(Last September 2, the author, on assignment from the Detroit Free Press Magazine, went "job hunting" at General Motors National Headquarters in Detroit. His experiences follow.)
INTERVIEW DAY! 9:30 at General Motors.
What a great assignment. Go interview with some big company. Act like you want to get a job there after you graduate next year. Put them on. Play is straight.
Okay, I'm on my way. Dress up. How about the moustache. Off, for General Motors. I take my moustache off to you, GM. Sideburns? Wait, no. Sideburns stay. Johnny Carson is growing his, so they're all right. White shirt. All set.
Where is it. Where is General Motors? I don't know. Stop off for a cigar or two and find out.
"Gooood Morning! General Motors!"
"Hey, excuse me, good morning, can you tell me where you are."
"Excuse me sir, did I hear you correctly?"
"You must be new here, then."
"No ma'am. I just don't know where General Motors is, that's all." But son, don't you know that what's good for General Motors is good for the country? Yes sir, I know that, but I don't know where the country is, Sir.
Driving over to the place you know if you know what's good for you, I'm thinking of some good questions, speaking them into my little tape recorder that I'll use to catch my fresh thoughts upon my immediate return from The Meeting. Can't take notes. No. I am undercover. Underground. Underground Job Applicant, what will you ask? Tell it true.
SIR, I have heard many things about rows and rows of neatly symmetric desks, with neatly symmetric businessmen behind them, and about automated managers running them, these are all cliches without a grain of truth, aren't they?
SIR, what kind of personal conformity do you require, what are your dress standards, your hair standards, how are you adjusting to the pepsi generation?
SIR, what particular abilities do you search for in your executives? Do you have openings for somebody of general intelligence who doesn't have a specific business skill?
SIR, is there any chance for creativity in a big corporation like this one?
I STOP dictating these questions to myself. Wait a second, who do you think you're setting up for the kill. Mr.Dumb? This is GM, baby, the big time. He'll eat those questions up. They're too pat.... But I have to ask those questions: I'm applying for a job, not doing an interview. I'm just a normal college graduate wanting into the manistream.... Well, nothing's going to happen and you're not going to get any good copy. He's not going to get himself into any trouble; he's adroit, like a politician.
How can I write something from an interview with a professional con man. I need more than those sweety questions.... Sock some nasties to him. You're a young radical, straight from Columbia.
SIR, I might as well be frank -- that's the difference between our generations, don't you think--I'm Jewish, and I've heard a lot about antisemitism in big companies like this. What's the real story, how would my religion affect my chances for advancement?
SIR, my politics are pretty liberal, pretty much on the Left. What kind of political conformity do you require of your employees?
SIR, I wonder, does General Motors have a social conscience, I mean, do you think that selling cars is all that important, really?
My pre-confrontation indignation ebbs. Watch that anti-authoritarian hang-up, man. These aren't the days of Babbit, you know. Things have changed. Business is ghetto-bound and groovy and so forth. New managerial elite. They don't discriminate, and if they do, they're sure not going to tell you about it. These are politically sensitive times, after all. By 1970, half the nation under 25, you're a valuable commodity. You know, he's probably going to offer you the job right there. He's going to say you're a nice Jewish boy, just what we've been looking for, and you sound pretty bright, so here's this job. That's all right if you haven't taken any business, we're actually looking for a little of that English major touch anyway.
A GRAY monster looms on the left. Why General Motors of course. We're here.
In the waiting room, the secretary closest to me, at the head of a long row of secretaries, is knocking off a businesslike telephone call. She speaks to the principal of a local high school.
"Good morning, sir, this is General Motors. Mr. S's office. We're doing our annual brochure on the GM scholarship program and we found a picture from your high school in our clips... A group of clean cut kids... yes, it's integrated... do you know if you would have the original?... Yes, we'll use it in color. Oh, good, send it right over. Thank you, sir."
And now, into the inner chamber itself!
"Mr. Alexander, how do you do. Prefatory to my initiating our conversation, I would like to familiarize myself further with your background."
Unsmiling, unlaughable, unflappable, he has memorized his friendly speech of introduction. His delivery, however, remains mechanical. Perhaps he is worried about a business machine trying to take his place.
"SIR..." I begin.
"Yes, yes, of course. Now I want to speak personally about this Jewish question..."
Some of my best friends.
"I myself, when I go into the college to recruit, I don't ask, one way or other, that is, it doesn't matter to me, you see, whether he's Jewish, Polish, Czech, whatever..."
Or Protestant, Catholic, American, Russian.
"But now, you and I both can take a look at the corporate registers of any of the large corporate registers of any of the large corporations--Chrysler, Ford, any of them--and we know what we'll find..."
I'm afraid to admit, Sir, but I've never had a look at those corporate registers. Exactly what do we find?
"There's not a Jew there..."
"But I don't see why a person who has the ability can't overcome that, do you?"
"Of course, you'll find discrimination everywhere in our society. I for one certainly don't think it will be eradicated in our lifetime. Like it or not, we do live in an imperfect world..."
The room has little furniture. His black plastic executive-style reclining chair wheels around on a six foot plastic shield, to protect the carpet.
