Employment Agencies

Some of you who know me from outside the blogosphere will know of my difficult employment history. I left a permanent job a few years ago, largely because the business for which I worked was going through a transitional period and there were a number of elements in the new modus operandi that clashed with my conscience. Also, I had moved house since starting to work there so what had started as a 20-minute walk to work had become a 1 1/2-hour bus journey.

Somebody suggested to me that I ought to try finding work through an employment agency. For the benefit of those who have always simply gone and found a job themselves, an employment agency is a business providing services to two sorts of clients: there are the prospective employers who may not have, or may not wish to spend their own resources on finding and interviewing people to fill their vacancies and who prefer to outsource this task; then there are the prospective employees, who may see an advantage in registering with an agency that has a number of jobs on its books. Each person is assigned an agency representative, who is responsible for matching the individual to a job, based on the person's qualifications, abilities, and preferences, and the requirements of the prospective employer. While the individual jobseeker pays nothing for this, the employer pays the agency for the service, and the representative then earns commission on top of his regular salary for each employee satisfactorily placed. This is where the problem lies, for the desire to earn more money often means that care for the proper placing of people in jobs often falls by the wayside, and all manner of dishonesty is employed simply to get as many people in jobs as possible, regardless of the hurt caused.


I registered with this employment agency and, within a week, I received a telephone call saying that a telephone customer service job had opened up, with a little bit of upselling. Well, it wasn't the sort of thing that I had been looking for but I had done this in the past and it seemed something I could easily do again for a short time to earn some money until I was able to find something more suitable, so I accepted. In this case, the employer wished to conduct an interview of its own after placement by the agency. I went along to this and, during the course of this interview, it quickly became apparent from the questions that were being asked that this was a hard sales job and not "customer services with a little bit of upselling" at all. Faced with the choice between continuing with the interview and stopping and explaining to the interviewers that this was not the job for which I had come, thereby placing myself in an unstable financial situation, I decided to just continue, and managed to get the job.

At this point I should state that I had explicitly stated to the agency rep that I did not want a hard sales job. It is not in my nature to telephone people and try to persuade them to part with money that they may or may not have in order to purchase something that they may not necessarily want or need. For those of you with strong power of will, this may seem nothing more than a minor annoyance but I know that there are people who are very impressionable and who, for various reasons, may not be able to manage money very well, for whom this sort of thing is a real temptation and can be quite dangerous to their financial stability. This used to be me before I learnt my lesson the hard way so I know all too well what can result from this sort of thing. I did the job for about a month before the conflict between my conscience and the pressure to hit sales targets raised my anxiety levels to the point where I could simply do it no more, so I left.

Having accepted my agency rep's explanation that this had simply been a misunderstanding, I again alerted her that I was available for work. Within a couple of weeks, she had contacted me with an excellent-sounding job, which then turned out to be excellent in reality as well. It was general administrative and customer service work for an ALMO, (arm's length management organisation), which essentially operates as a housing association but for council properties rather than its own. It seems that a number of local councils are now outsourcing this element of their work. I loved this job. I was not forcing people to do what they did not want to do but instead was using interpersonal skills and genjuine care for people to help them as best I could. It took some brain work and innovative thinking at times, and, (apart from being quite well paid), it was very personally rewarding, largely because, day by day, I would speak with people in the office or over the telephone and resolve difficulties for them, and the genuine relief and gratitude in their voices and on their faces made it worth my while, even compensating for the disappointment and anger that was seen in others when we couldn't do everything that they wanted.

However, this was a temporary position, intended to last for three months. Six of us had been placed in this job by the agency, our rep having told us that, at the end of the three-month period, there would be four permanent positions which four of us would fill. While we all got on with each other, there was always a sense of competition and a quiet tension, although the atmosphere was generally pleasant. When one chap announced that he would be moving down south at the end of the three months, this of course increased the chances each of us had of getting one of the positions. However, about two months into the placement, one of the permanent members of staff walked into the office, exclaiming, 'It's in the paper!' Surely enough, there were four job vacancies at our ALMO advertised in the local newspaper, with a description that sounded identical to the work that we had been doing. So we asked the manager about this and she said that yes, these were indeed the jobs that we had been doing. When we asked about the arrangement whereby four of us would fill these positions, she seemed to know nothing about it. She said that this had never been the arrangement, that the intention had always been to advertise generally, and that, while we were all welcome to apply, we would be treated as anybody else, though with the advantage of having done the job already. She immediately telephoned the agency rep, who told her that we must have misunderstood what she told us - please note that she was asking this manager to believe that six people, at the time strangers to each other, had all misunderstood in exactly the same way what they had been told by one person. More likely, it seems to me, is that this one person had given the same incorrect information to all six of us, to her own benefit.

