The Incumbent: Chapter 3

It's an intricate web of murder plots, government conspiracies and rampant tanning. Oh, and the future of the entire nation.

ZDNet Australia is proud to bring you a serialised version of Phil Dobbie's novel The Incumbent. A new chapter will be published here as part of his blog each week on Tuesday. You can also buy the entire book by clicking here.

Someone once said, rather unfairly, that those who can't do, teach. This is clearly a stupid statement because it ignores the more realistic likelihood of becoming a recruitment consultant.

Simon Peabody was one such person. Unable to find a proper job he had become a cog in the wheel of the immense human resources department at VastTel. Even though there hadn't been much choice in the matter, many years down the track he still wondered whether he was in the right career. Most people in human resources seem to get on well with, well, humans. Not Peabody, though. He hated them. They were smarter than he was, more outgoing and most had sex from time to time. He often thought he'd be happier if he was the only person left in the world, an outcome that would have no impact on his social life whatsoever.

Jones was there to shine the whole extent of Peabody's own pitiful mediocrity back in his face.

The rest of the human resources (HR) profession [sic] were okay around other people. Even when they were sacking someone they saw it as nothing more than a friendly chat; they'd ignore the reaction from those who were losing their jobs, as well as their self-worth and subsequent loss of their marriages, their houses and, possibly, if they took it all very badly, their lives. HR people would ignore such reactions, because their focus was on informing and enforcing. Listening was not a key requirement for the job, except at quarterly four-day overseas conferences where they would listen for hours to self-professed gurus prattling on as though human resources was some sort of advanced discipline that only those with a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience could even begin to comprehend. At such events they would collectively suspend the reality that the only reason they were engaged in the profession was because they couldn't get a job doing anything else.

Peabody disliked everyone, but he despised Jimi Jones more than most. Here was a young man who was intelligent, confident, reasoned and decidedly easy going. It was as if Jones was there to shine the whole extent of Peabody's own pitiful mediocrity back in his face. Normally he would find a slight nervous twitch, or a bead of sweat on the forehead; anything that would expose a glimmer of self-doubt that Peabody could use to reassure himself that an individual was far from perfect. Then he would use this weakness to render the person unemployable.

'You're looking very nervous,' he'd usually say. 'We need someone more confident for this role.' He'd often go on to suggest the person needed therapy to get over an obvious deep-seated neurosis and advise against any hope of pursuing a professional career; unless, of course, it was in human resources.

But there wasn't even the slightest whiff of self-doubt with Jones.

'Dammit,' thought Peabody, who wanted to engineer a way for this young upstart to tread a less lucrative career path and make compromises that would lead to a life spent without money, love or respect. 'If I can achieve that sort of outcome,' Peabody had thought, 'then I will have made a difference.' He liked the idea of having some sort of influence, even if it had negative connotations.

Yet there seemed nothing he could do to knock the wind out of Jones' sails.

Sure, the young man would fail the interview. Peabody had already decided that long before he walked through the door. His curriculum vitae had sealed that fate. It was far too well ordered, with impressive school and tertiary qualifications and a series of extra curricula activities that had 'success' written across them.

'And he wants a job in our marketing department!' Peabody had scoffed. At VastTel, even he realised, marketing was a place for losers. That meant candidates had to be selected very carefully. Someone with talent could really upset the balance.

Key to this position is the ability to devise complex pricing plans that will confuse people into paying too much for something they don't really want

But refusing Jones a job wasn't enough for Peabody. That would leave him free to go elsewhere and make a name for himself; a single knockback from a bumbling bureaucracy like VastTel wasn't going to slow this one down. Peabody was desperate to break through his confidence, to make him question his abilities and ultimately lead him down a less lucrative career path.

'You do understand what this job requires?' asked Peabody.

'Yes, I think so,' said Jones.

'It's in product marketing,' said Peabody dismissively. 'I suppose it's okay for a start, but you'd want to do something better than this wouldn't you?'

