My Story: July 17, 2011

I will post updates to My Story – my unemployment story, my Great Recession story – at least once a month. Hopefully, My Story will show others they are not alone, and maybe help them keep going in the face of such Hard Times. Here is this month’s update. All updates can be accessed from the My Story tab.

July 17, 2011

A few weeks ago I got an email from someone in New York who found me on LinkedIn. Not for a job, exactly; for a “deferred compensation” consulting gig for the three startup Web sites he’s creating. I’d get paid when he raised a certain amount of money for the company. He was looking for someone who knew both editing and Drupal, the open-source content management system, and I had joined several LinkedIn Drupal groups on the strength of a one-day training session.

I looked into it, and him, before our a long phone conversation, and I didn’t find any red flags. My instincts told me he’s a good guy, and might even pull this off. I saw no downside – until I remembered the rules of Unemployment Insurance. They require me to report earned income, at the time it’s earned, whether I’ve been paid or not – or will ever be paid. I called to confirm this rule applied to this gig.

And then, I knew, my benefit check would be reduced for that week by whatever amount I earned, after the first $25. That would be fine if this were a normal freelance job, where I’m sure to get paid in the next 30 days or so and could make up the difference then. But what if I don’t get paid for six months or a year – or never?

So, reporting my “deferred compensation” was a big downside and had to be avoided. I could have just not reported it, but I worried about the consequences if it was discovered.

And yet, the project is interesting and would look great on my resume. So, I took the gig – but as an unpaid internship (no earnings, so no reporting), for six weeks only. I hated to give away my skills when he was willing to pay (someday), but I figured I had little to lose. We signed the agreement on Thursday, four days ago, and I’m waiting for the green light to get started. I hope it works out. It would be amazing if it did, starting from a LinkedIn connection.

I also met with a state manager contact of mine, to lay out for him the real story – the story I dare not tell – of why I left my last job, with the state, and ask for his honest opinion of my chances of ever getting another state job.

He asked for and I gave a few examples of times I took initiative at that job, when my initiative was seen not as a good thing but as a threat. He said he might have seen it as unwelcome too – as me assuming the authority of a manager, or crossing into manager territory. And maybe other bosses in recent years have seen it that way too, because I have had similar experiences at nearly every job I’ve had since 2006.

It’s so strange, too, because I’m the same person I was five and ten years ago, when my initiative and foresight were seen as big pluses and I had a successful ten-year run as a freelance editor and writer, followed by six good years in a department office at UC Berkeley. But now they are seen as big negatives, and even threats, to colleagues and to managers, who soon decide to get rid of me. And they have, whether by daily harassment or by making up bad performance evaluations, as they did at my last job (thus, the settlement check).

As if to confirm this Strange New World, my one and only LinkedIn recommendation, from a freelance client from 15 years ago, cited precisely my foresight and initiative in calling me “extraordinary”:

“Pat Soberanis is an employer’s dream come true. She is highly organized and responsible so her follow-through is 100% reliable. Pat is detail-oriented as well as focused on the big picture, and is excellent at foreseeing problems and pitfalls early in the process so they can be avoided. Her integrity and intelligence are a rare combination so you can trust her to be honest and straightforward, but always in a constructive manner since she’ll recommend solutions to help solve any problems. Pat’s excellent verbal and written communication skills combined with great technical skills also make her unusual and valuable as a team member. In short, Pat is extraordinary.” April 21, 2011

She also liked my integrity and intelligence – two other characteristics that seem to be unwelcome by most managers and many colleagues, especially when I’m starting a new career, and especially when I’m starting that new career with gray hair and wrinkles. I’m not young and cute anymore.

(Actually, my family doesn’t like those characteristics much either. Luckily, I have many friends who, like this former client, not only like them but appreciate them in me.)

Where does that leave me in the abysmal job market? The state manager and I agreed on one thing: I have to “tone it down,” hold back, not try so hard to prove my worth, hide these characteristics, both when I’m interviewing and in my first months on the job. It tends to backfire and turn people against me instead.

Because we’re talking about fundamental aspects of my personality, though, this solution adds to the feeling that the only way I’ll get a decent-paying job with benefits again is if the hiring manager knows me first, because anyone who knows me knows I’m not a threat to anyone, and knows I am an honorable person.

But that leads to the problem cited in my June update: What are the odds of that happening? Near zero.

Meanwhile, just to have one pleasant experience with a boss again, I’ve taken a volunteer “internship” six hours a week with the owner of my favorite framing/gift shop, three blocks from my house. In theory I’m learning framing, but in reality it’s my first “good boss” experience in two years, my second in five years. I need that as much as anything right now.

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