First Person
March 2003

Begging for a Job

It is very common in Brazil that a job candidate will have
the final interview in the same room with all the
other finalists. There will be the noble lord or lady and
their council of advisors. The ambience is not unlike a
death-match among gladiators in the arena.

John Roscoe

Have you ever played "Civilization", the computer "god-game", by Sid Meier? It is extremely educational, giving you an idea of what are the consequences and benefits of living under different forms of government and social arrangements. You come to find out that democracy (and the relatively free-market that goes with it) produces the greatest wealth, the most rapid technologic advances, and the highest rate of production from its workers.

The consequence is that it is the most difficult government to maintain, since it takes much more effort to keep the citizens happy. Also policy decisions must always include what the people think and want. But once it gets rolling, it can become a perpetual-wealth machine, producing power and riches that are spread across the society. And as that power and wealth gets spread around, then the people are more likely to work cooperatively, with a common sense of purpose, achieving relative greatness as a society.

Well, another type of educational model is available here in Brazil, the "neo-feudal" society. Feudalism is, you will recall, where the elite or nobility each have a piece of the kingdom, which are in fact mini-kingdoms, within a kingdom. They are the Law in their mini-kingdoms and everything in their mini-kingdoms is theirs to do with as they please—the land, the trees, the wealth-produced—but above all, this includes the workers of the kingdom that produce the wealth. The problem with having nobility, is that by definition, it must be kept to a small percentage of the population, say ten percent.

And the workers? What consideration must you give to their desires, needs and happiness? Just enough. Mustn't let them become too "uppity", or they'll start getting ideas, like "ambition". If they get ambition, then perhaps they'll want to be noble too. And if everyone has the opportunity to be a noble, well, there go hundreds of years of social order and your piece of the pie.

So, how do you keep reign over your workers when they outnumber you 9-1? By constantly maintaining your nobility. You must remind those that serve you, with your every thought, word and gesture, that they are fortunate to have the opportunity of serving you, in your kingdom

Examples and illustrations are most easily found in the Brazilian workplace. It starts with the job application.

In the States, when you submit a résumé, if you don't hear from the prospective employer after a month or two, then it is safe to assume that you are not in consideration. In Brazil, those that offer positions within their kingdoms can be much more leisurely about the process. They can remain confident that after a year or more you will still be available, or at least interested. And if not, then there are plenty more like you to be found.

Once you do land an interview, it becomes a grueling trial of elimination. Often there are tests and official documents or other requirements that are paid for by the applicants. It is not unusual that a candidate is notified of an interview a few hours prior to the appointed time—"you-snooze-you-lose". Sometimes the prospective employer will have you work for free for a short period of time, under the guise of training or orientation.

It is very common to have the final interview comprised of all the finalists in the same room, before the noble lord or lady and their council of advisors. The ambience is not unlike a death-match among gladiators in the arena. This serves an additional function, besides mere sport. In the room with you is the pool of people who could easily replace you, if you should you ever get to feeling too secure in your job. Charming custom, no?

Ah, but if the noble finds you to be of good stock—strong, clear-eyed, well-trained, docile and obedient—then perhaps you will be taken into service. Among Brazilians, these are not rare qualities.

But, say you are a foreigner—an American, perhaps…….

Docility is not one of our better-known traits. This alone gives pause to prospective Brazilian employers.

We Americans tend to think of our employers as mere mortals that value our skills and abilities and who will reward our efforts. They will care for us because it's the smart thing to do, business-wise. It's always smart to take good care of your assets and means of production. Our arrangement is implicit: I'm here because I receive what I'm worth, and I am allowed to keep my dignity, as a valued part of the organization. If not, I will seek and eventually find a better employer.

American employers, like American businesses in general, have a tendency to emphasize efficiency and long-range considerations. They know that the process of finding, selecting and training employees costs money. They also know that it takes a certain amount of time for an employee to reach full productivity within the enterprise. When they hire an employee, they view it as making a substantial investment that has the potential of bringing in a good profit. In fact, the buzzword that best fits this concept in the U.S. and Europe is "Human Capital."

A feudal society does have to maintain some minimal responsibilities in the care and feeding of its working-class. Since workers can't really be trusted to care for their own needs, they will be provided food-tickets, and bus-tickets. Of course, these are taxed also. And they will be given an additional month's salary in December, to celebrate the holidays. Never mind putting that money in trust accounts or just adding it outright to their monthly salaries; although it may enhance their daily survival, how would this stimulate sales for the nobility that operate shops at Christmas time?

The nobles that operate businesses most often maintain sternness in their attitudes towards employees. It is important to keep people in line and to remind them that if they deviate from expectations, the repercussions will be swift and merciless. At the same time, praise or appreciation must be kept to an absolute minimum—no sense in ruining a perfectly good employee, by letting them know their worth to you.

Besides, if they think you value them, they might be emboldened to ask for more, and so where is the benefit to the feudal lord? No, the best way to eliminate the possibility of this is to rule with a firm hand and to inspire respect born of fear. First, last and always employees must remember their place. This takes priority over their ability, dedication, and initiative. In fact, initiative is actually somewhat dangerous, since it implies acting without receiving authorized approval.

What is lacking in Brazil, in every sector, is incentive.

Why try? Why care? If I give any more than I am now, I will be the loser. I am not valued and I am not respected. I am only here because this is the best I can expect. In fact, the only way I can win is by doing less, until I arrive at the absolute minimum.

If you have any doubt that this is the case, try summoning a waiter in a popular Brazilian restaurant, where tipping ranges from non-existent to minimal, or make a complaint to a clerk in a department store about a defective product.

Showing personal ambition or initiative is downright dangerous. I had worked for a company that provided English lessons to corporations. While working within this environment, I noted that there was a ready-market for other unrelated language-programs, like social "English-only-happy hours" or weekend English-immersion courses; none of which were being offered by our company.

I and some of the other teachers examined the possibilities, but when we informed the company we worked for of our ideas and intentions, an inquisition was convened to try us malcontents and our independent notions. Where was our gratitude? How could we consider doing something outside of the company that was barely keeping us fed?

When we offered to develop our ideas in conjunction with the company, the partners considered it, but the "deal-breaker" was that "I didn't know my place." As the American ringleader of this potentially revolutionary cabal, I was quickly isolated and eliminated, to keep from infecting the others. I was told that I would learn how things worked in Brazil and what the "system" was all about.

Well, this system is about five centuries out-of-date.

John Roscoe is a Hawaiian-American living in Brasília. He studied journalism and communications at the University of Hawaii and has written, folksy, feature-stories for small island newspapers, as well as résumés for all of his friends. He currently works as an English teacher and can be contacted at johnthemedic@hotmail  

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