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This past week I decided, in the continued absence of employment, to try my luck at a temp-slash-job-placement agency. On Wednesday of last week I submitted my resume and was contacted — within a couple of hours! — to come in and do an interview the next day. The interviewer was polite, professional, and seemed concerned that I was “too experienced” for this sort of work. I politely replied that I rather needed to eat, but was looking for temp work in office management, preferably something that would lead into permanent full-time employment. She looked worried and thought that she might be able to find something. I went to fight practice on Thursday evening in a hopeful mood.

On Friday morning I was offered work at the placement agency itself, “sorting out” some “filing issues” they had. If after a week things went well, I’d likely be offered a permanent job with the company to fill a recent vacancy. They seemed quite eager — indeed, almost desperate — to have me, which in retrospect should have been my first warning sign. But at the time I thought it sounded great: I’m not too proud to turn my nose up at a week’s wages at honest work, however low those wages were; and the possibility of long-term employment seemed pretty damned good to me, even if it was as filing clerk for less than I was making at my old job. It was something, at least, in a year that hasn’t offered many opportunities.

On Sunday night, I posted an optimistic note on Facebook: “I start work tomorrow morning at my new temp-that-will-hopefully-turn-permanent job. Office management for a staffing company. Should be interesting, at least.

Oh yeah, it was fucking interesting.

On Monday I was employed for a grand total of about ten hours — that’s ten hours solid, without breaks or lunches. It was, and I’m saying this without exaggeration, an absolute shit-show of unprofessional behavior: borderline workplace harassment (spiraling rapidly into blatant and then textbook workplace harassment); clear violations of labor law; casual contempt for both employees and clients alike; in short, a generally toxic workplace environment. I was also a bit creeped out by huge number of electoral signs promoting the local Conservative candidate which had been hung up all over the place.

And their filing system was an absolute shambles.

I’ve worked some bad jobs before and frankly every work environment has stuff that could use improvement, but this was the first time I’d been exposed to a job that set off all my warning bells, one after another, on the very first day of work; It was like I was running down a checklist of sketchy behavior. You see, it wasn’t just a filing job that was open: they had restaffed the entire office. Everyone, except management, was on their first day. Apparently at about the same time I was being interviewed next door the owner was firing everybody in the office, except for one elderly gentleman who was on light duty after an injury.

Yep, they fired everybody and had to staff up from scratch. For the second time in three months.

Ding. Warning bell.

The specific incident, however, which made me decide that this was not the “opportunity” I had hoped for was pretty egregious: That elderly gentleman was being made to sit in the corner (literally in a corner) for his entire eight-hour shift and shred boxes of unused copier paper as make-work. He’d been doing so every day for two weeks as an apparent punishment for being injured on the job due to the negligence and carelessness of his — no, gods help us, our — employer. I figure the owner was trying to get him to quit; his WSIB claims had somehow gotten lost or misfiled, so this was the “light duty” he’d been assigned: Day after day of unboxing reams of copier paper and then running them through a home-office-grade shredder until it overheated and he’d have to spend twenty minutes waiting for it to cool down. When I quietly pointed the unfortunate fellow to some labor advocacy resources I knew about from my days in the IWW, he turned pale and warned me that if the boss found out I’d been involved with any sort of union I’d be fired on the spot.

Yeah, that reaction set off another warning bell, and it wasn’t a quiet one.

It was around that point I resolved to tough out the week from sheer professional pride… but that I was going to turn down the promised “permanent position” when (if!) it was offered.

I finally managed to go home (later than expected because “quitting time” got revised repeatedly throughout the day) had dinner and a stiff drink, and had a serious discussion with The Wife™ that this was by no means the feast we were promised, and she concurred with my “finish out the week and move on” plan.

And then my phone beeped. At ten-thirty in the evening. It was the owner.

What followed was forty-five minutes of harassing and bullying texts over a mistake he had made that afternoon, implying that it was my fault and that I had bailed on him. I attempted, professionally enough, to explain that I would address any issues immediately upon my arrival at the office in the morning at 9:00am. I even apologized for any misunderstanding, since it was my first day.

The apology was ignored, I was to stop making excuses, fix the problem and who told me I could leave with it unresolved? I was to get myself to the office at 8:00am in the morning if I wanted to get paid. This ultimatum was delivered at 11:00pm.

That was the last straw.

Yes, I need a job but I sure as hell don’t need one that badly. I was not going to give this guy another week of my skill and experience. Hell, I was not going to give him another hour.

I indicated (politely) that if that was the situation I would not be in at any time the next morning since I had decided not to continue further in his company.

Why?

Because (and this is a direct quote from my phone’s messaging app) at this stage in my professional career I require a certain degree of professionalism in the workplace, and his company frankly does not come close to meeting that reasonable standard. Thank you for the opportunity and I’m sorry it didn’t work out, best of luck re-staffing the position.

I then received several messages into the small hours of the morning demanding to know (apparently unironically) what I found so unprofessional about his company. I eventually turned off my phone.

I considered sending him a detailed analysis via email the next day, and decided against it because I genuinely think a clean break would be much healthier than continuing to engage that level of crazy. What it boils down to is this: If an employer thinks it’s acceptable to treat their employees like that, then I’m better off not being employed by them. It’ll save everybody time, aggravation and possible legal complications if I just walk away now.

So the job search continues, and I’ll chalk up a few hours of lost wages as the price of a valuable lesson in how low the workplace bar can sink. In fact, that one day at a temp agency managed to dethrone cutting up and packaging 1.3 metric tonnes of feta cheese as the nadir of my workplace experience. And believe me, that takes some doing.

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