'Actually, I think it's a very important job.'

'Really?' said Peabody, who wasn't sure what the job entailed but assumed, because it had the word marketing in it, that it wasn't anything of any real consequence.

'It looks like a bit of a dead-end job to me.'

'No, on the contrary, I chose it for the opportunity it provides to build my career.'

Peabody wasn't enjoying the conversation. Did people really 'build their career', rather than make do with what came along? Maybe they did. People with ability, perhaps. Not people like Peabody, who was already giving up hope of bringing Jones down to size. He needed to cut the conversation short because it was starting to damage his own brittle self-esteem. He sensed another sleepless night of loathing and self-doubt lay ahead.

'Product marketing is all about getting the right product to people, so they are happy with their purchase and, at the same time, they are adding value to the company through profits and brand loyalty.'

Peabody knew Jones had just said something, but God knows what.

'That's not what it says here,' said Peabody, reading from the job description. 'Key to this position is the ability to devise complex pricing plans that will confuse people into paying too much for something they don't really want, whilst ensuring they have signed away at least 10 years in a binding contract that they will quickly regret.'

The frankness of the description had been left unnoticed because, until now, nobody had ever read it.

It wasn't an approach Jones personally agreed with. He believed in old-fashioned notions like offering value-for-money and excellent customer service. It's curious why, with such beliefs, he would want to work in telecommunications.

'Let's take the VastTel Weekend Family Saver,' said Jones, excitedly. 'Here's how I can double profits in a week.'

VastTel's Weekend Family Saver allowed you to call a nominated relative, say Aunt Mavis, for free between midnight and 4am, when she was asleep, provided you paid twice as much for all your other calls and so long as Aunt Mavis was a VastTel customer, along with all her existing and subsequent offspring (see the VastTel website for full terms and conditions). 'Wake Aunt Mavis for free,' ran the newspaper ads, which were followed by a page of terms and conditions, in fine print and subject to change at a moment's notice, normally in the short period between when the newspaper was printed and when it appeared on a newsagent's shelf. Included in these conditions was a line declaring that if you didn't have an Aunt Mavis calls would be charged at applicable rates, which were changed daily to help Zorblestein balance the budget.

He sounded like he knew exactly how to confuse customers, which was pretty much what jobs in product marketing were all about.

'Let's allow you to add another relative,' Jones suggested excitedly, 'who you can call for free anytime, provided they live locally and have a mobile phone with us. You pay a flat $40 for the privilege and we triple the rate on the mobile calls made by that second relative.'

It was confusing, Peabody had to confess. In fact, it added a level of pricing complexity to which the marketing department were yet to aspire.

'Will it work?' he asked.

'Of course it will work,' said Jones confidently. 'No one is going to understand it and the associated terms and conditions will go on for pages. We'll make a fortune on mobile phone charges in exchange for free calls to a relative they probably don't want to speak to in the first place.'

Peabody thought about it. He had to admit, it was certainly the way they liked to do things, at least in those rare moments when they did anything at all. And all this extra money could be ploughed into even more staff, whose presence could ensure that far too many people became involved in any decisions the company tried to make, leading to further obfuscation and delay.

In that sense Jimi Jones could be useful. He sounded like he knew exactly how to confuse customers, which was pretty much what jobs in product marketing were all about; although, to be fair, it wasn't just product marketing who focused on customer confusion. The call centre was particularly good at it, too.

Jones wasn't at all committed to his suggestion. He was just saying what he thought was needed to get him through the interview stage. His plan was to make great changes once he was inside.

Peabody might have sensed that. He knew the youngster was a danger to the company. Soon he'd be talking about profits and efficiency and satisfaction. He shuddered at the thought of it. Clearly this job was not going to go to Jimi Jones, nor would he ever be considered again for any of the large number of jobs that become available at VastTel each year. There were many other, far less capable people, who would be left unemployed if it wasn't for VastTel. It was Peabody's duty to give jobs to those incapable of finding work elsewhere. Jobs like this couldn't be wasted on someone as employable as Jones.

