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While frantically searching for a job a few months ago, I accidentally interviewed at a multi-level marketing company (MLM) AKA a pyramid scheme. My story, I hope, will raise awareness as much as it invites laughs.
I’d scrolled on job boards for hours, clicking on any listings that sounded remotely creative. Hours later, I’d applied to be a staff writer, social media manager, and even a New York City donut tour guide. At least there would be perks.
The job application process got to a point where a company would have requirements like “3-5 years of experience writing about the intersection of fashion and corn,” and I’d think, well I have the writing experience… I know nothing about fashion or corn… might as well apply anyway.
I was flying through listings at such a rapid speed that I wasn’t paying attention to what I was applying for. And I never heard back from most places. Big companies are often impossible to break into unless you have a contact, and they usually don’t give you the courtesy of a rejection either.
So, when I got an email inviting me to do an in-person interview at a marketing company, I almost cried. I emailed back immediately, agreeing to meet.
It was only after we’d set a date and time that it hit me: I didn’t know what position I’d applied for.
None of the usual job boards had the listing up anymore so there was no way for me to know what I was getting myself into.
I could have canceled the interview right then and there. But I figured I would go in anyway and suss out what the job really was. The office was filled with glass and bright colors. Everyone was friendly and dressed like they’d bought out an entire Banana Republic store. It immediately seemed like a fun place to be. There was no secretary at the main desk but someone came up, handed me a questionnaire to fill out, and told me my interviewer would be right with me. I sat in a bright, red, modern chair next to 5 other people scribbling away on the same kind of clipboard I had. The competition.
After sitting down with the interviewer for about 20 minutes I finally realized this was not the job for me. She spent the first half of the meeting reviewing questions I had answered. These questions included “Define marketing” and “What are your best and worst traits?”
After reading each answer she gave me a huge check and then spent the next five minutes re-explaining my response to me as if I hadn’t just written it down already. She even told me why my good traits were good and bad traits were bad.
Then she pulled up a slideshow on her phone.
The slideshow explained how the company works and what my time there would look like. Here’s a look at the structure from what I remember:
That’s when it hit me: this was an MLM scheme. The pyramid shape doesn’t lie.
A job at an MLM company means you are committing your time and effort for minimal pay and zero benefits. They are essentially pyramid schemes, but instead of stealing your money, they steal your time and you make almost no money.
The South Dakota Office of Consumer Protection states that “The main idea behind the MLM strategy is to promote maximum number of distributors for the product and exponentially increase the sales force. The promoters get commission on the sale of the product as well as compensation for sales their recruits make thus, the compensation plan in multi-level marketing is structured such that commission is paid to individuals at multiple levels when a single sale is made and commission depends on the total volume of sales generated.”
For new recruits, this means they are only seeing a fraction of their sales.
An article in Mashable reported that “The Federal Trade Commission reports, less than one percent of MLM participants make a profit. That’s right: More than 99 percent of participants lose money instead of making it. Most of these companies target vulnerable women like stay-at-home moms and military wives who don’t tend to be financially independent anyway.”
The Huffington Post compared MLMs to cults: easy to get sucked in and hard to leave. The article discusses Steven Hassan’s BITE theory, which lays out what qualifies as a cult: Behavioral, Informational, