Ever come across skinflint employers in job interviews? The next few posts describe my run-ins with a few of these year round Scrooges.
Located between Fifth and Madison, the address housing numerous galleries is a fancy-schmancy brownstone. Upstairs I have an appointment with the owner of a photography gallery who is interviewing for a gallery manager. Have I ever managed a photography gallery? No. Have I ever worked in a photography gallery? No. But I love photography and art. Not to mention cash is a tad low at the moment. So up I go.
While waiting for the owner to appear, I check out the quality of the photographs. They’re high end. Nothing too surreal or garbage canny. First hurtle cleared. The second hurtle – the atmosphere – is another matter. I feel a sense of unease, a whiff of negativity in the air.
Slight and stoop shouldered, the gallery owner appears. Two minutes later it’s clear this place is his 24/7 life. He does almost all the talking – which is fine by me. But no banter escapes his lips, no humor. His tunnel vision and absorption with his own monologue are making me increasingly apprehensive.
Occasionally out of town at traveling exhibitions, he tells me he needs some one to run the gallery in his absence. A piece of cake, I assure him. This leads to the topic of work hours. As I suspected, working Saturdays is part of the deal. But as I in no way – no how – expected, working late nights is also part of the deal. For upcoming exhibitions the entire staff works after business hours to hang the photographs. (I catch glimpses of myself hauling heavy frames up and down ladders, polishing glass mounts, and sweeping floors). And just how extended might those night hours be, I delicately inquire. “It depends,” he replies, his intensity lowered to an off-hand tone. “Sometimes it goes quite quickly and sometimes…less quickly.” Sensing my unasked question about receiving extra compensation for this extra time and labor, he assures me oh so casually that his employees simply match any extra hours worked with time they take off in the future. Little red flags start flapping in the distance. Normally comp time is an equitable arrangement. But I’ve also heard from those with first hand experience that it doesn’t work for employees who are seriously overloaded and overworked in the first place. Any future time they attempt to take off to match their overtime only sinks them deeper into the quagmire of their already impossible, never-caught-up jobs. To actually take that time off would sink them faster than boulders, so they continue working extra hours for free just to stay afloat.
And one glance at his gallery crew as he summons them out to meet me confirms my suspicions that they are indeed overworked. Badly. Shuffling toward me in New York black, they are three ivory-pale zombies. Smudges of purple-black line their expressionless eyes. They mumble in the dull monotones of the shell-shocked…. Lifeless as black sacks, they suck the room dry of oxygen.
Restraining myself from jumping up and making a break for the stairs, I instead find myself following the galley owner up a rickety staircase to a tiny windowless room. “Our office,” he explains, with an expansive sweep of his arm. Our? More than one person works in this rabbit hutch? He steps up to a long table, its’ entire surface piled high with papers and books and bills and paper coffee cups and phones and general office junk. He picks up some papers and leafs through them. “This is my desk,” he announces. He indicates 2 chairs to his left at the same table. “Two of the staff sit here.” He points to a chair on his right inches from his, “And this would be your seat.”
I would think it a lame joke except there they are – four seats mere inches from each other at this single junk piled table. How do they know where one person’s junk ends and another begins? Or does everyone’s work end up as shared scrambled eggs? Imagine – the thrill of it – working mere inches from your employer. How marvelous to have him overhear your every word and phone conversation and to have him note your every arrival and departure and absence from your dump of a desk and to have him right at your elbow (really at your elbow) every time you take a breather or look up or out the window, except here, foolish lady, there are no windows. And most delightful of all – to have at long last found your very own big brother to check your computer screen every second of the day to keep unapproved communications from the outside world from diverting the attention of his oh so busy little worker bees.
That’s the last thing I remember about that interview. That and my quick prayer of thanks once I made it out the front door. I was out of there. I was free. And in my head I danced all the way home.