Winner nzric Short Story Contest 94: Catch 22
Well... this was written as just a bit of fun, and a dig at my experience working as a frontline consultant in a CBD recruitment firm back in the day.
I know I am supposed to be exploring different styles of writing, and it feels like slightly a cop-out as I have chosen the same smirking, tongue-in-cheek narrative as my "Reincarnation" story. But I think I've focused a lot more on characterisation here, even if I purposely didn't get too far inside Toby's head. It's written from Toby's viewpoint so you could say he's the protagonist, but I didn't want to make either character too empathetic.
nzric - The Recruitment Company
The underside of the old office desk was pock-marked with Rorschach blots of old chewing gum stains and Toby ducked further as he felt his hair catch on something sticky. He reached further around the back of the old hard-drive with the monitor cable and screwed it tightly into the plug, hearing the dull static “thunk” above him as the monitor came back to life.
Backing out gingerly through the dust balls and assorted refuse of paperclips & spent staples, Toby stood up, trying to smooth the creases in his white dress shirt. His navy blue tie, a grey swipe of dust along one edge, hung limply over one shoulder and he straightened it with one hand, the other shaking the air in mock triumph as he glanced around the assessment room. Out of the four other applicants, two starched and suited grad students stared at him dully from their own computers, a middle aged, slightly overweight office manager type looked up at him with obvious distaste, drumming her fingers on the stocking of one knee where her floral dress rode up. The other applicant in the assessment room was a young power-suited girl with her black hair in a tight bun. She had her back to Toby and completely ignored him, still in the frantic throes of her typing test.
“Toby Davidson?” a pert voice asked from behind him. Toby turned to the front of the room with one fist still in the air, but he put it down quickly and self-consciously brushed at the creases at the front of his shirt.
The Recruiter tapped her clipboard with a pen the same russet shade as her long nails, standing in the wide office doorway with a pose that was clear she was used to being looked at. Toby guessed she was about five years older than him, somewhere in her mid-twenties but the tailored grey suit and slightly heavy make-up made her seem older.
“Uh.. yeah… that’s me,” Toby said, for a moment completely losing the composure he had held for the last twenty minutes since he had arrived.
“Well hiya Toby! my name is Katie and I am your Recruitment Consultant,” the Recruiter put out her hand and gave a wide, professional smile that didn’t reach her eyes. As Toby shook her hand she tucked the clipboard under her arm with her left hand, took a practiced step to the side and cupped his elbow gently in her hand, keeping hold of his right hand and leading Toby in a quick pace back past the buffed metal Reception desk. Corporate Aikido, he thought to himself.
“Wait.. hold on,” Toby started, already halfway down a long corridor to the side of Reception, “I haven’t finished the computer test yet.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that!” she replied, steering him in a ninety-degree angle and into a small booth just big enough for the two red swivel chairs and a PC on a semi-circular table.
She took her clipboard from under her arm with a flourish. “Well Toby, would you like to have some water before we start?” she asked, clicking her pen quickly with a tempo that matched her quick speech.
“No, it’s okay, thanks” he replied.
She gave him another predatory smile and began scribbling something on the clipboard. “Oh, are you absolutely sure you don’t want some water? It’s really no trouble at all.”
Toby felt his face getting redder. He arched his neck but she kept the clipboard facing away from him. “Well, um, okay then.”
“Right,” she said, turning a page over on the clipboard and making a few pen scratches. She swivelled on one high heel and came back within seconds with a tall glass of water, clipboard under her arm.
She put the glass in front of him, leaning forward slightly as she did it and hooking the base of the door with one heel. It swung closed gently and she sat at the chair with the monitor and keyboard. Unsheathing the clipboard again and holding it at a forty-five degree angle from his vision, she started jotting down more notes.
After a minute, Toby tried to break the silence. “Thanks for seeing me… Katie. I’m not sure if you have seen my resume but I saw a few jobs your agency was advertising and..”
“Is Toby your real name?” she interrupted absently.
“Well yeah, of course,” he answered.
“Andrew…” she looked up at him, “that’s good… could be a bit stronger than Toby don’t you think… Andrew Davidson. You haven’t considered..”
