A few months ago I received an email from a manpower agency representing an independent oil company that was looking to recruit an Engineering Manager to be located in a West African country. The reason why I didn’t just hit *Delete* as I do with most of these emails is because, for once, the agent had named the company and provided a job description. This is unusual in the extreme, most of these clowns email you with an exciting opportunity with a company they cannot name in a vague location with a job description “to follow”. Uh-huh. I’ve written about this before.
So I replied that I was interested, just for the hell of it, and the agent responded with an outline salary and benefits package, which looked pretty good. So I became more interested. I wasn’t exactly looking to move company, but I think it’s always wise to keep an eye on what’s out there, know what the market thinks of you, get in some interview practice (you never know when you might need it!), etc. And if my current employer was only going to offer me a role in a filling station as my next assignment…well, you get the picture.
Firstly the agent interviewed me, just to make sure that I wasn’t a complete Herbert. Then within a couple of weeks I had a phone interview with the HR bloke, who was about 25 years old and recently recruited from…a manpower agency. This was a pretty standard HR interview, but near the end I queried the part of the salary package which made reference to a “hypothetical tax deduction”. All oil companies do this for various reasons: deduct taxes from staff salaries in one place and actually pay taxes wherever they’re working. This is fairly standard practice, but the tax rate is usually pretty low. In this case, the HR chap told me I’d be taxed at the full UK rate.
Whilst working in West Africa on a residential basis.
I didn’t say anything at the time, but when a 50% or whatever tax is applied to the salary package it didn’t look anywhere near as attractive. I called up the agent, told them I was no longer interested, and they said they’d “look into it”.
I was therefore quite surprised to be invited to another phone interview, this time with the Head of Engineering & Projects (who would be my functional line manager). Having nothing to lose, I went ahead and did it anyway, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. With no pressure to actually get the job I was myself (blunt and opinionated), and had a good discussion with the chap on the other end who clearly knew his stuff. It was far more of a technical discussion than the previous one, outlining the role, who I am, my experience, my management style, etc. And I came away thinking that the role was a lot larger and more interesting than anything I’ve yet had, and with a lot more responsibility. Now I had no interest in doing another stint in Africa, but if the right position came up and they were throwing money at me…well, I can be persuaded.
It turned out I impressed them enough for me to be considered their front runner for the position (so the agent told me), and they arranged another phone interview (which would be the fourth, if you include the one with the agent). This one was with the Regional Manager, and during the conversation much was made of the benefits of working for a smaller, more flexible company which exercised common sense, made quick decisions, delegated responsibility, and kept procedures to a minimum. This was in contrast to a supermajor, which makes even the army look sensible and efficient. I have to say, this prospect alone did appeal. Needing line manager’s authorisation to hang a white board in your office, and waiting 9 months for expenses to clear a 6-stage approval process, does tend to piss you off after a while. Like the previous interviewer, this chap was also pretty switched on and we had a good chat. I didn’t change my approach – blunt and opinionated – mainly because I don’t know how to be any other way, but I came out of that round still as the favoured candidate.
It had occurred to me that we would need a face-to-face interview before they’d make me an offer, but I assumed this would take place in London or someother place sensible. So my expectation was that they’d send me an offer subject to a final interview, and if I liked it I’d jump on a plane to see them, spend a few hours sizing each other up, and then make a decision one way or the other.
This turned out to be far too sensible. Instead HR took the lead and said, through the agent, that I should go to this West African country to see the place and “meet the team”. Now if this can be done easily, then fair enough. If I was working in London, then no reason why I couldn’t jump on the plane to Aberdeen to meet a few folk and scope out the office. But almost nobody goes to these sort of locations on a scoping visit, they just jump in and hope it’s okay when they get there. I signed up for Sakhalin knowing nothing about it, and turned up in Nigeria for a 3-year assignment having never set foot in the place. It’s just the way it is, standard practice in the oil business. So I explained that I didn’t need to see the place, anything will be an improvement on Nigeria, and can we just get on with it please? Time was running out, as I would need to start talking about my next assignment with my current employer, and I don’t like to fanny people about too much.
