Beware of Little Lies From a Future Boss

Published: Mar 31, 2009

 Workplace Issues       

Here's what Marc Russell was promised for his first job out of college:a position in a fast-growing consulting firm helping Fortune 500 companiessolve complex business problems and technology needs -- with ampleopportunity for rapid career advancement, international travel and stockoptions.

This fairy tale gave way to a scary truth: He spent three months in anempty room in the Seattle suburbs waiting his turn to play BattleZone onthe company's fast computer.

That was the good part.

His longest trip was from Seattle to Portland. He got all of 10 stockoptions, which he has since lost. His biggest project was working for theKings County Jail, where his keenest insight was that the corndogs don'thave sticks. He wrote software tracking inmate movement. (How far couldthey go?) And there was this spooky perk no one warned him about: "Theclient threatened to keep us there if he didn't get what he wanted," saysMr. Russell of one prison administrator. "He was only half joking."

Of his year at the consulting firm, Mr. Russell says: "Sometimes Iwonder how I ever let that happen."

Before you're even on the payroll, many of you encounter your firstlies: about opportunity, making a difference, travel, work from home,hiring staff and spending almost as much company money as you make. Sospellbound, you believe your job is to leap tall buildings. Benefitsinclude Brooklyn Bridge ownership. Play your cards right and you'll be theLeader of the Free World.

Once the hex wears off, you find yourself in an odd corner of America,your spouse ripping mad, the kids uneasy and your eyes aglaze at your jobdescription, which omitted the word "catastrophe."

"It's epidemic," says executive agent Neal Lenarsky. Sometimes, it's acase of serial swindling: The hiring manager hasn't figured out yet that healso doesn't have the job and authority he thought he had. "Most of thehiring executives are lying to themselves," he says.

Adds Alan Sklover, an attorney who specializes in employment issues:"It's the most underestimated provision in the employee contract: what'syour job." He recalls two clients poached by a firm that wanted to start acompetitive business. The company changed its mind. "They were hired tojobs that never existed," he says.

Realistic job previews lead to more organizational commitment fromemployees, less turnover and higher job satisfaction, says Ben Dattner, whoheads his own consulting firm. Overpromise, he warns, and "the honeymoonwill come to a rapid and unfortunate end."

If hoodwinkees stay, they badmouth the hoodwinkers and hardly work. Theissue has been so studied that there are studies of studies. The legalprofession has coined a name for the bogus schmooze: the Summer AssociatesProgram.

Part of the problem is we want to believe. In the early 1990s, DeborahErickson was wooed away from her editorial post at Scientific American tojoin a think tank. She was to study healthcare reform, write white papersand take "a front-row seat at the fray" in Washington. It was a chance --and you can almost see this spell cast from the employer's magic wand -- to"participate in this great social change." The courtship included a weekendin Martha's Vineyard.

She never went to Washington, viewed the "fray" from afar, and clutteredher agenda with "nothing, nada, squat and bupkis."

Nothing? "Dude, I mean nothing," she says.

She kept asking for work and hoping it would get better. "It really wasa horrible experience," she says. "It was heartbreaking."

Part of the problem is that job descriptions are written with theslipperiness of classifieds and personals. A brief lexicon from onerecruiter: "Character building" means the job stinks, "mentoring" means"you've got a staff so inept you're a babysitter," "expense account"translates into "a bagged lunch so you can stay at your desk" and "teamworking environment," means noisy cubicles, says Don Steinmann, who usedsuch euphemisms when he put together a team of computer programmers.

But he quickly learned the error of his ways. He had to be morerealistic, he says, otherwise employees leave within months -- at no smallcost to the company. "All of that money is just flushed down the toilet,"he adds.

Thirty years ago, Danny West, a softspoken 57-year-old computerprogrammer, was wooed from Sunnyvale, Calif., to Houston. A computercompany promised him work on a new mini-computer, and showed him where hislovely office would be. A dynamic supervisor impressed him. He and his wifemoved halfway across the country and bought a house.

By the time he started, his job had been given away and his supervisorreplaced by one "as dynamic as a dish rag," he recalls. He didn't helpbuild the new minicomputer, but maintained older ones. His office was adesk in a row where his chair bumped another behind him. "They wereinhumane," says Mr. West.

Within two months the company said it was moving to Austin, take it orleave it.

He left it.