“What, changing my name? Well, no.. I..”
“No problem, just asking,” she smiled again and waved her pen dismissively. “Right. Ok then. We have the results of your computer test and I have to say it’s a good start.”
“I didn’t do the test,” Toby said. “Like I said, I finished the typing test but then the computer crashed.”
“Yes. Absolutely. Annoying wasn’t it?”
“Anyway. Sixty words per minute typing… very good… and a B minus on the computer crash. Good use of initiative to ask Reception… crawling under the dusty desk, good, good.. checking power connections.. good use of initiative. Do you want to see the video?”
“You mean the crash was part of the test?”
She looked up from his notes with a smirk, “not too quick on the mark though…”
“Hey, that’s out of line,” Toby said defensively.
“Now Toby, it’s just a quick way for us to find out how you act in a work situation. We already know your demographic can use the normal office software packages, but the test is how much initiative and enthusiasm you show in a work environment. Right now we’ve got one of the other applicants fixing a broken printer in the assessment room, and another is adding an app to our Receptionist’s cellphone.”
Toby settled himself down and the Recruiter pulled two stapled documents from the back of the clipboard, sliding one across the table to him. It was two pages of neatly formatted text and diamond-tipped bullet points. At the top of the page was his name in bold sans serif – ‘Toby Andrew Davidson’. “So, on to your application,” she began, “this is your CV, we put all our applicant CVs into the agency format. Take a look through.”
The CV was in a standard template format but it read easily. Toby scanned the document – BSc Erendon University, three years as part-time Office Administrator at his uncle’s kitchenware franchise, ‘Davidson Kitchenware-house’ – he skipped to the next page.
“Looks like my CV got mixed up with another one,” he started, “I never worked as Junior Teller at ‘Cheepo Kitchen World’.”
“No, that’s yours. This is your notional CV. Check the dates.”
The Cheepo job was dated ‘August 2011 to June 2012.’ Following this was a stint from ‘June 2012 to March 2016’ as a Warehouse Junior Assistant at Stan’s Bargain Kitchen Emporium. In the ‘Qualifications’ section under his BSc was a Certificate of Participation in a half-day “Stan’s Sales Winnership Workshop’ in August 2014.
“You see,” Katie began, answering his unspoken question, “nowadays employers only want to hire someone with prior full-time experience, but as a recent graduate you don’t have that experience and you can’t get it unless an employer offers you a job. It’s a classic Catch-22 situation.”
“Okay,” Toby said, “so this is supposed to be what kind of job I’d want?”
Katie’s expression brightened and she lifted her copy of the document to make a short note on the clipboard underneath. “You’re right, this shows the potential career development a person like you could have if they were given a chance with the right employer.”
He flushed. “If this is supposed to be the kind of job I’d want to work in it’s aiming pretty low, don’t you think? This job with my uncle was just to get me through my studies. I’m not going to spend the next five years in the back room of an appliance warehouse.”
“Of course you have your hopes and dreams of the perfect job out of university, but the reality is often a lot different,” She looked at him steadily. “And there’s nothing wrong with a good days work for a good days pay. Anyway, these are just notional jobs at notional companies. The main thing is employers want to see a narrative of your career progression.”
She slid the slimline keyboard to face her and tapped in her name and password. Toby saw his file come up on the screen, his personal and work details in grey and white text boxes.
“We can correct this to make it more accurate. The CV you are holding is just a sample based on the CV you sent us and the demographics of your age, gender, ethnic background, that kind of thing,” Katie continued as she scrolled through the screen, “we can really refine it if we get your other details. Are you ok with that?”
“Well, I guess” Toby said, unsure.
“So it’s ok for us to ask your University for access to your academic records?”
“Sure, but I already said in my CV that I have a B plus average.”
“That’s great,” Katie smiled and ticked a checkbox on the screen, “it’s just much more accurate though if we get the actual records. Don’t worry, the information is all online so it’ll take no time at all, we just need your consent to link our system to the university database. Now, how about your credit background? That’s good to show an employer you’re trustworthy.”
“Well…” Toby started.