It was Peabody's duty to give jobs to those incapable of finding work elsewhere.

As Jones explained further complex pricing schedules, Peabody was rewriting the job description. He'd noticed that, beyond the frank explanation of how the job was there to make a customer's life misery, it went on to contain offensive words like profit, achieve and amenable. Instead, he crafted a couple of paragraphs that, with a small degree of subtlety, suggested that this was a perfect opportunity for an underachiever to find himself in a secure role, in a big company, where there wasn't too much pressure to deliver anything.

Like any company VastTel always used phrases like 'exciting opportunity' and 'establish your career' and 'make your mark' in its job advertisements, but they tended to temper them somewhat, so more realistic candidates came forward. For example, 'it's possible, but unlikely, that this could be a fairly exciting opportunity for the right person who might be able to use this to establish their career, or at least tide them over for a year or two, with the possibility of making a mark somewhere down the track, almost certainly with another company.'

Of course, it was the earlier version of the job description, littered with positive energy, that had enthused Jimi Jones and encouraged him to submit his résumé. Despite being deliberately hidden away amongst classified ads for gardening equipment, there had been a big response to the advertisement. Jones' application was lost in the middle of the pile that spent four months in Peabody's in-tray, before it accidentally slid into a pile of papers from people who were to be called for an interview.

It reminded him of what he liked about human resources — that sense of power; the control over a person's destiny.

So his invitation had been an administrative error. There was never any chance that Jones would work at VastTel and they certainly didn't want people like him in the building, even for an interview, with their smart clothes, polished shoes and positive attitudes. The best thing now was to get him out of the office as quickly as possible, and avoid any further communication.

'We'll be in touch,' said Peabody eventually. And that was it, as far as he was concerned. If Jones tried to call, he'd be unavailable. If he emailed, Peabody would send it back with a message saying, 'I couldn't deliver your message and I've given up trying. So should you.' He lifted the words from someone called Daemon, who seems to write to everyone when the mail is not getting through.

As far as Peabody was concerned, no communication was better than an outright rejection. It implied that he was so unimpressive at the interview that it didn't warrant the time for a formal response. It's a common practice these days, employed by most large corporations, although generally these companies don't deliberately set out to ignore people, it's just that the HR department is busy at a conference somewhere.

Peabody smiled at the thought of Jones being left in the lurch. It reminded him of what he liked about human resources — that sense of power; the control over a person's destiny. It wasn't really the euphoria of megalomania that might be enjoyed by a crazed dictator, or even a conservative politician, but it was satisfying one of mankind's primeval needs — the need to avoid feeling like a completely useless imbecile.

So Jones went through the interview, unaware that the whole thing was already determined. He'd done everything he could to make an impression; he was well presented, confident and sprouting the right kind of language that corporate types liked to hear. In 30 minutes he mentioned the word 'success' 24 times, 'leverage the opportunity' four times, with three references to the 'balanced scorecard' whatever that was, two 'gap analyses', four cases of 'thinking outside the square' and 'synergistic' was in there 18 times. The synergistic reference was an all-time record for Peabody. The best had previously been from a candidate who had managed 12, so it was an impressive effort.

Jones shook Parson's hand as he left, unsure whether the interview had gone well or not. All he knew was he wasn't going to take no for an answer.

Peabody certainly came off the worst from the whole episode. Faced with the enormity of the divide between himself and a competent human being, he went home and took his life. It came as a complete shock to some in the human resources department.

'However will we replace him?' asked one teary-eyed colleague the next morning.

'I suppose we'll put an advertisement in the newspaper,' said Peabody's boss.

'Good idea.' The girl stopped crying and Peabody's life was forgotten forever.

The Incumbent is Phil Dobbie's first novel and these excerpts have been used with his permission. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. To purchase the entire novel in digital format, click here. It is also available in printed format ... for more details click here.

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