Mixed Signals…or not?

I am a writer at heart.  Fiction mostly, but stories about the curve balls life sometimes throws our way peak my interest too, like the one I wrote about trust and love, marriage and divorce not too long ago.  Before I drafted this blog entry, I posed a quick, admittedly, somewhat vague, question on Facebook, while driving, in an attempt to gain some kind of insight before my battery died and got unfairly lynched by someone who doesn’t know me at all, only of me and who also didn’t have all the facts.  It cost me editing the status update to clarify that this post was indeed the reason for my question.

I had a call from a long-time friend, Ashleigh*, yesterday.  She told me that she had been promoted a while back and that now, as part of her managerial workload, she was expected to sit in on interviews for an open position for an Executive Personal Assistant.  The company Ashleigh is employed by is an entity that deals with collar and tie male- and crisp linen suited female clients.  Think Harvey Specter legal or prior-to-his-fall-from-grace-Jordan Belfort finance and you’ll have a better understanding of the calibre of clientele on their books.  I am fortunate to have been exposed to the corporate dog-eat-dog concept when I was younger.  It taught me a lot about what kind of job I don’t want.  My fundamental genetic foundation requires me to work with people that I consider family.  People who know what it is to show compassion and who care enough to give me a pep-talk or haul me over the proverbial coals when it’s needed.

Anyhow, I don’t know about you, but executive has some kind of higher-up-on-the-food-chain ring to it than Girl Friday or Administrative Gopher.  It implies, in my humble opinion, a mature, sophisticated, appropriately attired person (note that I didn’t state a gender stereotype), with honed telephone-, administration- and client liaison skills.  Someone who can take charge, by being strict and fair, without being rude.  Back in my hey-day, one of the questions in my first job interview was, “Can you brew a decent cup of coffee?”  So I assume in today’s day and age, the equivalent of this question might be, “Would you fight off George Clooney to brew the last cup of Nespresso?”

Ashleigh proceeded to share the horror she felt as she sat through three interviews.  The first was with a young female university graduate, Penny*, who had majored in Marketing and Economics.  Presentable and clever enough, but unsuitably underdressed for the position of an Executive PA.  All Ashleigh had to say was “Matt* kept checking the ‘water line’ ” and I knew exactly just how short the girl’s little black dress must have been.  “An LBD?  Seriously?  Was she planning on pre-dinner cocktails at The Circle Bar, followed by sushi at Kong after the interview?” I asked with notable sarcasm in my voice.  Penny was also looking for some serious Pounds, that not even I, after been gainfully employed for 17 years, am earning – and I have two internationally accredited qualifications and seven years of study in my specific field of expertise.

Candidate two was apparently a better fit.  Male, mid 30’s, with the relevant skills.  Josh* had been retrenched from his previous place of work, an events co-ordination company, due to staff budget cuts.  Ah, the joys of LIFO.  For those of you who aren’t sure what that means – Last In, First Out.  “The suit he wore was tailored by Gucci, I’m sure.  Seriously MTM, he dressed to impress.  You could have pulled him through a ring.  Not a hair out place.  Organizations skills on a scale of one to ten scored a twelve!”  Ashleigh said had he not been somewhat flamboyant, he could have been a suitable fit for their company.  And, before any of you shout “Discrimination!!” from the saddles of your merry high horses, Ashleigh is gay, and so are two of her colleagues.  This young man was just a touch too OTT.  Hats off to him for honesty, because he told them right off the bat that should he land this job, he didn’t know how long it would last because his passion was turning a drab function hall into a fairy tale wedding wonderland, or co-ordinating team building events at some fancy five-star resort in one of our country’s many unpronounceable places.  His salary expectations were a little higher than what the company had had in mind, but they would have negotiated.  He was still on the short list.

Enter candidate three.  Mature woman, early 40’s, crisp navy blue pin-stripe suit, cheap briefcase in hand, even cheaper shoes.  Hair neatly bundled into a French roll, minimal make-up.  Ashleigh says it was as if a light bulb had gone on in her head.  This could be The One, cheap shoes notwithstanding.  The mandatory “So, tell us a bit more about yourself” question was the opener and she professionally listed her limited work experience.  As Fate would have had it, the phone in the board room apparently rang and the woman rose from her chair, commanding respect, and answered it with a smile in her voice, “Good afternoon, Company XXX, Jane* speaking.  How may I assist you?…Ashleigh, yes sir, she is in, but not at her desk right this minute.  I expect she may be back in about thirty minutes or so…” Jane then proceeded to grab a pen off the interview table and take a detailed message.  Ashleigh admitted that even in her 9 years with the firm she has never herself taken as comprehensive a message as the one Jane handed to her in a neat, legible script.  After a more personal discussion as to why Jane was in the job market, having been out of it for almost 15 years, it came to light that she had recently been widowed and had two children, aged 10 and 7 to support and while she does receive a stipend from her husband’s estate, it is not nearly enough to keep the children housed, schooled, clothed, and fed.  She had applied for various positions, but was given the standard, you’re not qualified enough or our employment equity policy dictates personnel placements, or you’re too old replies. Basically, they were living from hand to mouth and with the cost of living constantly increasing, she wasn’t sure how much longer she would be able to keep the boat afloat.  It was taking on water and sinking a lot faster than she had expected.  She humbly admitted that she was probably not the best candidate for the position but that, given the opportunity to prove herself, she would be an asset to the company,  Ashleigh didn’t need further convincing, but there were three other people on the interviewing panel that had to give their nod of approval.  They asked Jane to wait outside while the four of them deliberated on the verdict.  And this, dear readers, is what this post is about…exploitation in the job market.

