Bait and Switch

by Barbara Ehrenreich

ISBN: 1-86207-897-1, Publisher: Granta Books, 2006

Reviewed by: Julie Garland McLellan*

This book recounts the highlights of a trawl through the murky world of ‘career transitions’. The author, a professional journalist with a deep dislike of corporations and their leaders, decided to attempt to gain employment by seeking paid help from various coaches, mentors, consultants and other programs. Having first sold the idea for this book she had resources to invest in this pursuit.

The most striking element of the book, for me, was the author’s distrust of the world into which she was seeking entry. Given her writing skills, Ehrenreich decided to reinvent herself as a PR person. She then declared that PR was how companies generated lies and deceptions to mislead customers, regulators and the world in general. She related this declaration to her failure to be accepted as a member of the corporate PR community.

A determined search for the ‘bottom-feeders’ who would ‘ruthlessly prey’ upon the poor downwardly-mobile white collar workers who were futilely attempting to regain entry into the corporate environment turned up some eccentric and essentially risible quasi-professional ‘transition facilitators’. Ehrenreich’s confusion at being type cast using psychometric testing, role played using dolls from the Wizard of Oz and colour coordinated using seasonal tones would have been hilarious had it not been counterpoised by touchingly realistic characterisations of her desperate fellow job seekers. It is gut wrenchingly sad in places. Ehrenreich never queried why people would desperately seek to return to a corporate environment where they were abused, exploited and corrupted. Her lack of understanding and empathy, together with the clarity of her observations, was quite distressing.

This book contains nothing to interest a serious career coach or mentor. It is possibly a cautionary tale for their clients about the dangers of paying for unqualified advice.

The author’s antipathy to the sector she was attempting to infiltrate makes it unsurprising that she was unsuccessful in gaining employment. Her failure to seek out reputable advisors and to avoid charlatans compounded that fact. Her networking was hampered by a fictitious background and having no real network to start with; she never had a chance. The book is like movies about the Titanic; you know it will end sadly but somehow the drama keeps you there.

As a journalist, Ehrenreich has some personal experience in corporate environments as well as second-person experience of companies she investigated and reported. How did she fail to find any positive corporate role models? There is a disturbing anti-corporate tone to this book. It goes beyond cynicism or satire and, being an unquestioned basis of the author’s approach to her topic, undermines what could otherwise have been an interesting investigation of a very under-examined sector of our economy. I would love to see a more unbiased author redo this experiment.

*Julie Garland McLellan is a professional non-executive director, board and governance consultant and mentor. She is the author of “The Director’s Dilemma”, “All Above Board: Great Governance for the Government Sector” and numerous articles on corporate strategy and governance. 

Julie Garland McLellan to judge 2011 Global eBook Awards