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January 26, 2007

Filed under: journalism»professional

But You're Not Helping

Remember that scene from Blade Runner, when they interview the worker to find out if he's a replicant? I have been in that interview.

Getting a good head start on the unemployment process, I've started sending out resumes. It's reassuring to get responses, even in the negative. The last time I did this, I wasn't important enough to even get a rejection letter half the time. For one recent application at a large quasi-journalistic organization, I had to visit their site and fill out about 500 multiple-choice personality and management questions, most of them banal ("Do you prefer a casual workplace?" "Do your coworkers know when you are upset?"). Only in the last step did I actually type in my name and detail my CV, which felt decidedly anticlimactic. A screen said that someone would contact me by e-mail if any further attention was needed.

A few days later, I got an automated e-mail from the organization, instructing me to call a number for a phone interview. Excited by the progress, I phoned them up at lunch and made an appointment for the next week.

"Now," said my impossibly-cheerful interviewer when she called, "I'm going to ask you a series of questions. I cannot explain any of these questions or elaborate on them in any way, although I can repeat them if necessary. Do you understand?"

I agreed, a little hesitant, at which point I was confronted with verbal versions of the same bland, pointless management questions as the web form. I could tell that it even had follow-up questions built-in, because if I started to elaborate on my answers, the voice on the phone would interrupt me.

"Could you explain why you answered that way?" she would bleat. Toward the end of the call, I began to try increasingly subtle segues on yes/no questions, just to see how far I could get before she broke in. It was odd: before the call, I had been seized by an irrational fear that I would begin answering questions with grotesque lies and resume inflation, and like the Southern accent that I sometimes find myself gently mimicking over phone conversations, I would be unable to stop. Now my biggest task on the interview was retaining a semblance of humanity when faced by a virtual automaton.

After the interview, my caller (I believe her name was something like Patty, or some other name that summons images of beehive hairdos and church-basement cassaroles) answered my question about the odd format with what sounded like another prepared spiel. They were trying not to bias the process, she said, and so they asked everyone exactly the same thing. My recorded conversation would be played for an analyst, and they would let me know within the week. Almost a week later, I got an e-mail saying that my skills were not a match, and thanks for my application.

Perhaps it's paranoid of me, but I've started to wonder if Patty or the analyst actually existed. It doesn't seem out of the question that a carefully-programmed answering service could have made that phone call. At any point, did real human beings see my application? And in a business that's based on communication, isn't it a little ridiculous that I could even ask?

Future - Present - Past