The Incumbent: Chapter 8

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.

'Hello, thanks for calling VastTel's HR department...'

'Yes, hello. I put in a job application...'

'...we're out at lunch right now and we will be for some time.' It was 10 past four. 'Try calling back later, or better still tomorrow.'

Jimi Jones never heard back from VastTel after his interview. After four months of waiting for a letter, a phone call, any acknowledgement in any form whatsoever, he assumed that the deafening silence meant that VastTel just wasn't interested in him. After all, that's common when you're applying for a job. You spend an age preparing your résumé, which ends up in an enormous pile of applications, mixed with various supermarket catalogues and other junk mail received that day and, at some point, it's possible that it will be given a cursory glance by an underworked HR manager, who would rather attend off-site meetings about 'Best Practice Work Principles' than get on with the task at hand. 'Best Practice' included responding personally to all applications, advice that was 'taken on board', which is corporate-speak for 'largely ignored'.

'Best Practice' included responding personally to all applications, advice that was 'taken on board', which is corporate-speak for 'largely ignored'.

VastTel's HR department treated all applicants with a similar degree of disdain. Even if someone was called in for an interview it was unlikely that anything would happen for the next six to eight months. Unsuccessful candidates were rarely notified. Their records would be incinerated and any phone contact by the applicant would be met with a flat denial that anything was ever received or that any interview ever took place. Usually a tense conversation ensued with the HR person asking a number of condescending questions. Was the applicant sure VastTel was the company he had sent the application to? Was his handwriting so bad that perhaps the post office didn't know where to deliver it to? Had there been other instances where the applicant might have confused imagination with reality and had the need for psychiatric counselling ever been considered?

Normally the last comment would so incense the applicant, who would then suggest precisely where the HR person might want to stick their job and vow never to work for VastTel, even if life depended on it. And that was just fine with VastTel. Normally they wouldn't employ anyone who wanted to work for them. It was their unstated golden rule. They knew that anyone eager to be employed by the company would quickly become disillusioned (it normally took about 10 minutes) and leave within a week, having alienated the rest of the workforce by exposing them to logic, intellect and ambition. It wasn't what VastTel wanted employees to see.

So, to avoid ambitious people making it through the recruitment process, the HR department took so long with the paperwork that any qualified applicant would almost certainly have found alternate employment during the process, leaving the company with the less fussy of the long-term unemployed. The net effect was that VastTel generally employed the unemployable, which had been their recruitment policy for the last 50 years. In fact, it was an approach taken by a large number of telecommunications companies around the world, but few people at VastTel had any idea that, in their case, this was part of a long-term government policy to assist those who really couldn't really do any other job, even real estate.

So it wasn't unusual that Jimi Jones had heard nothing. He was precisely the sort of person they didn't want, but, being a determined young man, he wasn't going to let it go. He wanted to know why nothing had happened since his interview, which he thought had gone well.

After a polite wait of four weeks he started making calls. Each time he'd get lost deep in the navigation of VastTel's extensive interactive voice menu system, comprising of more than 75 options at the first level alone. Eventually he'd find his way through to the HR department, where he'd usually be greeted by a recorded message.

After much experimentation he discovered the best time to call was at exactly 9:28am, when the first person had arrived, made a coffee and had a few minutes to spare while the computer fired up, after which all attention was directed at surfing the internet (broken only by regular 'team meetings' and, of course, a long lunch).

When he finally got to speak to someone he was told that Peabody, who had interviewed him, was on compassionate leave after a suicide in the family several weeks ago.

'Really? He's still off after three weeks?' Jones had asked. 'Who died?'

'Well…,' there was a slight hesitation before the answer. 'Actually, he did.'

'Peabody committed suicide? I'm very sorry to hear that,' said Jones, reflecting that the man did seem a little odd in a way that he hadn't quite been able to fathom.

Culture fit was, of course, an excellent way of rejecting someone when there was no other reason to give.

'So who is dealing with my application now?' he asked.

'Well,' said the voice at the end of the line, 'it's assigned to Peabody.'

'But he's dead.'

'Yes, that's true, but we never pass projects on to someone else. It's part of our commitment to personal service.'

'But that's ridiculous. If he's dead…'

'It's the way we work. One person handles each job. This one is assigned to Peabody.'

'But he's dead,' repeated Jones insistently.

'They're the rules.'

It was actually good news for Jones. If Peabody was still alive he would have determined that Jones wasn't right for the role and the company would have embarked on the process of actively ignoring him, or they would have denied the interview took place and asked him if he ever hallucinated or took drugs.

Instead, with Peabody gone, it was acknowledged that he had applied, which gave Jones hope that his application could be progressed, if they could just pass the paperwork on to someone a little healthier. That hope was short-lived, however.

'I can give you Mr Peabody's recommendations on you,' said the woman. 'I have it on file, but it's not good news I'm afraid.'

'I haven't got the job,' assumed Jones.

'That's right. It says here you are not the right culture fit for VastTel.'

