“Don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it.”
With those famous last words, she pivoted on a worn heel and walked back around the corner to the fluorescent drenched cube farm set aside for the office and administrative staff , leaving me alone at the oversized front desk.
The glass divider separating this desk from the waiting room beyond only added to my feeling of isolation. The air in the receptionist area was stale, and smelled like an odd cross between a Furr’s Cafeteria and a used bookstore. While an air conditioner chugged away above my head, for some reason, no one thought to add a vent into the tiny fishbowl that was my new workspace.
Over my right shoulder, a backlit, stainless steel Caduceus stood sentinel; beneath it, in subscript, the name of the medical practice, Trinity Health Partners (note: names in this story have been changed so I don’t get sued. But while those are fake, the details are real. Too real, at times).
Over my left, a large white clock ticked. And ticked. And ticked some more. No matter how busy it got during the day, no matter how loud the waiting room became, for some reason, the sound of seconds counting down could continually be heard.
This, I thought as soon as the office admin sashayed away, was quite literally the loudest wall clock ever manufactured. If any Foley artist ever needs to get the ominous sound that inevitably accompanies any insert shot of one of those time bombs with the dynamite and the little clock that they always show in movies, I highly suggest he visit the Tarrant Professional Building in Fort Worth.
Watching the Clock.
Even after I left, I could still hear the faint echo of that infernal ticking in my head; I’m pretty sure it haunted my dreams for a couple days after that. I glanced at the front door, at the pew of drab interlocking chairs from sometime in the 70s, framed by potted plants and with only a Formica table strewn with back issues of Smithsonian Magazine and Men’s Health.
Somewhere, off to the side, an ad for yogurt aired silently from the TV that, from what I could tell, no one ever bothered to turn off, adjust the volume or change the channel on. It was on when I came in, one of the first to arrive at the office before business hours.
The checklist I’d been given for closing up the place made no mention of turning off the TV, despite going into great detail about things like the number of pens that needed to be kept in the appointed jar at all times or watering the ferns in the lunch room every Tuesday and Thursday.
It was, effectively, a postmodern video installation in a place where the office art otherwise consisted of ads for anti-depressants and the kind of art you’d see on the wall of your room at the Hampton Inn, all generic watercolors and beach tableaux.
I suppose it’s only appropriate that Doctor décor come across as sterile; you don’t want to come in for an appointment and see a bunch of Hieronymous Bosch prints or a Dawson’s Creek poster when you come in to get checked for a hernia, I guess. But still.
At least they didn’t play Muzak in there, although oddly both the hallway and bathrooms there seemed to have Kenny G on loop; hearing a synthesized soprano sax play “Lady In Red” as I walked into the building in the morning, I thought that, rather than the clock, would be the culprit of my aural insanity. Not sure which would have been worse.
I cleared my throat and looked down at the little checklist taped onto the monitor of the mid 90s era Compaq computer that kept track of appointments. The first note: “log into the AS (I think that meant administrative system, although I’m not sure). Please remember to log out during lunch breaks.”
So, I turned to the AS, whose lock screen looked a whole lot like the last Windows 95 instance in Texas. It was prompting me for my user name and password. A post-it right on the monitor revealed these to be “TEMP” and “TEMP1234,” respectively. Meanwhile, every patient who came in,
I was warned a million times, had to sign a privacy acknowledgement that basically reinforced their rights to have their medical data kept securely and confidentially. HPPA somehow doesn’t jibe with “TEMP1234,” but I suppose even the world’s best hacker couldn’t figure out how the hell to use the system once they gained access to it, anyways. I can see the 4Chan posting now: “Anyone happen to have a user manual for the Korean knock off version of Lotus Notes from 1991? Help a brother out.”)
When I was given a brief tutorial on this POS system (and I don’t mean point of sale), and shown the dot matrix printer that would torturously spit out a page every 2 minutes or so every time I accidentally hit F11 (which happened with alarming frequency), I thought the technology was a little archaic, to say the least.
Looking at the yellow cardboard help guide overlaying the keyboard, I had a little wave of nausea pass over me. While I’m a halfway decent coder and a technologist by trade, I never could get the hang of this system. When I’d call Donna, the office manager, for help, she’d come round the corner, lean over me, and with a few deft keystrokes, she’d fix some issue I’d been troubleshooting for a half hour.