"Oh yes, that's true, you can go into any plant and you'll find your rows of people, perhaps forty in a row, their drawing boards in front of them, doing small jobs. They take off their coats and they look like the same people..."
Isn't this being turned around? The beguiler reveals his bad side. What's more, he is smiling, as if he is explaining something quite simple to a "slow" child.
"Now, these are our jobs. The job is there. And when a man comes to work for us he is ready to take that job. Of course it is not creative, and we are all depressed sometimes and we want to do that job across the street that looks so much better..."
"And I'm sure there are jobs where you can be your own man, but those are unusual jobs, not the rule..."
If it's not right for General Motors, it's not right for the country.
"But the good jobs come and go, you know. For instance what is the job that's most popular today? Why prob- ably going to help Negroes in the ghettos. Well, that is a job like any other job, and we think it's very important . . ."
"But in 10 years or 20 years, some other job will be the fad, and then it won't matter whether or not you worked in the ghetto, but whether you have security for your wife and kids."
He is wearing a long, extra long, shiny gray suit, white shirt, thin red tie, short hair, and, notable among his expressionless features, straight-staring, hard-looking eyes. While speaking, he lines up his green blotter with the bottom of his desk. He runs his thumb along the ridge to make sure the blotter edge are even. Then he places his square pen stand in the bottom right hand corner of the blotter. That leaves him, finally, with only my information sheet, with which he improvises, placing it on top or to the left of the pen stand, perfectly even with the blotter edge. All this time, his feet are planted wide beneath the desk on the plastic shield. Always he looks srtaight at me, never glancing at his geometric handiwork. Blink, damn, you, blink.
"Now this is not to say we are not concerned with the quality of our jobs. There are positions, like that of Factory Superviosr, which could be called creative . . .
"And we certainly do have jobs for liberal arts graduates. Of course these non-technical people start out a lower salaries -- $700 a month instead of $780--and, uh, generally they progress slower, and end up with lower salaries. Also, you'll find very few executives who were not specialists of one sort or another . . ."
Yes, I remember, the corporate registers.
"But we don't discriminate. If you show that you can do the job, we'll swoop right down and pick you up. We review all our employees every year. We'll come into your factory and ask your supervisor about you, whether you've shown the ability to work together with other people. Here, we all work together as a team; that is one of our prime qualifications for advancement."
Ready girls! One, two, three, four, let's yell who we're fighting for, five, six, seven, eight, who do we appreciate? Geeenerrrral Motors! Yea team!
"As far as conformity, you'll find most of us conservative, especially in this building. You might find men in some of the branch offices--mod men, Nehru jackets. But here you'll find pretty much nothing but conservative, except possibly in the advertising department, you know, ad men . . ."
Do NOT, REPEAT, DO NOT LOOSEN YOUR TIE. DEVIATION CAN SPRING UP ANYWHERE. BE ON THE ALERT. REMEMBER, ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT NON-CONFORMITY! No Sir, I didn't mean conservative like that, like mod-men and ad-men: I mean political.
"Well, I'll tell you, I myself used to consider myself a liberal. But you get more conservative with life, believe me. But, as for your questions, I'm sure there are some liberals in General Motors. . ."
I'm sure there are some liberals in General Motors?
"And I don't think it would hurt you in your advancement. It just depends. Now what do you mean by liberal groups? We wouldn't want you associated with a group that would reflect badly on General Motors' name . . ."
Excuse me, sir, what do you mean. I mean I'm not a communist or anything like that!
He looks at me knowingly, comes within an eyelash of winking.
"Well, I guess that is what I was referring to."
I guess so.
"That is an excellent question about our social conscience and I'm glad you asked it. As for our hiring policies, we hire black people. As for the orientation of our work, we have jobs, important jobs, directly concerned with the quality of ghetto life. Like how do you get those ghetto residents to work an eight-hour day, how do you get them to want to."
Sir, must everything General Motors does have a business rationale? This is my last question. Suddenly, the tone of the interview changes.
"Mr. Alexander, are you interested in a job with us?"
Yes, I wouldn't be here if I wasn't, would I? Why do you ask?
"Well, it seems to me you might be writing an article or something."
I don't understand what could give you that impression, Mr. S.
"The depth of your questions seem to indicate an interest beyond that of just finding a job."
That must be more of a reflection on your usual job applicants than the depth of my questions, Mr. S. I am just a little concerned about how my being a rebel will affect my possible business career.
"I can understand your concern, Mr. Alexander."
Mr. S., I've been a little surprised, I must admit, by your remarks. I hope you won't mind then if I ask you a personal question.
"No, not at all."
What is your personal reaction to me? What do you think my future would be in General Motors?
"Well, frankly, I think that you would have a difficult time."
"A very difficult time adjusting to big corporate life. It seems to me that with your, uh, attitudes, that you would not really find outlets for what you call creativity or originality. I mean, so you could be a plant supervisor. What do you do? It's your responsibility to get people out of bed every morning."
I see. Well, I want to thank you for the frankness and the interview and everything.
"Not at all. And I wouldn't want to discourage you. You should apply to some other companies.