Hired Help

When Julie Van Bockern moved to the Twin Cities from Sioux Falls in August 1995 to live with her fiancé, she was leaving behind 20 years' worth of professional contacts. But she hoped that in the Twin Cities she'd be able to break out of a career rut. She'd spent the previous two years as an assistant manager, first at a Casual Corner and then at a shopping-mall jewelry store, but was having trouble moving up or earning more than the mid-$20,000s.

Once in Minnesota, Van Bockern noticed an ad in the Star Tribune's job classifieds for IntelAction Career Services, an employment consulting company that promised to help her land a better job at the salary level she requested--$30,000 to $40,000 a year. The counselors she first met with at IntelAction showed her a 22-point "Warranty of Satisfaction." In it, the company promised to work on her behalf for three years.

Van Bockern says she was told at this first meeting that her requests, including the salary she wanted to earn, were no problem. So she signed IntelAction's contract and handed over $2,450. In the contract, the then-Edina-based company promised to "develop client skills to create and/or update résumés, identify appropriate position and industries matching client's skills, interests, and objectives, instruct clients about how to properly research companies and prospective employers, and provide counseling with regard to securing a satisfactory compensation package."

In retrospect Van Bockern says she should have recognized the contract language as "a lot of steam." Nearly three years and dozens of interviews later she has a job. But IntelAction didn't help her get it, she says; the company never even finished her résumé.

After signing the contract on September 12, 1995, Van Bockern met with a "career specialist" who was supposed to help her implement her program. She was given homework assignments and told to complete them for each meeting. She gave her counselor copies of her outdated résumé, done by a service in Sioux Falls. Between September 12 and November 2, Van Bockern says she had at least nine meetings with IntelAction. She calculates she spent 28.5 hours working on homework and about 20 hours at IntelAction, and she still didn't have so much as an updated résumé.

But she'd sunk a lot of money into the deal and felt like she should try to work with the program. In fact, she says, she was so positive about IntelAction's potential that during her job hunt she worked as a telemarketer for the firm, bringing in some 70 prospective clients.

During the first six weeks of her contract, she went on 29 job interviews. She set up each of them herself, using her old Sioux Falls résumé. In October 1995 she secured a temporary position with the state's Ombudsman for Mental Health and Mental Retardation. She didn't see her career counselor for the next five months.

In March 1996, she contacted IntelAction to ask again about her résumé and also for help filling out a state of Minnesota job application. Her performance for the Ombudsman for Mental Health had earned her a job at the Office of the Ombudsman for Corrections. She needed to complete the application to be eligible for promotion.

On May 2, Van Bockern's counselor called, excited he had a first draft of her résumé. It consisted of little more than a half page of her characteristics and a line about her college education. "Where's the rest of it?" she asked him. Five days later she says he sent another résumé, this time listing five areas in which she had experience but still no specific prior jobs.

With her wedding fast approaching, Van Bockern didn't contact IntelAction again until February 1997 when she met with Bruce O'Brien, the company's president, to ask for her money back. Despite the fact that she still didn't have a completed résumé, he refused. Van Bockern says O'Brien became incensed and said she didn't deserve her money back, that she obviously hadn't done her homework, had missed appointments, and had a bad attitude. With her attitude, she says O'Brien said, no résumé would do her any good.

Don Howard, a partner in IntelAction, says Van Bockern was told at the start that the company doesn't give refunds and that she was never guaranteed a job or told to expect a certain salary. She also refused to follow her counselor's advice, he says.

Last month, Van Bockern took IntelAction to small-claims court and won a refund plus court costs. But the company appealed the decision and now the case is on its way to Hennepin County District Court.

Van Bockern wasn't the first person to file suit against IntelAction. In 1993 Kenneth Sower sued in small-claims court, won, and--just like Van Bockern--waited for the verdict to be appealed. IntelAction's defense was the same: Sower wasn't keeping up his end of the bargain, the company argued. The program worked, one just had to stick with it. A district-court judge ultimately found in Sower's favor, concluding that IntelAction hadn't lived up to its contract.

Sower and Van Bockern's problems are perfect examples of why career-service companies should be regulated, say some veteran career counselors. "Anyone who wants to do this can," says Mark Giselson, who owns a résumé-writing service in St. Paul. "People have been tricked into thinking there are standards." Sadly, those who are seeking career assistance are least likely to know whether the help they receive is any good, he adds.

If Van Bockern had gone to a fee employment agency, or "headhunter," she might not have had the same problems, says Roslyn Wade, assistant commissioner for the Workplace Service Division of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. These companies provide prospective employers with the names of job-seekers and must be licensed, she says, along with employment services that provide job listings. Businesses that simply provide information about job-hunting fall through the regulatory cracks.

Curtis Loewe of the state attorney general's Consumer Protection Division says his office receives few complaints about career counselors. Those it does hear are from people who believe the contracts they signed guaranteed them a job. "Some people get quite desperate and sign without reading that it says this is a limited warranty," he says.

While IntelAction makes no claims on paper that it can produce a job and no commitment to a salary range, Van Bockern says she was given a verbal promise that her goals would be met. And the disclaimer printed at the bottom of IntelAction's ads explaining that it isn't an employment agency is dwarfed by suggestive bold type: "Executives/Professionals/Administrators $25,000-$150,000," reads one.

Industry insiders say employment-service consumers need to be very careful. Before signing anything, individuals should visit their local state-run job center and find out about the services it offers for free. There are also numerous nonprofits providing services on a sliding-fee scale.

IntelAction's attorney, Glen Norton, says he believes the company provides the services its contracts promise and that its staff is highly experienced. IntelAction staffers have been featured in news reports as employment experts, and the company has plenty of satisfied customers, Norton and Howard both say. As for Van Bockern, Norton says IntelAction's case will be clear once he files the company's response to her suit. "What I can tell you is that there is nothing she can say that the company is willing to agree with," he says.

A trial date is expected soon in Van Bockern's suit. And although she isn't looking forward to having to prove her case all over again, she is anxious for some closure.

Sower, meanwhile, has a piece of parting advice for Van Bockern: "I just hope she has their bank-account information," he says, adding that he eventually had to have the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department collect his judgment.

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