Culture fit was, of course, an excellent way of rejecting someone when there was no other reason to give. In most places it was against the law to reject someone on grounds of gender, race or sexuality — even in Queensland where the practice of declaring 'must be a good looking sort' was dropped from job advertisements months ago.

So 'you don't fit our culture' was another way of saying 'look, you're a fat 50-year-old lesbian with an inquiring mind, forget it,' before offering the job to an attractive blonde 20-something who might not know much, but was, well, an attractive blonde 20-something.

That said, some companies did take their cultural values very seriously. Senior managers drummed up a series of disparate adjectives, often during an alcohol-infused weekend 'off-site' brainstorming session.

The following Monday the values would be communicated across the organisation and everyone was expected to adjust their attitude and behaviour accordingly. For example, a long-term employee might have been told, 'I'm sorry Hoffmeister, we have to let you go. You're just not ferocious enough. I realise you only deliver the internal mail, but we need someone who can deliver it with ferocity. It's one of our core values, along with freedom, gluttony and domination.' In this example, the values had been devised by one company's chairman during a weekend off-site where, away from his wife at last, he enjoyed a good dinner followed by an S&M session with Gloria Antwerp, the female head of marketing.

'Freedom, gluttony and domination,' he had said out loud, describing his agenda for the rest of the night, but it was hastily scribbled onto a flip chart by a young employee, then eventually transferred to the take-out notes which were then applied, without any thought, by the HR department. No one was really sure where ferocity came into the equation, except for those who had experienced Gloria Antwerp's approach to lovemaking.

VastTel's core cultural values were, rather unimpressively, 'deliberation, introversion and obfuscation'. They weren't particularly inspiring values, but the finance and IT departments were the only people at the brainstorming session. They looked at how the company was then and didn't see any likelihood of it changing. The marketing department might have brought a more proactive approach to the exercise, but missed most of the sessions because they were busy shopping or attending parties. Petunia Hargrave was to suggest that passion, energy and commitment would be three good words to start with, but the moment was lost because of a half-price shoe sale in the hotel lobby.

Even if the marketing team had been more involved, their influence would only have gone so far given the government's close influence on the affairs of the company. Values that were seen as too positive and forward thinking would be flatly refused. Instead the Prime Minister received the words recommended by the conference — 'deliberation, introversion and obfuscation' — lay back in his chair, smiled broadly and said 'spot on'.

'You don't think that they're too bold do you?' Zorblestein of finance had asked the room, to be met by a deafening silence, although he could see people's lips move.

'I like them,' said one member of the finance team.

'Let's try and keep emotion out of this,' said someone else, objecting to the use of the word 'like' during office hours. Another showed his support for the introversion aspect by pulling his cardigan over his chin, wrapping himself into the foetal position and closing his eyes. It wasn't unusual to see the head of strategy like this.

Paranoid incompetence was the unspoken motto of these businesses — in other words: never employ anyone with the potential to make you look bad.

VastTel's values were really not that different to those at many other large companies, managed by people who ensured that subordinates could never aspire to reach the level of their managers' own indifferent performance. Paranoid incompetence was the unspoken motto of these businesses — in other words: never employ anyone with the potential to make you look bad. Mediocrity was a virtue, passion and commitment did nothing except set a dangerous precedent.

The words 'indifferent performance' were certainly pursued with diligence at VastTel. While that was great news for the likes of Simon Peabody (at least until he killed himself) , and the rest of the workforce, it was a culture to which Jimi Jones was clearly unsuited. His life was one of success and ambition. He had been top of his class throughout school, graduated from university two years earlier than most and spent the intervening time establishing a charitable fund to help the starving in Africa, before personally supervising water treatment and sanitation projects in the villages of Somalia, then returning home to provide similar assistance to people living in some of the poverty-stricken suburbs of Newcastle.

With such a track record of success behind him, so early in his life, Jones had foolishly assumed he would have no trouble finding a job. He was wrong, of course, and VastTel was his first taste of difficulty. There just weren't enough psychologists around to cope with the plague of self doubt he would create across the VastTel workforce. As it was, Peabody's exposure to Jones' achievements was enough for the neurotic recruiter to go and place his torso onto the face of a northbound diesel locomotive.

'Can I talk to someone about this?,' said Jones, to the woman in HR. If it was just a question of culture fit, surely he could convince them.

'Peabody is looking after your application.'

'But he's dead!' said Jones.

'They're the rules,' she said, one more time.

He could see this wasn't going to get sorted out over the phone. The only option was to turn up unannounced and see if he could get an impromptu meeting with someone else in the HR department, preferably someone who was still alive or at least showing a few of the vital signs. Despite his recent experiences, he still naively believed that VastTel would be a pretty cool place to work, with rewarding challenges, where entrepreneurial thinking was welcome and everyone had an opportunity to make their mark and drive change. After all, they were the words in another VastTel job ad he had seen just that morning. This time someone at the newspaper working on the page layout had accidentally switched the copy for a CEO role at a major international online business, whose recruitment team were wondering why they had a sudden rush of applications from a bunch of no-hopers, all emphasising their commitment to deliberation, introversion and obfuscation.

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.