Hens that Crow

Short on results, but long on superficially plausible technical excuses, Phil Factor describes his dealings with the hen that crowed...

Robert, a programmer, was a fairly new recruit in my company. He seemed pleasant enough and got on well with the others, but I was uneasy about him because he seemed compelled to give me unsolicited lectures on technical subjects. I’d been so dazzled by his slick interview technique and impeccable references that, against my better instincts, I gave him a job. He was now late with his various assignments but was very willing to give me long, superficially plausible technical explanations.

There is a saying that is popular among Development Managers:

‘Hens that crow are never going to lay eggs’.

Robert was heading inexorably towards the proverbial meat-cleaver, but I wanted to do my best to help turn things around for him. Out of desperation, I decided to phone one of his referees for advice on how I should be getting the best from him. I quickly realized that it was something that I should have done long before. Both of his references were faked.

It was clear that that I needed to find a replacement, but I wanted to find one without prematurely alerting Robert to the fact that his destiny didn’t include a career in my company. I didn’t tell the agency that had sent Robert to me about the CV, as I didn’t want anything fed back to Robert. It also meant that I couldn’t advertise his job directly, without raising his suspicions.

The solution came to me: I would advertise the position through, Batterbase Ltd, one of my other companies. You have to understand that the IT business can get pretty complicated, and I was not alone in having several small enterprises and a number of deals and projects going on at any time, only one in ten of which ever came to anything. Batterbase was a company I’d once set up to import and distribute a keyed ISAM database system from the States, but which had recently lain dormant as a plaything for my accountant.

Batterbase was obligingly hosted by an old friend of mine called Bernard (I performed a similar role for him). It wasn’t a very onerous job, as the Batterbase phone rang only very occasionally, and it was usually only a hopeful salesman selling water-coolers. Bernard and I were members of that freemasonry of software developers that used to exist. We knew how random the nature of success was in the industry, and there was a fair degree of mutual support.

I wrote out the basic job description for a programmer with knowledge of dealing systems and, in the hope of attracting a slightly higher class of candidate, I upped the salary a little. The description of the vacant post at Batterbase went out to the agencies, listing Bernard as contact.

A few days later Bernard phoned.

“Darlllling!” he trilled.

“My Love,” I cooed back, nervously glancing around the office in case anyone was overhearing. Bernard was an extraordinary chap, an ex-actor who hid his unreconstructed pre-modernist masculinity behind an exaggerated theatrical camp.

“You’ll never guess it, but you’ve had someone apply for that job at Batterbase.” Bernard rather liked the clandestine nature of this assignment. “Let me do the first interview, darling, as I’m here already and it will save you a trip. I know more about your business than you do, so I can flannel it without a script”.

I found it impossible to refuse his request, as it was very convenient even if it meant missing an amusing lunch with a great companion. A week later, he phoned again in some excitement. I’d rather forgotten about the interview in the distraction of sorting out various crises, and his first sentence was rather a shock.

“I’ve given the job to your candidate. What a treasure he was, he’ll do you proud!”

“That was supposed to be a first interview, Bernard!” I cried, reproachfully, “I haven’t even seen the CV!”

“Well, I know but he was a real cracker. He had terrific references and recent experience in dealing systems. You’ll love him!”


“Oh dear. Maybe I got a bit carried away”.

I was in the process of replacing a person whose references I hadn’t checked properly with someone who I’d never met and who’s CV I hadn’t even seen! I felt that things had got slightly out of control.

On the morning that Robert returned from a bout of Flu I guided him into my office in order to give him his cards. He must have sensed that I wasn’t going to give him a pay-rise, as he beat me to it and handed in his notice. We decided on an immediate departure, and he shook hands and disappeared off down the street. I spent the rest of the morning skipping around like a spring lamb at the joy of such a clean and harmonious parting. Real life rarely ran that smoothly.

Later on that day, the CV arrived from Bernard. I opened the envelope and immediately discovered that…I’d re-hired Robert. I could only assume that his agency had alerted him to a vacancy in the same field with better pay. Ah.

Immediately, I phoned Bernard and explained through gritted teeth what he’d done. Bernard was contrite but I couldn’t help thinking that he found something funny about the whole thing. I didn’t. Moodily, I glanced through the CV and saw immediately that it was a work of considerable fiction. According to the CV, he was not the junior programmer I knew, but a team leader with an almost unique overall understanding of our dealing system and its technical ramifications. He’d also extended his employment time here. Understandably, he’d kept his bogus referees.

Suddenly I saw the funny side of it all. As Bernard and I laughed, and mulled over the capriciousness of the Gods, the perfect solution to the whole matter presented itself to us.

Bernard played his part well. Robert was summoned to his office and told that the senior director, a fierce and fussy man prone to sticking to protocol, had insisted on checking references before confirming the appointment. Robert bristled and protested that the offer could scarcely be withdrawn at this stage. Bernard merely picked up the phone and checked the two referees, only to be told that no such people existed in the organisations, or ever had.

Robert’s truculence had evaporated. ‘Never mind,’ said Bernard cheerfully, ‘I know that your time working for Phil Factor will be more easily tracked’. Robert looked startled. Bernard winked, ‘An old chum of mine, Phil. I’m sure he will be lavish in his praises of your work.’

It wasn’t necessary. Robert was on his feet. Rapidly, he shook hands, scooped up the CV from the table and left, for the last time.