Jane was called back into the interview room and, instead of being asked what her salary expectations were, as had been the case with both Penny and Josh, she was made a salary offer of less than what a mine worker earns.  Granted, so do I, but I live in a small coastal town, where the cost of living is less expensive in comparison with the big City of Gold.  I also don’t deal with high-flying, demanding clients, with their heads up their arses either.  I actually love my job enough to say if it wasn’t for my financial commitments, I could easily work for nothing, but this woman is a widowed mother of two children, applying for an executive position at a prestigious firm in the richest city on the African continent.

Ashleigh said she was blindsided; utterly speechless, because the budget had been almost twice what the current offer on the table was and how she watched with dread as Jane’s brain and her spirit were in visible conflict.  “Jane, we’re going to have to push you for an answer.  Are you or are you not interested in this position and the salary offer?  We have other candidates on the list, but feel you are the perfect fit.”  Classic ambush – subtly threaten, yet flatter this vulnerable woman, when her life, and that of her children, literally hangs in the balance.  What an emotional dilemma – accept the offer to supplement her current, miniscule disposable income, or reject the offer, hoping for something better, knowing that the past job interviews had been unsuccessful.  What felt like an eternity, according to Ashleigh, passed when Jane eventually, almost in a whisper, answered “Yes, thank you.” while shaking her head.

Not sure what to think, Ashleigh called me, wanting to know my opinion on what had played out, given my interest in the field of kinesics.  There is a lot to be said for exact sciences, but some, like the study of nuances in body language and facial expression, are not always that easy to understand.  I have done quite a bit of reading about the subject in my spare time.  Fascinating! It has taught me to read non-verbal communication quite well, but I am not an expert in the field. In this instance, I wanted to help Ashleigh, hence the question of Facebook – I know everyone’s opinion is subjective, but if there is a common thread throughout those opinions, they do hold some water.  Sadly though, I only received one comment, from Daniel and while it made some sense, it wasn’t solid enough grounds for me to comfortably give Ashleigh a semi-informed answer.  The situation he had in mind is on the other side of the spectrum.

I didn’t really know what to tell Ashleigh because Jane had literally conveyed a mixed message. Had I been in the room and seen it for myself, I might have been able to offer some kind of explanation, but from what had been relayed to me, Jane had been faced by a two-sided conundrum:  No, I’m not really sure if I’m making the right decision, but yes, thank you, I’ll settle for what is on offer because it is the means to an end to see that my children are provided for and taken care of...any job is better than no job.

But I have known Ashleigh for 22 years; I knew that it wasn’t only Jane’s ambiguous body language that was troubling her.

“What bothers you more, Ash – the fact that she didn’t try to negotiate for more?  Or the fact that you knew you could have offered more?”  Silence for a good 15 seconds, “Ash, are you still there?  Hello?”

“I am MTM.  It is a bit of both.  She has zero negotiation skills.  It was apparent during the interview when certain scenarios were posed.  But she intelligently pointed out that an Executive PA would not be required to negotiate-, nor close deals.  He or she would simply prepare the documentation, receive visitors, take minutes and perform other duties as required by her superior.  We couldn’t fault her argument.  I am a coward.  I should have stood up for her during the pow-wow with my male colleagues, particularly Matt who, mind you, would much rather have had the short-skirted-Sass around, salary budget totally irrelevant in that case. I allowed the exploitation of someone’s situation.  I feel dirty! I traded my values and humanity for a few thousand rand.  What can I do to make it right?”

My heart went out to Ashleigh in that moment.  She was caught between a rock and a hard place.  She was having a crisis of conscience and no matter what I said, it would not have been of any comfort to her, but I tried anyway, “Ash, you’re not responsible for Jane’s decision.  It was her choice.  She will have to deal with the consequences.  You did a noble thing today; you gave Jane her dignity back, but I understand why you can’t or don’t see it that way.”

She disconnected the call without warning and I know her well enough to know that she went home, cracked open a bottle of single malt and put on some tunes.  She sent me a text in the wee hours of this morning. “Listening to Chris de Burgh. Apt for the day I’ve had. It is the classical dilemma, between the head and the heart.”

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