Then word came back that I needed to go to this country because the Country Manager, Production Manager, and Maintenance Manager (or something) all wanted to interview me. So I looked at how I could get myself over to this country without my current employer knowing (they’d twig pretty quickly I wasn’t there on holiday). After a bit of research, it turned out that I couldn’t. It is not possible to bullshit about which flights you’re taking in and out of Nigeria, because we get taken to and met from every flight directly for (very sensible) security reasons. And I didn’t even know how I’d get a visa for this place, and if the agent or the company HR people knew they were keeping it to themselves. Checking the internet, I needed to apply for a visa in advance, but I had to find even that out for myself.
So I went back to them with a proposal: the three people who want to see me can select one person to come and meet me in London on a certain Saturday, which I can plausibly claim is a brief trip home. They have their main office in London, so it shouldn’t have been that difficult. Or all three could come, I really didn’t care. The agent took this proposal to the young HR chap, who seemed reluctant to pass it to his bosses. Instead he came back with a rather pompous repetition of his previous demand that I show up in this bloody country. So I told them, once and for all, I’m not sodding going. I’ve made a proposal, either answer it or leave me alone. And still nobody was any the wiser as to how I could get a visa.
The agent then kind of got shoved to the side and I spoke directly with the oil company, an HR girl who was actually quite nice. I told her that before I get on a plane anywhere I need a firm offer to discuss when I get there. Meanwhile, she was trying to persuade me that I really did need to go for an interview in-country. So I decided to give her a bit of training in How Oil Companies Normally Interview Candidates In A Sensible Manner (later, my wife thought I should have invoiced them a consultancy fee). I said it’s fine to want a face-to-face interview, that part I get, but it’s mind-bogglingly stupid to expect candidates to present themselves in the developing world for the purpose. Every other organisation arranges for all candidates to come to a logical transport hub – Dubai, London, Singapore (where I had my final interview for my current job) – and a panel of managers spend 2-3 days conducting interviews and having a bit of a jolly. Nobody – not even blitheringly idiotic major oil companies – bring candidates to the arse-end of nowhere. In my case the Nigerian interview was conducted over the phone once the chaps I met in Singapore had given me the thumbs up. All of this seemed to be new to her.
What also seemed new to their entire organisation was the impracticality of flying between West African countries. They approached the whole thing as if it was a simple hop from Paris to London. For a company which prided itself on its African operations, they seemed to know little about how the place works.
Anyway, they came back with an offer. By this stage I had given them precise details of my current package, to ensure we’d not all be wasting our time if they were only paying peanuts. Their offer matched my current package almost to the dollar, only more of theirs was wrapped up in discretionary bonuses. I was still being taxed at full UK rates, even though this money wouldn’t be handed over to HMRC and I’d have to remain a tax exile. Bearing in mind this company is very much smaller and far less well known than my current employer, the question of why the hell I would leave for the same money did spring to mind.
When they rang me back, for what was to be the last time, I asked them this. They said they considered their offer to be competitive, which I suppose it was if they were hiring somebody unemployed and not trying to poach somebody from a much larger and grander organisation. But these small independent companies have to poach people, and that means giving them an incentive to jump ship. Paying the same money isn’t going to interest anybody.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. She repeated the request, now backed by some manager or other, that it was “their policy” to conduct the Stage 2 interviews in-country. Stage 2?!! I’d had four interviews over the course of 2-3 months, and we’re still not out of Stage 1?! They could not do the interview in London because “all the managers cannot come”, and they could not select one to make the trip because “that’s not how they work”. This was an outfit whose main selling points were quick decisions, flexible operations, efficiency, common sense, and a disregard for procedures.
Also, it wasn’t just the in-country managers who would interview me, I needed to present myself to my future colleagues as well and secure their approval. Which I admit was a first for me. Normally your management hires you and you meet your new colleagues on your first day in the office. This lot seemed to hire via some kind of star chamber.
In withdrawing my candidacy, I pointed out that if I wanted to experience indecision, nonsensical policies, managerial dithering, and general incompetence I could simply attend any random meeting in my own organisation. I didn’t need to change company to get this sort of thing. I did remain positive, careful not to burn too many bridges. But given they were up against my moving to Melbourne, they needed to do one hell of a lot better than this.
(Incidentally, they told me their other candidates had no problem going to interviews in-country. Which if true, and they find someone suitable, shows them to be doing things right after all. But I am curious to know who these other candidates were: lordy, if I’m the front-runner they can’t be that great! And I can’t imagine too many decent candidates leaving a major oil company to take up this role. So it wouldn’t surprise me if I get a call in 6 months time saying the position has magically reopened and would I be interested in reapplying?)