“Great, ok then,” she continued typing. “Now, how about tax records, credit card, medical summary, criminal background check and no-fly list, phone and internet records, your social media accounts, internet forum history, blog account keywords, online purchases, club memberships, video rentals, power, water and electricity billing, home rental agency details and home, personal and pet insurance?”
“I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with this” Toby said.
“You’re right, I’ll cut out pet insurance – I always think that’s just excessive” she said. Before Toby could interrupt she tapped a green “Submit” button on the screen and the computer hummed busily. In seconds the screen refreshed with another neatly formatted resume, his name again at the top.
“Great, let’s see what we’ve got,” Katie scrolled down the page. “I see it’s put you down as starting a Post-Graduate Certificate in 2013. That’s good. Working as a ‘Marketing Assistant’ then as ‘Branding Consultant’ in the city by 2013 too. Wow! Go you!”
The screen was still in the crisp agency format but this resume had a lot more detail. It listed time in different roles at each company, the predicted salary and his strengths and weaknesses for each area of work. Toby still felt uneasy but curiosity got the better of him. He always wanted to get into marketing and graphic design but at this stage it was just a hobby he was tinkering with on his blog. It was strange but slightly gratifying to see the computer thought he had potential.
His salary wasn’t huge but it seemed like a fairly good living. Katie scrolled to the next page. It listed some of the accounts he was supposed to work on, including – he was pleased to see – some major consumer brands. The listing for the first employer read “Reason for leaving: Ref.192” and Katie stopped scrolling, but not before Toby read the title of the next employer in September 2013 – ‘Davidson Kitchenware-house’.
“Oh, that’s not good” Katie said, facing him and studying him intently.
“What’s not good? And why is my uncle’s business listed as the next employer? I thought this was saying I work in the city?”
“It’s a 192.” Katie took her pen out and wrote ‘192’ in large letters at the base of the clipboard notes, then closed the folder.
“The computer says you work on teams for some big clients for the next few years. The boss gives you a chance to account manage a major client as a trial – a good opportunity to prove yourself.”
“So why isn’t that good?”
“Well, it doesn’t work out. The contract goes bad – could be a lack of creativity or it could be you just don’t have the selling ability… Anyway, you lose the account, the client pulls out a lot of money from the company.”
“How can a computer say that?” he answered, “that’s stupid. It can’t make that kind of guess about how I’d act.”
“Toby, this computer is pretty accurate. You can’t agree on all the good things it says but ignore the bad stuff. Statistically, it’s saying there’s a high probability you just don’t have it in you.”
“Well run it again” Tony demanded “Another one of those notional jobs. Those must be just freak results.”
“Sorry Toby, it doesn’t work that way,” Katie said. “This is a profile based on the sum of all your records. There’s only one profile.” She closed down the computer and started to stand up. “Now, Toby, I’m sorry but I don’t think we have the right kind of jobs for you.”
“This is insane,” Toby said. “That job isn’t even real. You can’t base a judgement about how an imaginary me might work in an imaginary job.”
“Notional, not imaginary,” she corrected. “And Tony, if we didn’t use the notional information, what else could we use? You don’t have any experience.”
Tony stood up as she opened the door. “Well, I’m leaving anyway,” he said, trying to be firm. “If your business works like this I don’t know if I even want to apply to your agency!”
“Now that’s the spirit Toby!” Katie answered and patted him on the shoulder as she marched him back to reception.
“I mean it,” Toby said half-heartedly, “once somewhere gives me a chance to work, I’ll show you what my potential is.” They walked past reception and into the entryway where an elevator was waiting, doors open.
“I know, it seems unfair,” Katie said as he stepped into the lift. “No hard feelings, huh?” She reached out her hand and Tony shook it.
“You’re missing a good opportunity to give me a job,” he said. “I don’t care what the computer says, I’ve got a lot I could offer.”
“I know you do,” Katie smiled warmly and stepped back from the lift. “There’s a lot of jobs out there and I’m sure there’s one that’ll be perfect for you. Have you ever considered kitchenware?”
Tony felt the blood rush to his face and he went to answer, but he was too late. The doors slid shut and he felt the short drop as the elevator started the descent to the ground floor.
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