The year was 1987. I was between jobs, so I answered an ad for the position of a part-time receptionist.
My interview was done over the phone. The young man who interviewed me was the new sales manager for a marketing company that sold high quality knives and other kitchen utensils. He was specifically interested in the impression I gave over the telephone. He said my voice and my manner of speaking was the first impression of the company that people would get when they called, so it was important that he hired
the right person. The interview went well. He told me I could start the next day. I found him to be upbeat and personable. The job sounded pleasant. The company had a good reputation and a great product, so I was pretty happy when he gave me his approval. There was one thing however that seemed out of place. During the phone interview, the young man had me repeat a series of specific words such as; Hanukkah, kreplach and menorah. Everything went fine, so I shrugged it off as a test of my pronunciation.
The office consisted of three rooms. A small room was off to the right as you entered. Down a short hallway was a large main room banked with folding chairs for the applicants and lastly, there was a medium-sized room at the back of the large room. I sat at a desk and answered the phone in the smaller room while the handsome young manager occupied the office in the back room. I could hear him as he spoke on the phone in a boisterous manner to his salesmen.
In my orientation, it was explained to me that I would be screening male applicants to be salesmen for the company. I asked why it was not open to women and he said the job was too dangerous for a woman. “Women buy knives, they should not sell them, ” he said. This was not what I wanted to hear. But, since I could not see myself selling knives in people’s homes, I decided I’d overlook it until I became more familiar with the company.
He told me I was to specifically look for people who sounded “good over the phone.” When I asked him what that meant, he said I was to look for “an articulate person who expressed himself well and had a good attitude.” He then gave me a list of questions to ask. As I looked over the questions, I became more and more confused because they didn’t seem to have any thing to do with the job description. Nevertheless, I figured there must be a good reason for the questions. I sat at my desk and waited for the phone to ring.
It did not take long for the phone to start ringing. A lot of people were interested in the job opening. I asked the questions. Depending on who called, the questions were either readily answered or the caller would abruptly end the phone call. I concluded that even though I did not understand the process, this must be a good screening tool so I continued to ask the questions. I filled the schedule with appointments for the next day. This made my new boss very happy.
The second part of my job was to greet the applicants when they arrived. I would take their coat and have them wait in the large room to fill out the application form. After their interview, I was to take their paperwork and file it according to the symbol that that my boss made on it with a marker. The marks were either a check, an “X” or a circle. He did not explain to me what the marks meant. However, when I went into work the next day, he had me call all the ones with the check mark to tell them that they got the job. I noticed something right away when they came in for orientation. They were all young white males. After they left, he said to me, ” Those are the kind of sales people I want. Do not make interviews for anyone who does not sound like the ones that just left.” I asked him, if it was a coincidence that they were all young white males. He said yes. So the next day, I continued setting up the interviews. And the result was the same as it had been from the first set of interviews. I asked him again about his choices and this time he told me that he would be happy to have one of “my people” or even someone of the ” Italian persuasion,” as a salesman too. My people? I had not mentioned my ethnicity so just who did he think “my people” were? My grandfather’s entire family was Italian, so clearly he had misread me in more ways than one. At his point, I knew I could not stay in this job. However, before I left, I wanted to make certain I knew exactly what I had been hired to do.
The next day when the calls came in, I did not ask the questions. I scheduled everyone who called for an interview. Men as well as women. As you can imagine, he was very surprised at the turn out. After they had all left, he came into my office. He tried to explain to me that my job was to make his job easier. I told him I didn’t know what he meant. He said I was to bring him “the right people.” I asked him ,” How can I possibly know who “the right people” are over the phone?” He got up and started to pace. He said woman were “unsuitable.” He continued by telling me that there were “some people that would not buy knives from other people or even let them in their homes because they would be too afraid.” I said, that I would be afraid of a criminal, but, he did not ask me to ask if anyone had a criminal record, so what other kind of people was he talking about? And then it happened. He said, “People who have a skin color darker than ours should not sell knives. You should have been able to figure out who was who when they called.”
I sat there and stared at him for a long time. Then I said what needed to be said. “I cannot work for you anymore because what you are doing is illegal. It is morally and ethically wrong. I think if I called the company headquarters, they would agree with me. I also think I should make a few other calls as well.” He looked frustrated. He asked me if he paid me to the end of the month, would I reconsider not making the phone calls. I told him if he paid me to the end of the year, he couldn’t keep me from making the calls. After that, things got a little tense. He became as ugly as his words. He began to rant about how people, ” like me,” don’t understand the way things work. I tried to explain that regardless of how he thought things were, I could not buy in to this mindset, but he had stopped listening. I knew it was time for me to leave. He was still “educating me” as I gathered up my things and walked out of the office.
I made the phone calls. A month later, a sign in the window appeared; OFFICE FOR RENT.