Sunday, March 09, 2003

a question of integrity and need (aka how I never got to see Adaptation and lived to tell the tale)

So I had an interesting experience spanning several hours from late afternoon to late in the evening today. I have had time to reflect on what I did and I have no regrets about the decision and choices I made, but if you are reading this (and will continue to, till the end of this post), I'd like to know what you think. Here goes (all names abstracted for reasons of privacy, but also because they don't really matter).

1 pm EST. Lunch is done. I'm all set to head out for Adaptation when the phone rings. The person at the other end identifies himself as X from a consulting firm C, which happens to be elsewhere in the country. He happens to be a recruiter with this consulting firm C and is fielding me for a potential opening at Atlanta (me being local really helps, especially since the position requires me to start work tomorrow itself!). So we go over what I'd need to know for the job as well as questions from my side so that I could understand what I was getting into. I have a fair idea of how the consulting protocol works so everything was in order. X tells me that Y, probably from his firm or a go-between for the position at hand would talk to me. This talk would be a pre-screen to make sure I was on level. I indicate that I may be unavailable immediately and would a couple of hours later in the afternoon be fine. X says that urgency is the need of the hour (which is why he is working on a Sunday) and if I wasn't interested he could proceed with other candidates. Since offers and openings for interviews have been so few in this trying economy (especially given my international status), I have no real options. So I agree to field the call immediately. By now, any hope of catching Adaptation is lost.

I take a few deep breaths and compose myself before I call Y (X has given me the contact number). Y is fielding other calls and returns my call in a couple of minutes. He is convinced, at the end of a brief exploratory Q&A that I am not bluffing (he tells me that he has encountered several candidates who claimed to know stuff but weren't up to snuff and were only faking it. This is an important detail that I will address at the end of this involved narrative). I call X back as he requested and he informs me that the next step would be that I would talk to his supervisor G. Shortly he calls me back (instead of G, whose call I was expecting) and tells me that Y confirmed my feelings about the screening -- that I was OK. X now tells me that I have to call Z (not G, mind you), who is an employee with this Atlanta firm and Z will "interview" me for the opening. X instructs me to mention to Z that I was referred to him by X working for C -- thus setting up the chain of consultancy (in plainspeak: if the Atlanta firm decides to hire me, they will have to interact with C acting as my employer for all the logistics of payment and work detail). I am a bit surprised at this new development but I don't give it much thought.

I call Z up (again after a few breaths and a moment of composure -- to tell you the truth, I am feeling good about this experience: and this is beneficial for what must follow). Z asks me to send him my resume, which he will then refer to his boss and then they will get back to me about an interview, possibly in person, since I am a local candidate (Rather a busy afternoon, if I may say so). I call X back to update him on this development. The reason I do this is twofold (a) Since X is "responsible" for me, I have to keep him updated on all counts till the deal is through (b) X had some comments about my résumé and I got the impression that he wanted to tailor it a bit so that the match for the requirements would stand out. X asks me to email him my résumé.

At this point I must break to (sheepishly) confess that I don't have a computer at home. This may seem strange, but as a student I lived so close to campus that not having one helped me live a non-tech-dominated life if I chose to (also, if I had possessed a computer, it would have been gone by now). Since this was a weekend, I was at home, to begin with. Which meant I'd have to head out to my usual access points (my former place of work/my lab). X is not too taken aback, but since Z has also hinted that there could be an in-person interview, I get into some business casuals and head out to my lab. Despite the urgency of the situation, I am calm (which helps) and unhurried. So there's no undue haste.

Once I'm in the lab, I call X back and he has already sent me the reformatted résumé. This is where things get interesting. Did I say "reformatted"? Make that "fabricated". This résumeé makes me look like what X describes as a "professional consultant". This puts me in a quandary. Apparently, X doesn't see any moral issues in this. He expects me to go over this "new" profile of my work experience and see if I can handle/defend all the technologies. I must admit, right away, that defending exposure to technologies is never a problem to me. Most people (as do I) pack their résumé with technologies that they have worked with, regardless of how much they have used it. Extent of knowledge can always be explored in interviews. Having a diversity on your résumé is always good and tells your prospective employer that you are worth taking a look at.

Back to the main story. So I go over this new profile of my life as I never knew it and my conscience has already started kicking in double-time. I can't do this. There's no way in the world I can corroborate and support such vicious lies. Sure, the economy is tough. Sure, the job market sucks. Sure, I have limited work experience. Sure, I stand to lose out on a potential stable job if I don't go through with this. But at what price? Yes, we have all seen countless movies extolling virtues and nobility (the Indian cliché is Raja Harishchandra). And stuff like that usually happens in the movies. Well, maybe I learnt from the movies. Maybe I believed in that stuff. Maybe I deserve to sit with a dunce cap saying "this guy was actually honest" or "this guy actually had some integrity". I call up a couple of friends who are employed to find out what they thought about this. It's probably useful to mention that the consulting firm C had no website of its own. This may not be such a bad thing, but does strike me as odd. It's like the secret government agencies in The X Files: they don't exist. One friend affirms my position and augments my level of caution. The other friend, surprisingly, tells me that (a) this is common (b) a lot of people out there are working with similar concocted résumés and, since a job was a priority for me, I should consider going ahead with it, because, there's no harm that will come out of it (something that even X has tried to tell me). Now I may be thinking too idealistically, but I can imagine at least a dozen unsavoury situations where I might be taken to task for this fake past at some point in the future. And it's not just the possibility of being persecuted. This new work profile also belittles the honest work that I have actually done in the past. All in all, not a pretty package. Another friend isn't available to take my call -- and probably just as well -- this way I won't really know what he thinks (and can assume that he would have sided with me).

I call X back and politely indicate that this is "morally unacceptable". In fact, I remember actually using these words at which point I could hear him groan and sigh about what he had gotten himself into. Technically, I had been a waste for him as a potential source of income and a useful sheep to herd about in the future. I still find it surprising that he never really expected me to have a righteous reaction to the whole thing (all through our conversation, he offered to trim things down in terms of detail but wanted to stick to the years of experience, assuring me that this would help avoid any detailed questions). To top it all, I am confident (based on the job description I received) that I could do the job, and do it well. I had no need to resort to subterfuge and present myself as over-qualified. So what if I seemed "entry level"? So what if I didn't seem to have too much experience in the industry hotbed of buzzword-based technology? Didn't honest diligent work matter any more. Suffice to say that, with me sticking to my ground, the only option he had was to go along. I must thank him though since the résumé we finally agreed upon was everything on my true profile, enhanced with detail to match the opening. It is now past 7pm. I should hear from Z (if they find me suitable) before 9pm.

It's 8:50pm now. I have a headache. I don't expect a call. I don't feel bad about what I just did. Just one thought runs through my head right now: Y told me he was screening people to rake out the ones who were bluffing. Yet, they were about to manufacture a fake me, who was supposed to succeed in this screening. A cyclic problem, don't you think? Of course, I never got to see Adaptation. I wish Sliding Doors were a reality for me right now, at least so I could explore the possible alternative evening I would have had, if the phone call hadn't come through while I was still at home... And I wonder if it's prudent to mention that X, Y and Z were Indians? A lot of my Indian friends would probably have made a guess to this effect. And since I am Indian myself, a couple of unconscious connections were made. As for non-Indian readers, I agree that this puts the community in a poor light, but we can rest assured that such occurrences are few and far between. Then of course, we must not forget the debacle that was Andersen Consulting. So the issues of integrity in a consulting firm are clearly not territorial.

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