In the Kingdom of Darkness, the Blind Rule

(or, Recession?  What Recession?)

As I perused the Sunday paper business and career section this afternoon, I encountered a familiar-looking article.  It was addressed to novice job-hunters, and the subject was negotiating salary in the course of a job interview.  There were a lot of cautions about how employers probably don’t have as much wiggle room in setting salaries these days, so the job applicant shouldn’t make unrealistic demands, and shouldn’t talk about pay and benefits at all until everything else has been dealt with.

Nothing surprising, I suppose.  Similar to stuff I’ve read in the business and career sections before, except for the recession-linked cautions.

And I kept blinking and asking myself, “What planet does this writer live on?  Negotiate for salary?”

I found myself remembering stories my friends told me about their jobhunts.  One woman, who was switching career fields in her 30s or so, was asked by a prospective employer how much she had in mind for compensation.  She named a figure slightly lower than what she had been getting in her previous field.  The employer said quickly, “Oh no, we never pay our girls that much.”  Young feminist that she was, she was unable to keep herself from asking, “Yes, but what do you pay your women?”  Needless to say, she didn’t get the job.

Another friend of mine, who before becoming the stay-at-home mother of a child with a disability, had been a crackerjack executive secretary, interviewed for a part-time secretarial job with a nonprofit.  The ad she was responding to offered a pay range from $5.00 to $7.50 an hour (this was twenty-some years ago.)  After laying out her experience and skills, she asked about compensation, and the interviewer told her it would be six dollars an hour.  My friend reiterated her experience and skills, and pointed out that surely that ought to be worth $7.50.  (If it wasn’t, I told her later, then the $7.50 was reserved for Katherine Gibbs herself.) The interviewer drew herself up, in a huff, and said, “You can’t tell me how much money I’ll pay you.”  So much for negotiation.  My friend actually managed not to point out that she could, at least, decide how much it was worth her while to accept, when working would involve paying for commuting, work clothes, and child care, and that Lincoln had, after all, freed the slaves a while back.  She simply walked out and took her skills elsewhere.

Some years later, I worked in a law office that handled employment discrimination cases.  I interviewed at least three prospective clients with precisely the same story, all unknown to each other and working in entirely different fields, so these are independent cases.  All three of them had been fired after asking for a raise.  The employer’s rationale, in all three cases, was:
1. Asking for a raise = refusing to continue working at the current salary
2. Refusing to continue at the current salary = insubordination
3. Insubordination = valid grounds for firing.
Unfortunately, the law provided no remedy for any of these people, and I had to send two of them on their way. (The third had a reasonably decent case for discrimination aside from the immediate cause of her firing.)

In short, the job market in which my friends, my clients, and I have been operating since back in the ‘70s anyway was one in which the average job applicant or employee had no leverage and no ability whatever to negotiate salary, either before or after being hired—well before the current recession was a twinkle in George Bush’s eye.  And we are all well-educated, competent women with no serious self-esteem problems.

Well, okay, some things have changed. I got my first job in Chicago only after the nice lady from the employment agency I was working with was asked by the employer what method of birth control I used, and she told him I was on the Pill.  (Which in turn was only a couple of months after a phone call with the landlord of the apartment we were applying to rent at long distance, while we were still in Boston, in which he asked us what our “ethnic background” was, and we actually felt obliged to tell him.  And we weren’t even tempted to show up in blackface.  So yes, Virginia, the Civil Rights Act really did make a difference.)

Similarly, all the career articles one sees in business sections these days tell people it’s okay to have been fired or laid off, it’s happening to everybody, and nobody thinks it says anything about your competence or industriousness.  This is apparently something new, due to the Recession.

Mr. Wired was fired, sometimes very traumatically, at least 8 or 9 times in a total working life of 20 years.  I managed to get traumatically fired only 3 times over a somewhat longer period, but I suspect that’s because I was usually making a lot less money than he was.  Both of us have been characterized by most of our employers and co-workers as competent and energetic, but we were both a bit tone-deaf to office politics, I think.  If either of us had taken it personally or let it jam up our jobhunts, we would probably be living on the street by now.  But back then, nobody even talked about what to do after getting fired.  It just didn’t happen to Our Kind of People, apparently.  So we operated in the dark and managed to remain among the employed without any advice from the experts.

In short, we have apparently lived in our own private recession for the last 40 years, while the rest of the world was flourishing like the green bay tree.  Which no doubt gives us an advantage over a lot of other people who are just now getting dumped into the cold tub we have been swimming in for years.

Either that, or until very recently, everybody else has been lying.

Care to guess which?

Red Emma

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