From Night Shift Obit-Writer to Corporate Monkey: An HR Exec Reflects
by Jenni Wright
I spend most of my job coaching people on what to do with their careers. You might think this means I have my own life figured out. In reality, my job history shows a lack of focus and intense desire to live in locations that please me. From the mouth of a person who has likely looked at your resume, here is my career history:
Annual Conference Intern, Non Profit in D.C.
I was hired to do all of the logistics planning for the organization’s annual conference in Boston, MA. I found the job on idealist.org because that was back when I still had ideals and didn’t mind being broke. I believe it paid $10 an hour with a monthly metro card. My boyfriend at the time drove me out to D.C. for the summer where I lived in a married couple’s guest bedroom. The job was fairly low stress and my coworkers were nice. One time I won free burritos for the whole office when I dropped my business card in a fish bowl at Chipotle so I like to think that I was their favorite intern of all time. I also got a free trip to Boston out of the deal, where I learned the key lesson that networking is really about a bunch of highly paid people boozing.
I briefly considered staying in Washington D.C. because it’s an amazing city and you make friends at Front Page over pitcher beers and making fun of people who wear their Yale jacket to bars. I sadly left D.C. in favor of returning home to go to graduate school. Somewhere lingering in Dupont Circle is the ghost of the woman I would have been had I stayed.
Lesson learned: Sometimes the city makes the job. Also, if you are going to live in D.C. for the summer, live somewhere with air conditioning.
Obituary Editor, Night Shift
Ah Craigslist, you wanton beast. I was going to graduate school and looking for a gig that could accommodate my erratic student schedule. I found a posting on the old craig’ers for a part time editing position. The job was at a subsidiary of a legitimate newspaper. They had a snack room so I was sold. I worked all kinds of crazy hours, usually starting at 8pm after my evening class. Sometimes I worked onsite and sometimes I worked from home. It’s amazing what kind of people you run into when you live your life like a vampire, waking up at 2pm to start your day. For example, I encountered a crackhead that chased me on the el with a handful of Monopoly money. I fell in love with literally every boy I met at that job because they were all geeky writer/musician types who would crack jokes about punk bands and Russian history. We were allowed to listen to music while we worked and we tried to amuse ourselves with obscure covers of pop songs. When I reflect, these were the best coworkers I’ve ever had and sadly it was the lowest paying job I had in my adult life.
Lesson learned: I’ve found that the more money you’re paid the more you dislike your coworkers. Also, the snack room is your best friend and also your enemy depending on how easily you can resist free Cheetos.
Leadership Program at Giant Aerospace Company
This was my big break. I applied to a human resources leadership program at an aerospace company that probably some of you are familiar with. I was in my first year of grad school at the time and applied on a whim. Part of me was hoping I’d get rejected because if I got the job it meant I had to finish grad school in one year. No one in the program had done that before. I had an on campus interview that lasted 20 minutes so I assumed I didn’t get it. But I guess big corporate HR people don’t need silly things like lengthy interviews to determine how badass you are.
They flew me out to the East Coast for an interview process reminiscent of “The Apprentice.” Executives watched all of the candidates for three days straight as we had group meetings, gave presentations, interviewed, dined together and had to confess, in front of everyone, who we thought the worst candidate was. I got the job and accepted because apparently I wanted the aggressive, soul-crushing experience of being a corporate monkey. There were some perks: I got to move around the country on the company’s dime. I also took a few trips to Europe in business class for work. It all worked out for five years until I had one of those Talking Heads “is this my real life” moments and quit my job.
Lesson learned: People in business class refer to you by your full name. Also, the transition from graduate school to corporate monkey will be so jarring you’ll briefly consider going to law school or hiding in your parents’ basement forever.
HR Manager at Consumer Goods Company
I’ve learned that if you’re not an aerospace person you shouldn’t actually start your career in aerospace. When I tried to leave my previous job I kept hitting the wall of “well, you don’t have experience in XYZ industry and it’s totally different than aerospace.” That was no bueno. I was starting to panic that I’d never escape the clutches of satellites and airplanes.
I got a call from a consumer goods company who didn’t mind my background and happened to think my leadership program experience was an asset. They interviewed me at a hotel lobby at 7am. I remember liking the hiring manager and thinking he was sharp. Also, the breakfast interview is akin to going to the dentist’s office: you have something in your mouth while the person in front of you asks important questions.
I was interviewing with a giant toy manufacturer at the same time and was leaning towards going with toys. Why? Because they said I would be able to paint my office and fill it with all kinds of toy nonsense. That seemed like reason enough to join any company. Unfortunately, the toy company dragged their feet and the consumer goods company gave me a prompt offer which I ended up taking. That worked for a while until they asked me to leave my warm sunshine nest in California for a job on the East Coast. I spent the weekend in that East Coast town trying to make myself like it but the love wasn’t coming. I decided it would be best if I stayed on the west where wineries were a short drive away from my apartment.
Lesson learned: If you do well at a giant corporation, all roads lead to their corporate office. If that corporate office is in a location you’re not wild about, you’re going to have to make a tough decision.
Non Profit HR Manager
While my last company was asking me to turn in my flip flops for a parka, I got a call from a headhunter about an opportunity a mere three miles from my home. It was at a very well-known and respected nonprofit company where a bunch of brilliant people work and stare at the ocean from the office building. When I was waiting in the lobby to interview, one of the employees was talking to the receptionist about where to put his surfboard. I took this job and left corporate America, to the horror of my previous boss. When I gave notice he seemed a little dumbfounded that I would take a step down in title and responsibilities and jump off the corporate track.
His concern even made me briefly worried that I was ruining everything. But I took it anyways because my gut said it was time to work at a place where I actually cared about what we did. I’ve been at this job a year and there are some things I miss about corporate America (no more business class flights to Europe) and some things I don’t (pressure for impossible business results to satisfy the shareholders). Sadly, I have yet to pick up surfing while working here.
Lesson learned: Whatever is happening in the lobby while you wait for your interview is a good indication of the company culture.
Jenni Wright lives in Los Angeles where she can hear the ocean waves from her bedroom. You can find her work at Wine Will Fix It.