She’d roll her eyes after I thanked her like I was an idiot, but frankly, I think Donna needs an invite to DefCon next year. Seriously. Anyone who could figure out that medical office software (and apparently keeps up on her advanced DOS) could probably break into the Federal Reserve or NYSE’s servers with her eyes closed.
Once, when I marveled at her proficiency aloud, she clucked and said, “well, I’ve been doing this for 14 years.” On the same system, apparently. She looked at me like I was crazy when I suggested it was insane she was using software that came out the same year as the original Doom and Prodigy was a viable ISP.
Queen of the Stone Age.
But then again, like everything else in that office, keeping up with the times didn’t seem too big a priority to Donna, whose Talbots pantsuit and classic Dooney & Bourke bag reminded me that whether an office manager or a SVP of HR, there’s a strangely standard dress code for the back of the house.
In fact, Donna wasconsidered to be HR and reported to the leader of the department, a dour faced lady whose only interaction with me was to remind me to submit my time card to the box on her office door as she took off at around 4:15.
I had wanted to ask her a few questions, but that I even met her was apparently a feat. Donna informed me that Vicki, the HR Lady, only came in a couple days a week, as she spent most of her time “in the field.”
What the hell kind of field work did someone whose job was running HR at a LLP, single location medical office need to do, I asked Donna. She shrugged and, under her breath, whispered, “She drinks a lot.” I liked Donna.
In fact, it was women like Donna who were the whole reason I was here in the first place, listening to the staccato of that wall clock track the 3600 seconds that make up an hour. During my 8 hour shift, there would be 28,800 ticks on that clock, and as the day went on, I was increasingly became acutely aware of every single one of them.
The five minutes before 10:30, when I could finally abandon my station for fifteen minutes to use the restroom and check Facebook, dragged on ad infinitum; even worse were the 15 minutes before I got my thirty minute lunch break, 20 of which were spent in line at Subway, meaning I had to wolf down a sandwich while half running back to my fishbowl, lest I be late. Those seconds, somehow, were over before they even started.
And for every one of these painfully slow hours, I was earning exactly 8.42 cents before taxes, or a few pennies above Texas’ state minimum wage for hourly workers. For the day, I would take home $67.36.
The first time I calculated that, I thought that was a mistake, but nope; when you’re a minimum wage worker, this is what you have to live on, a measly sixty seven dollars a day. The last time I worked in a minimum wage job, I was a freshman in high school, so when compared to my allowance, it felt like a fair wage for mopping floors and cleaning toilets.
But when compared to the cost of living, it’s literally penury. I will be much more aware next time I shell out north of a hundred bucks on a business dinner or pay what the server makes for a day for a round of drinks.
The Cost of Living in the “Freelance Economy.”
You know how when you exercise, you become acutely aware of how many calories you take in and burn, in a way you never were before? How 600 calories never used to seem like a lot until you saw how slowly they burned off at the gym?
This was the exact same feeling I experienced after realizing that not only is time money, but that money is gone in no time when you’re making eight bucks an hour. This, by the way, is actually above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a number so low it’s almost laughable.
I couldn’t feed or house myself on the ridiculously low amount of money millions of Americans forced to work for minimum wage must make due with, much less provide for an entire family, and do so almost unilaterally without any sort of public assistance or aid (which isn’t even an option for many due to immigration status, criminal history or one of a thousand potential technicalities which preempt eligibility for these services).
We go to conferences and throw away mountains of boxed lunches while patting ourselves on the back for raising a couple thousand bucks for a charity like No Kid Hungry; we talk about shit like employer branding when most of the workforce just wants to come in and get paid enough to provide, fully expecting work to feel like work, not some fantasyland with kegerators and foosball tables.
I asked Donna what she thought about the culture at the company; she looked at me blankly. I explained, best I could, what culture meant, and I think she got it, because she just laughed and said, dismissively, “it’s a paycheck, not a playground.” Amen, sister. Silicon Valley, you just got poned.
But to her credit, Donna is one of the wisest women I’ve ever met. And thank God for that fact, or my day long temp assignment would have been an even more abject failure. Because when I needed help, I wasn’t allowed to use my cell phone nor did I have access to an internet browser; in a “constantly connected” world, these are luxuries, turns out, many workers don’t have. Not while they’re on the clock.