Anyway, the advertisement had gone out and the interviews began. So we sat there and watched as people came to be interviewed in the room next door for the jobs that we had been told were ours. I went for interview and only got past stage one, which is further than my colleagues got. A week or two later, the four successful applicants arrived and were shown around the building. Then - and this is the point where I could bear it no more - they were sat next to us and we were asked to train them to do our jobs. They were wonderfully polite and friendly people who bore no responsibility for anything that had happened, so we agreed among ourselves not to tell them lest they feel guilty, but when they commented on how much they were looking forward to working with us and we responded that they wouldn't be, they asked why, so the cat was out of the bag.

This was a transitional time in my life anyway. There were a number of changes, some good, some painful, all of them requiring adjustment to new ways of things and bringing about some lack of stability. This last series of events with the agency was the proverbial straw, and I started to have anxiety attacks, which got really quite severe. There were days when I wouldn't leave the house, or answer the door or telephone. Then the depression set in. This went on for nearly two years and, while, thanks be to God, I am fine now, it is often difficult to persuade prospective employers of this. It isn't information that I volunteer but if they ask about the gap on my CV, I answer honestly. It took a long while to find a job after that and, when I did, it was 40 miles from home, which made for long days and a tiring commute, but I enjoyed it, as I worked for an online Christian bookshop and got to do various things related to something I enjoy. That lasted for a year before I moved house and it became impossible to commute, and again, I found it difficult to find work after my past health difficulties came to light.

That is, until a couple of months ago when I finally did what I vowed I would never do again, and registered with an agency - a different one this time. Well, they found me work at the beginning of last month, doing a very tedious job but with good people. The hours were early, which was ideal for me, as I could have my afternoons free and get to church in the evening if need be. Finally, I thought that I was back on my feet and that there would be some stability at last. 3 1/2 weeks later, a rumour began to spread around work that the 100 of us who had been hired were only there to cover the busy period over the summer sale, and that we would all be laid off by the end of the week. While we had all understood that this was a temporary position, we had all felt that it would last for some time.

As we spoke among ourselves, it came to light that, at our interviews, each of us had been asked by the agency reps such questions as, 'Are you available to work long term?', 'Are you available until Christmas?' and such like. This way, they could give us the impression that the job would last for some time, thus increasing their chances of placing people in the positions and earning their commission, while at the same time enabling themselves to say, quite accurately, that they made no promises of long-term employment when the time came for us to go less than a month later. Surely enough, I got home from work on Wednesday afternoon to get a telephone call from the agency to let me know that all of us had been laid off with immediate effect. We hadn't even finished our four-week training period. As we had expected this to happen at the end of the working week, we were not even given the opportunity to say goodbye to each other.

Yet again, the dishonesty of the employment agency has reared its ugly head. Among my colleagues were a young man who was saving up to return to his love in Australia, a lady whose husband - usually the breadwinner - had become recently incapacitated, a single mother of three, and no doubt others who had taken the job on good faith that they would have some stability for some time. I simply cannot relate to the complete absence of conscience that is the only way I can imagine people can do this to others just to make a few more pounds. I hope they enjoy their money.

A friend once suggested that I apply to become an employment agency representative. I wasn't sure whether to be flattered or insulted. While my last job was rather mindless and tedious, and while I had my moments of pride and thought to myself on the more boring days, 'I'm really too intelligent for this', it is a job that did not compromise my faith or ethics and from which I could go home with a clear conscience. I do not think that I could say the same were I to be surrounded by the sort of atmosphere that seems par for the course in employment agencies.

May the Lord have mercy on them.

5 responses:

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Michael, what a nightamre scenario......how can people treat other people like this ? No wonder you found it so distressing.

Michael said...

It's just the way of the world, Elizabeth. I was naive and living in a happy, sheltered, Christian dreamworld the last time round. Now I know a little better that the world can be cruel and I've become a little more wise to it. I'm still not sure how we respond to these things, though.

Ian Climacus said...

Michael: thank you for sharing so deeply and personally. Heartbreaking to read of the way you and others were treated, and sheer frustration and dare I say anger at a world, and people, that think this is a reasonable way to treat people. Truly, a sad indictment on society today.

My prayers for you; and thank you for your comments on my blog about work and my concerns: much valued and appreciated.

Jon Marc said...

I'm so sorry you've had such a rough go of things :-/.

Michael said...

Thank you, both.

I just feel more defeated than anything else. I finally thought the clouds had passed. Oh well. We go on.

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