long corridors, I passed a series of floor-to-ceiling windows that showed me that I had in fact crossed over to the other side of the street on an interior bridge and was now in another building. I located the red phone, over which was posted a notice to dial 2 for HR. The human resources representative who answered the phone did not recognize my name and had no idea what interview I was talking about. She asked me to hold on while she checked with someone else — and then promptly disconnected me. I dialed 2 again and spoke to a different HR rep who said that someone would be out to talk to me. Sure enough, here comes the HR lady from the locked door at the end of the corridor. Don’t you know that you are in the wrong place, young man? Interviews are being conducted in another building on the next block.

I thanked her, turned around and began to retrace my steps. I texted my wife: “Please come back!” By this time, she had already gotten way down the road, completely out of the downtown area. Back down the elevator, out the door, down the stairs. Time to wait on the street and have a staring match with the guy selling hot dogs, chips and Skittles from under an umbrella. At least he had a canvas folding chair to sit on. A prominent sign warned NO SITTING ON STAIRS, so I compromised by leaning on a railing. Finally, hot dog guy deigned to speak to me. “Some wind, huh?” Yeah, rub it in, why don’t ya?

Meanwhile, my poor wife, who was somewhere on the freeway, got off at the next exit and somehow turned around and headed back to where she had left me. Both of us were entirely frustrated by the time she arrived, and she kindly drove me over to what I thought was the building that the HR lady had specified. “Please wait until I text you that this is the right place,” I asked. My wonderful wife is long-suffering and I have no idea how she puts up with me.

When she let me out of the car, I had to climb two half-flights of stairs. Unfortunately, bushes had overgrown the hand railing. Did I mention that I have bad knees and have to use the railing? Back in New York City, we used to call it “the bannister.” I did my best with the foliage, arriving at the door with leaves and stickers all over my left sleeve. A kind woman appeared at the door just as I approached. This entrance is locked, she explained, but I saw you coming. She didn’t know anything about an interview either, but directed me to Human Resources. Now, I knew that HR wasn’t going to be able to help me, as this building was occupied by a different company than the one with which I was scheduled to interview. These days, however, I’ve learned to take it as it comes.

The nice HR lady at this company also had no idea where I was supposed to go. Here’s our meeting schedule for the day. See? We have nothing scheduled for 1:00. I thanked her and asked for directions to the elevator. I’ll just head up to the second floor and see if I can ask someone up there, I said.

On the second floor, I noticed a couple of people sitting in a lounge area way across the atrium, past the splashing and whooshing fountains. Not knowing what else to do, I walked over there and heard a woman calling my name. Yay! I had finally found the right place! I texted my wife to let her know she could be on her way (again), then sat down to write essays.

Next came the ubiquitous panel interview, during which it became highly apparent that they were looking for someone with many years of experience in their very specific type of work. That person, by the way, would not be me.

My wife returned to retrieve me and we started to look for somewhere to have a late lunch before we headed home. We settled on a restaurant a few miles up the road for which we had a discount coupon. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we discovered that they aren’t open for lunch. So we headed north toward home and decided to stop and eat in Stockton.

If you’re familiar with Stockton, you know that it’s a big place and has many exits off the freeway. We kept looking for the exit we needed, but never found it and drove right out of Stockton. Forget about it, I said, let’s just go home and save some money. We can’t afford to be eating in restaurants anyway.

Later, we learned that the precise street that we had been looking for was the scene of a bank robbery, a shootout and a high-speed chase. Two of the three robbers and an innocent bystander were killed. Let’s just say that never in my life have I been gladder to have been unable to find my exit. Glad to have avoided an exit of another type entirely, my wife and I both thanked God that He continues to take such good care of us. In the grand scheme of things, it makes the little inconveniences of job hunting look small indeed.

On Thursday, I am scheduled to return to the employer in Sacramento at whose office I recently dropped off my application after learning that they never received the one I had mailed. I am scheduled to take a written exam; days or weeks later, the employer will call the high scorers back for an interview. This is also a downtown location where there is no parking and at which I must walk across a lengthy plaza to reach the building from the street.

In the meantime, however, I have applied for yet another job in a different section of Sacramento. As an apparent incentive to lure applicants, the job announcement prominently indicates FREE PARKING!!!

Anyone want to play Monopoly? I fully plan to land on that little orange car in the corner and pick up all the booty dumped in the middle of the board. You can be the top hat, the wheelbarrow, the thimble, the shoe or the racecar. I’ll be the cat, Hasbro’s newest token.


Rockin’ the Interview


I did it.

The big interview was this afternoon and I survived.

Okay, I did better than survive.  I rocked it!

Yes, I was nervous as hell.  I made sure to arrive early, with the result that I ended up sitting in the waiting room chewing on my fingers and tugging at my socks for 45 minutes.  The sock thing was necessary because my holey hose (of course I discovered a big hole in one of them while I was sitting there) simply would not stay up.  They kept falling down, revealing my distended cankles and making it clear to all the world that here is a candidate who definitely does not have his act together and isn’t worth the trouble to interview, never mind hire.

I owe a large part of today’s interview success to my wife, and even a little to my sister, who called yesterday to complain about my mother for an hour.  But Sis and I, both currently unemployed, did spend a few minutes commiserating about the incredibly stupid questions asked by interviewers and how on earth you’re supposed to come up with a response that sounds halfway professional when what you really want to do is tell the panel is what a bunch of dorks they are.

My sister particularly mentioned a question that comes up repeatedly in the course of her job interviews:  “Tell us about a time that your boss made a decision that you did not agree with and specifically how you implemented that decision with staff.”  This, she said, is not a question to which one can respond effectively on the fly.  It requires preparation.  It’s almost a trick question, because you’re not supposed to admit that you have differences of opinion with your boss.  My sister said she’s working on putting together something that sounds decent so that she’ll be all ready when they drop the bomb on her.

I empathized with my sister on this one, as I, too, have run into this question with prospective employers on more than one occasion.  I wish I could just tell the truth, that it doesn’t matter how I feel about decisions that come down from above — that, as a manager, it is my responsibility to present policies in a positive light and to implement them effectively without regard to my personal opinions.  But that’s not good enough; the interviewee is expected to cite specific examples.

Before my interview today, I solicited the advice of my wife.  She reminded me of a particular procedure change that I experienced a number of years ago, and how I implemented it by treading lightly on the onerous aspects and emphasizing the positive results that were likely to ensue.  My wife also reminded me that it is often difficult to see the big picture; that’s what the more experienced members of upper management get paid to do.  Thus, what looks like a turkey of a decision in the short run could well turn out to be brilliant in the long term.

Sure enough, the question came up in the interview today.  The panelists were nodding and smiling, so I tend to think that they were positively disposed to my answer.  I believe there is a lesson to be learned here:  Preparation really is the key.

I am accustomed to five to eight questions at panel interviews.  Although I didn’t count, there must have been at least a dozen at this one.  I had to be reminded (twice) that I was going over the allotted time, because once I get started, I tend to go on and on.

The three panelists were very pleasant and professional and most of the questions they asked appeared to be well thought out rather than stock questions from some HR handbook.  Somehow, I never needed a moment to think of a response, nor did I stumble over my answers at all.

In short, this was the most successful interview I have experienced in some time.  Not to jinx myself, but I will be rather surprised if I don’t get this one.

(to be continued)