Beware the cold-call job interview

Beware the cold-call job interview

I am familiar with bad jobs.
My youngest brother once took a job selling encyclopedias in California. The job involved wandering through unfamiliar neighborhoods, worrying about making a daily quota, cooking communal dinners and sleeping on the floor of a shared apartment. After a few weeks of this, my brother caught a ride back to Wisconsin.
My other brother once found a job selling environmentally friendly household products, which he first had to buy from his employer. One of the products was a laser-beam shower head that made showering a painful experience. As far as I know, my brother sold exactly one of these products — to my parents — before giving up and returning his inventory.
I have no idea how my brothers found these bad jobs. But I do know how I was lured into interviewing for a position that seemed equally horrible.
I went to this interview because somebody called my mother and told her he wanted to hire me. He said that he was trying to fill positions in his rapidly growing company and that I had been highly recommended.
I wasn’t looking for work at the time, but I was flattered to be recruited. I didn’t recognize either the man’s name or the company he worked for, but I did recognize the company’s multi-billion-dollar corporate parent. I was curious about the opportunity that had been dropped into my lap, and I was eager to find out who had recommended me.
So I called the man back. Before I knew it, I had agreed to meet with him the following morning. And then something strange happened. Right before hanging up, the man told me that his time was very valuable. If I needed to cancel the interview, he’d appreciate it if I would let him know.
“Sure,” I said.
Then I started to feel uncomfortable. The guy had said that his time was valuable, but he hadn’t mentioned anything about my time. My time was valuable, too. Did I need to call the guy back and let him know that my time was valuable, or would that be a waste of time?
Was this man in the habit of getting stood up by potential hires, or was he just taking the one-up position and letting me know that I was beneath him?
I started to wonder what kind of psychological strategy this guy was using, and what sort of effect it was having on me. Why did the experience of looking for work always make me feel inadequate?
Why was my entire world-view always transformed, albeit temporarily, by the experience of spending an hour with someone who was hiring?
What do job interviews to do people?
What was this job interview doing to me?

Crossing the threshold

When I walked into the man’s office the next morning, I was surprised to find the lobby filled with applicants. Each applicant was dressed in a navy suit, and each was scribbling furiously in a three-ring binder. When I asked to speak with the man who had telephoned my mother, the receptionist handed me a three-ring binder and told me to take a seat.
“He’ll be right with you,” the receptionist said.
“Okay,” I replied.
Fifteen minutes later, the guy had not materialized. I went back to the receptionist and reminded him that I was ready for my interview. But instead of going to find the guy, the receptionist asked whether I had finished filling out the application.
“No,” I said.
The whole process of filling out a multi-page job application in front of a bunch of extremely nervous job applicants, who were also filling out the same multi-page job application, was designed to make the job itself seem desirable. I refused to subject myself to pointless paperwork before I had any idea what the company did. And I wanted to let the receptionist know that while his boss’s time might be valuable, my time was valuable, too. So I went back to the receptionist and convinced him to let the guy know I was there.

Who are you, and where did you come from?

When the guy finally emerged, he looked a bit harried. We exchanged greetings, and then he asked me a question: Had I finished filling out the application?
“No,” I answered.
The guy suggested that I take a few minutes to finish filling out the application.
“But you’re the one who called me,” I responded. “And I don’t even know what your company does.”
“I’m getting to that,” the guy said. “But first I have to ask you a couple of questions.”
“When you called my mother, you said that someone had referred me to you,” I reminded him. “Can you tell me who gave you my name?”
“I’ve been trying to find that information,” the guy said. “All I know is, I came to work one day and there was a piece of paper on my desk saying that I should call you. So I called.”
“So you don’t know who gave you my name,” I said.
“No,” he replied.
“Okay,” I said. So no one had referred me. So this was a cold-call job interview. All right, I could handle that. But I still wanted to know what the guy’s company did.
“Our goal is to help people get debt-free and independent,” the man answered. Then he pulled out his binder and began to walk me through an infomercial.
As near as I could tell, the job involved convincing one’s family and friends to take out new mortgages. If I took this job, I would spend my time calling everyone I knew and asking them if they wanted to be debt-free and independent. When they said yes, I would have to try to set up a meeting, in their house, after work or on Saturday mornings.
The thought of performing these tasks made me depressed. And then it made me angry. Because this wasn’t just a boring, depressing job, with bad hours and socially-toxic side effects. Before I could start alienating everyone I knew, I would have to pay $199 and enroll in a series of classes so I could earn the right to do this work in the first place.
As I sat there listening to the pitch, I tried to think about the psychological devices the man had been using to make me think I wanted this job. First, the man had told my mother that he wanted to hire me. So my first contact with the company came through the person I trusted most.
Then the man asked me to go through an application process so he could see whether I was qualified for this job he had already offered.
When I completed the application process and was approved, the man said I might be able to get the job, if I paid $199 and took a series of classes.
In other words, I didn’t have the job, and I never had the job. I was getting pulled into a bait-and-switch scam that could potentially deprive me of $199. But even though I knew what was going on, I felt myself starting to fall for it.
I was proud of having been recruited for a white-collar position, and I was pleased that the guy wanted me to come back for another interview. Then I started to come to my senses.
This man was asking me to start a completely new business, at my own expense, so his parent company could profit from my labor. He was asking me to burn through my hard-earned social capital by forcing my friends, relatives, and acquaintances to hear his company’s sales pitch. He was asking me to give up my status as an independent human being and become subservient to him, following his rules and abiding by his schedule.
To top it all off, he was asking me to pay him for the privilege. That wasn’t going to happen.
If I was going to start a completely new business, and spend my own money, and eat up my social capital, and work evenings and Saturday mornings, then I was going to own that business one hundred percent. I wasn’t going to spend my money and burn my bridges to pad this guy’s bottom line and further enrich his corporate parent.
No way.
If I was going to take a job where I had to pay for on-the-job training, and where my compensation was commission-only, then I was going to be the one who decided what products and services I was going to sell.
A couple of days later, I had a conversation with a small-time entrepreneur who was pitching a nice little product she had created. The product wasn’t earth-shattering, but it filled a genuine need.
I wasn’t blown out of the water by the woman’s business concept. But I loved the fact that she was doing it on her own, without asking permission from anyone’s corporate parent.
She was an entrepreneur, and she owned one hundred percent of her little business.
That, by itself, was worth celebrating.
Teresa Esser is a contributing columnist for the Wisconsin Technology Network and author of the book, The Venture Café. She can be reached at
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.