“What does this job pay anyway?”
Although not an entirely unexpected question during a job interview, it is usually done subtly or in an ingratiating manner.
The potential technician sitting across from me obviously did not subscribe to this technique. His question was barely a question at all. It was more an interjection, a challenge.
Then again, this was hardly a job interview anymore. It had devolved into something different. If not quite an argument, it was at least a debate on business ethics.
As the pitch in our voices ticked upward and our bodies began leaning ever so slightly over the desk dividing us, a casual observer could be forgiven for assuming the man across from me was an irate client and not a skilled tradesperson applying for a well-paid job.
Job interviews are much like first dates. There is a magical synchronicity to good ones that leave both participants with a genuine yearning for more.
Bad interviews tend to fizzle out naturally. When there are no further questions to ask (and you haven’t particularly liked the answers to the ones you have) both sides genially shake hands, tacitly understanding they will never speak again.
But on exceedingly rare occasions, a completely different phenomenon plays out. Rather than follow the rote pattern of all preceding interviews, a meeting goes so badly awry that you are left feeling like the unsuspecting victim of some gonzo reality show.
Screening resumés helps avoid fiascos but is not particularly helpful when trying to fill a highly competitive position during a pandemic-induced labour shortage. That kind of desperation reduces one’s normally strict hiring criteria to: is the applicant a mammal or not?
I was genuinely shocked when my HR manager told me a young, licensed technician applied to our job within hours of it being posted. It had been so long since we had received an application from anybody but a junior apprentice that I was determined to meet this person, despite any potential red flags on his resume.
Turns out there were flags to spare.
In the two-and-a-half years the applicant had worked in the automotive industry, he had cycled through five jobs. His longest stop was a nine-month stint at a Canadian Tire store. Sprinkled around that small beacon of stability were two dealership jobs that lasted less than a standard probationary period, four unaccounted months at the beginning of this year and a current position working part-time only.
Still, I was hopeful (read desperate).
The day of the interview came and for a brief moment, I felt my fears were unfounded. He seemed like a normal person. He was well-groomed, affable and sincere.
As I waited for my service manager to join us, we chatted informally. He told me about leaving home to find a better life in Canada. He talked about various manual-labour jobs he took until he found his passion. He gushed about his love for cars and the self-worth he derived from repairing them. In short, he had me eating out of the palm of his hand.
Then it went sideways.
“One of my hobbies is to buy old cars, fix them up and sell them,” he volunteered earnestly.
The smile on my face faded. The only response I could muster was a strained grunt, the same sound I make when I make the mistake of walking into one of my children’s room expecting some semblance of tidiness.
In Ontario, anyone who sells a vehicle for a profit (as opposed to selling a personal vehicle) must have a vehicle sales license and either work for a registered dealer or hold a valid vendor’s permit. These measures are meant to protect consumers from unscrupulous sellers who do not have to abide by the same rigorous regulations as dealers do.
“You do know that what you’re doing is not strictly legal?” I finally replied. “It’s called curbsiding.”
The candidate did not miss a beat.
“It’s not curbsiding,” he retorted. “I’ve looked into it.
“It’s only curbsiding if you don’t put the vehicles in your name. I always do and sometimes I even drive them for a bit.”
I admit that I am not a lawyer, but his argument seemed dubious at best. Regardless, it was definitely not a hobby we could endorse. I expressed my concerns as casually as possible.
In any other interview, an applicant would likely be anxious to move on from such an uncomfortable topic. Not this tech, he was clearly a, “Once more unto the breach” type of fellow.
“How about my own vehicle?” he asked, genuinely perplexed. “Am I allowed to work on it in the shop?”
This question was oozing subtext. Considering the applicant’s potentially illegal side hustle, I was coming to the conclusion that his interest in our job was secondary, more a means to gain access to our facilities than a career.
For the record, I do allow technicians to work on their personal vehicles, but on their off hours. It seemed ludicrous to me to have to explain that work hours should be spent working, but there I was, hoping against hope that the applicant had some heretofore hidden redeeming qualities.
Mercifully, our conversation (now veering into what constituted work hours) was interrupted by the entrance of my service manager, Lenny.
I made the appropriate introductions and attempted to reboot the interview.
I asked the applicant to detail his previous work experiences (of which, you may recall, there were many) and he was happy to oblige.
His first job in the automotive field ended when his shop temporarily laid him off due to COVID.
He was then hired by Canadian Tire but was let go after less than a year (along with a number of other employees) when there was an ownership change.
His third stop was a one-month fling at a local import car dealer.
“I had a disagreement with them and I had to leave, but they begged me to stay at the end,” he explained.
From there he moved to a Ford dealership. After having worked there for only four months, he decided it had been too long since he’d been back home and took a leave.
Rather than rejoin the Ford dealership after returning from abroad (assuming he was welcome back), he began working part-time for a friend’s body shop, a job he said he could leave immediately, no notice needed.
“Can we revisit the dealership you left after a month?” I asked after a beat.
“Of course,” he responded enthusiastically. “They tried to cheat me, so I had to leave.”
He then launched nonchalantly into a story about performing an exhaust repair on a vehicle. Unfortunately, something went wrong (I’m a bit hazy on the details) and the car caught fire.
As an aside, although it is very common for even the best technicians to occasionally make mistakes, it is exceedingly rare, in my experience at least, to call the fire department to rectify those mistakes.
To be fair, I didn’t ask about the extent of the damage (and really, what more do you need to know?). The “fire” may have been some excess heat the melted several trim pieces or it could have been a blazing inferno that engulfed the vehicle. Either way, it was clear he was responsible for damage to the vehicle and felt obligated to fix it (unpaid of course).
“I spent one whole day fixing that car. I lost all of my time,” he explained, his voice crescendoing. “So can you believe they asked me to pay for the parts too?
Unabashed pride exuded from his declaration. In his mind, he was taking a gallant stand against an unjust oppressor.
I sat there quietly, my bulging eyes belying the calm demeanor I hoped to portray.
“I do believe that,” I said slowly, talking as much to myself as to him. “In fact, we would have asked the same thing.”
“You can’t do that,” he shouted back. “That’s illegal!”
“I assure you that it is not,” I responded as calmly as I could. “In fact, it’s part of our employment contract.”
We went back and forth a bit. Me explaining our policy of splitting the cost of damages with the technician who caused them and he insisting that the policy was unethical, that damages should be covered by our insurance.
It was as I was trying to explain the finer points of our shop insurance policy that he blurted his question about the pay rate.
It was a welcome break and one area where I thought we would finally find common ground. I stated the pay structure proudly, sure that he would be impressed by our competitive system.
I was met with an unexpected silence.
“Does that meet your expectation?” I asked.
“No,” he said flatly.
“What were you expecting?”
The number he shot back was so ridiculously high that I nearly laughed. It was more than $16.00 per hour more than I was offering and significantly higher than I was paying even my most senior technicians.
There was nothing left for either of us to say.
I was destined to narrow my job search to young and malleable apprentices. I assumed the applicant would continue looking as well, perhaps until he lucked into a store so desperate that his mix of lax accountability and loose business ethics could be overlooked. Either way, it was clear he would never work for me.
In the end, I don’t think we even shook hands.