My friend suddenly died -- and I think I want his job!

Is there a delicate way to tell his boss that I'm not job hunting, but I think I'd make a great replacement?


Cary Tennis
September 25, 2007 2:26PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

A friend of mine, who was a midlevel manager at a company, died accidentally. I mourn with all the other people who loved him. On the other hand, I am looking forward to changing jobs and I always liked what he did at that company.

My question is, How should I approach trying to fill up this new and unexpected vacancy? I know calling his old boss and telling him, "Hi, I know your manager died, do you want to see my résumé?" will not work.

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I do not want to look like the crones in "Zorba the Greek," fighting over Madame Hortense's things while she agonized, but I think it is a good opportunity that just presented itself.

How should I go about this?

Not Quite Like the Crones in Zorba the Greek

Dear Not Quite Like the Crones,

Thank you for this idea for the next episode of the HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm." After seeing Larry David stealing flowers off the memorial site of his friend's mother Sunday night, I feel confident the writers could do a lot with this situation.

The reason Larry David's comedy works is that our uneasiness about social taboo is a vast and nearly limitless field. We go out into the world daily pitting our "unwritten rules" against the unwritten rules of every other anxious social actor. Underneath our ostensible attention to the unwritten rules is our own private method of getting what we want. We even know, I think, that our most virtuous acts always contain a bit of self-interest.

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This is taken to absurd extremes in Larry David's brand of comedy, but it can be seen quite clearly in this quandary of yours. So let's ask: What would Larry David do?

What an absurd question. What would Larry David do? Larry David, Larry David, let's see ... Larry David would ... no. That is not a helpful line of inquiry.

OK, so what would I do? I would try to help. My brand of "help" always involves self-interest, as does the "help" of most everyone else. But it is still help. I would figure out how I can be of help and I would offer to help. I'm not sure if that means calling up his manager or not. It might. "Do you want to see my résumé?" is too crass. But wanting to help the company get through this difficult period is not. Figuring out how to help might involve calling someone in the company and saying that you think you can help. To the extent that you have expertise or knowledge or time and energy, you make yourself available and you inquire. And if your inquiry about what the company is going to do about the vacancy spurs the question, "Are you interested in his job?" you say that despite the delicate nature of it, if the company needs someone to step right in, you do happen to have the skills and knowledge to do so, and you always admired the way your deceased friend did his job, and the way he spoke so highly about the company, and so, yes, you are interested in his job.

Now, most business cultures frown on overtly sentimental disclosures in a business conversation. Notable exceptions are the culture of rock 'n' roll and entertainment generally. I have no idea what kind of company you are talking about, whether it is a cattle feed company or a rock 'n' roll management firm or a glassware manufacturer or an accountancy. There is no one company culture. It's all individual people. So depending on whom you are talking to you might even venture an intimacy, and say that helping the company out at this time is what your friend would have wanted you to do. It could be your way of honoring your friend's memory.

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So, depending on how you deliver this, and whom you deliver it to, you could get all kinds of responses. You could blow it right there. Or you could make a human connection. You don't know their set of "unwritten rules," or what social and business taboos might be driving them, motivating them, or preventing them from acting at all. You cannot know these things without actively attempting to find them out. By "actively" I don't mean asking point blank what their unwritten rules are regarding how and when to fill the vacancy created by an accidental death. I mean using your own intelligence, sensitivity and knowledge of the culture to form your best guess.

The fact is, his death leaves a vacancy that must be filled. There is nothing wrong with gently stating the facts as you see them. And then, if this line of conversation leads to the question, Well, why do you believe you are the best qualified, blah blah blah, you're on your own. I assume you do have some qualifications?

My bottom-line rule is this: When somebody dies, we come around and help those who are left living. We bring them food, we help with the funeral, we carry the casket, we try to comfort and be around. That applies to all areas of life, not just family. So approach this as someone who can help, rather than someone who is looking for something. Look at the situation and see how you can make it better. If you can really make the situation better, there's nothing wrong with offering.

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