Top Talent Isn’t A Title.
This is why I’m now convinced the “top talent” employers really need to place a premium on isn’t some hot shot engineer, nor is it some “marketing guru” who has a bunch of Twitter followers and a high Klout score (douchebags).
It’s people like Donna, who only makes $14 an hour after 14 years yet literally has more invested in that business than any actual executive or equity holder. This is what she does, for better or for worse, and it doesn’t matter what her title is or what her responsibilities are on paper.
She’s the person the physicians went to with personal crises or trivial problems, the person every pharma rep who came in asked for (and was greeted) by name, the person who the insurance companies would specifically want to talk to if I had to call them with some sort of question about copays or a schedule of fees.
If you don’t know the Donnas at your business, you’re doing yourself a disservice3. And if you’re not acknowledging their amazing contributions each and every day, you’re pretty much a giant douchebag. Lesson learned. That I made it through the day, I think I have only Donna to thank.
Her extension, x61, was kind of like my Google during the day for the constant questions that kept coming up, and just as effective at getting me the answer I needed. She ran that joint, even if she didn’t have the title (or pay) commensurate with the fact that I’m convinced the place would literally come to a grinding halt if it wasn’t for the overlooked, underappreciated, amazingly dedicated office manager.
Which, I will admit, I did not realize was even a job before the day had started, and made me feel like a total asshole for that fact. I will never take office administration of facilities management for granted again, because trust me: that shit is hard.
For every janitor who’s had to wonder what on my desk was trash, for every receptionist who I tasked with lying to callers about my being in the office, for every facilities guy who’s had to pick up a casually flicked cigarette butt I discarded during a smoke break, I apologize. I didn’t know.
Life isn’t fun when you’re the one who has to clean up after the party.
How The Other Half Life: Why My Temp Job Left An Indelible Impression.
I learned a lot during my day undercover as a temp receptionist – actually, I wasn’t undercover at all, as I disclosed I was doing this for a blog post. Donna found it hilarious that yes, this is a job (kind of) and even more hilarious that people paid money for me to write this stuff. “Wish I had me a job like that.” Donna, thanks to you, I know how lucky I am to have me a job like this, something that’s never been clearer than when we were locking up at the end of the day.
There manifold other takeaways from an experience I wish every single recruiter, employer or leader could do – and trust me, you don’t need to go on Undercover Boss to do it. You just need to fill out a form on the website of a local temp agency, do a 5 minute phone screen and voila!
You too can be woken up at around 6:15 am by a lady frantically looking to find someone who can be downtown by 9 and stay until 5:30 on a Friday. You too can show up with no other information than an address, a name and an hourly rate for the gig (it took me 15 minutes to figure out where to park, and I had to pay $10 for a lot so I wouldn’t be late, which is more than an hour of work at said rate – assholes).
If you say no, even to a one day receptionist gig at a medical practice, even because you have prior plans, meetings or shit to do, there are not only a hundred other people they can call who’d gladly take it, but they’re probably never going to call you back again, and shit, you’ve got bills to pay.
So you say yes, no matter what, Febreeze some khakis and a polo you find in the back of your closet and hop in the car, if you’re lucky, or the bus, more likely, and go to work. No job description. No video interviewing. No employer branding (or even company name). No using Glassdoor to check on culture or see if the company sucks or not. Nope.
If you’re a minimum wage worker in America, none of that shit really matters. You just want a job, any job. Even if it’s just for a day. There’s no bitching about the candidate experience. This is just what you experience when you’re living paycheck to paycheck – when getting a call back from an employer isn’t about net promoter score, but keeping the lights on, the stakes suddenly become much higher.
And you’re willing to accept the fact that the market for most of these jobs pays a little more than 65 bucks for the many associated opportunity costs, even as some global contingent workforce firm (I was placed through a subsidiary of a global staffing firm you’ve heard of, but thankfully hadn’t heard of me) makes billions in revenue off of the margins for cash these workers earn for them but never see a scintilla.
Actually, you don’t even know how the kind of evil HRO/BPO/MSP world works, which is just as well, because there’d be some sort of insurrection were that business model revealed to the people whose backs it’s built on. You don’t know about the skills gap, or how hard it is to find “top talent,” or how candidate behaviors are shifting. Nope.
