My son Jake, who is nearly 23, has always been more interested in money than either of his parents or any of his three older sisters. A lot more. We all work in or around the arts and are, by his standards, financially retarded. He is highly numerate and financially aware. Which is why, having graduated last summer, he is now making his way through that twisting, slippery pipeline that leads to a job in the City.
When I graduated what I really wanted to do was write books or make music, ideally both. But I lacked the nous to do anything about it. I was immature and suggestible and hard as it is to believe today, I briefly swallowed the line that with a law degree all I needed was an accountancy qualification and I would be fit to conquer the world. So I signed up with a firm of City accountants, stuck it for three months, then went to work in a bookshop.
The point is that someone, probably my banker stepfather, made a couple of phone calls and next thing I knew I had a job in the City. I don’t even remember being interviewed.
Things don’t work like that these days – and a good thing too. Many shockingly inept or unsuitable people ended up in all sorts of places they should never have been allowed within a mile of via the dial-a-friend network. But as a father whose son’s life has now been on hold for six months while he is passed through what amounts to a series of sieves, I have moments when I heartily wish it still did.
A couple of days ago Jake heard that he had been turned down for a place on the graduate scheme of a middle-sized City firm. It’s now the end of February. He began the process with that particular firm in October. He submitted a CV and a covering letter. He performed online psychometric tests. He had a short telephone interview. He was summoned to an assessment day. There he learnt that he was now one of only 19 out of a starting field of 500.
The day went well, he thought. A couple of days later he heard from one of the other assessees who had been rejected. Having heard nothing himself, Jake assumed that this boded well: he was probably down to the final dozen or so, with up to five jobs going. Another two weeks went by, punctuated by one email saying ‘no decision has yet been made’. And then at last the email we had not been hoping for:
We enjoyed meeting you at the recent assessment day and hope you found the day to be both enjoyable and informative. Thank you for participating. This is to let you know that you have not been selected for a place on our 2014 graduate programme. The decision was very difficult as all the candidates performed to a very high standard. If you would like feedback on how you performed, please let us know and we will send you some written feedback in a couple of weeks. We do wish you every success in your future career and thank you for your interest in working for […].
Best regards, Graduate Recruitment Team
No doubt the HR person who drafted it thought it was a perfectly reasonable way of imparting bad news, and by some measures it probably is; there are plenty of horror stories around. But to a young man who has been on tenterhooks for nearly three weeks, knowing he must be close to the prize, and now feels all the disappointment and hurt of rejection, there’s plenty about it that adds insult to injury. ‘It was a generic letter,’ he kept repeating angrily. ‘They sent me a generic letter.’ What’s more, there was no name to it.
It’s just a learning experience, one could say, part of being toughened up for the world of work. It might well happen again and next time it won’t hurt quite so much. It’s an early experience of market forces at work, the law of supply and demand, and so on. Anyway, quite apart from the impracticality of personalising rejection letters, the firm has no obligation to him.
But hang on. This is about values, which I’m sure that firm has and proudly asserts wherever it can. I’m equally sure that laziness and cowardice are not among them – because by a different analysis that letter is both lazy and cowardly. They engaged with Jake, and the other perhaps five young people who were turned down in the end, over a period of several months. They asked them to jump through hoops. They made them wait inordinately long before sending them casually on their way. Yet this was not a casual encounter.
What would it have cost someone to write half a dozen personal letters and put their name to them? What would it have said about that firm? A small thing perhaps in the broader scheme. But it would have been evidence of real humanity, a gleam in the dirt.
And Jake? He’s picked himself up and now he’s onto the next graduate scheme. He’s on the shortlist of 120 out of 1,300 applicants. Wish him luck.
There’s one place left on our workshop, The Stories We Tell, next weekend, 8/9 March. Join us for a weekend of reflection, insight and connection. More information here