None of that matters at eight bucks an hour, with no benefits, no mobility and no hope except maybe to impress enough people to get hired on full time and at least have a modicum of stability in your life; retention isn’t even on the radar of most temporary workers who agree to the inherent impermanence of their positions in exchange for the promise of immediate work. Of course, they have to wait a couple weeks to get paid; some accountant has to take out the agency’s cut so that their sales guys can eat steaks at HR Tech.
What HR Tech Forgets.
I was going to write about how the HR Technology industry needs to exercise some sort of austerity, how the profligate spending to impress integration partners and potential clients (all of whom, it’s safe to say, make six figures), elaborate swag and open bars hide the fact that while each vendor purports to be working to make the world of work work better, it not only still doesn’t work.
It’s completely broken for an entire category of conveniently forgotten, completely ignored and utterly indispensible worker whose sweat our industry has transformed into the eye-popping equity that’s flowing like cocktails at a vendor’s open bar in Las Vegas.
You won’t likely notice the lady wiping down your table after you meet a client for drinks, or the guy breaking down boxes outside the exhibition hall. But without them, there wouldn’t be an exhibition to begin with.
These are the humans we’re all too busy resourcing to recognize. That’s why, instead of writing about technology, I wanted to do an HR Technology Conference post this year that focuses on the people who that technology impacts the most.
Inspired by Heath Padgett’s amazing keynote at the Candidate Experience Awards, where he worked in 50 different jobs in 50 days in 50 different states, as well as the fact that the “freelance economy” has emerged as one of the biggest themes and most recurrent trending topics leading into the HR Technology Conference this year, I decided to focus on the people instead of the product.
Everyone will be covering shit like “cool new talent tools” or “what I learned in Las Vegas” coverage posts (I’ve put out a couple of them already, myself) so I think that canon’s well covered without more of that from me. But since the end goal of this technology is often lost in discussions of it, I thought I’d try to remember who, exactly, we’re building these tools for in the first place.
Which is why I decided to go apply for a temp agency and spend a day experiencing life on the other side of the system – and the last few weeks exploring some of the issues impacting employees – issues like mandatory PTO, minimum wage increases or work visas.
Issues that matter, but no one actually seems to be focusing on in our industry, not least SHRM, who when asked for related position statements, said they had no positions on any of these critical legislative issues, and when asked what advice they have for members who want to get involved in lobbying for either side, responded: “We advise our members to do nothing.” Which, sadly, has become the HR imperative. I think we can do better, frankly.
We spend too much time talking about the things that don’t really matter (see: social and mobile) and not nearly enough on the things that really would improve our work, our lives and our society.1
That’s not Pollyannaish – that’s a promise. But without private enterprise leading the way, public policy to correct these inequities is doomed to fail – and that has repercussions for all of us who generate revenue from employment related products and services.
It’s not just in the public interest to look at some of these issues (particularly during the biggest trade show of the year) – it’s in all of our interests, too. And once you take the technology out of HR Technology, you’re left with the real problems impacting recruiting and talent acquisition today.
The rest is product marketing.
Read more at Recruiting Daily.
If there were Pulitzer prizes for reporting on Talent Acquisition, I would nominate you. Most likely you’ll just get two ‘likes’ and a ‘nod’.
That would be a very short list.
I remember my temp jobs. And I remember one I had a lot more recently than I would have liked. It’s extraordinary how quickly we forget this stuff. But forget it we do.
For some years I’ve been involved with a few local job search groups. And when people do land, we almost never see them again. And I get why, because I’ve done the same: it’s a survival thing. You forget the difficulty because you need to spend that bandwidth somewhere else, somewhere more now, not yesterday.
And when that happens, the lessons are lost all too often.
I guess this is just my long-assed way of saying: well said.
Great story Matt. Reminded me of my days in a fast food restaurant that motivated me to go to college.
Great information and very entertaining as well. Was in tears at a number of things: “you don’t want to come in for an appointment and see a bunch of Hieronymous Bosch prints or a Dawson’s Creek poster when you come in to get checked for a hernia, I guess,” and “I think Donna needs an invite to DefCon next year,” among my favorites.
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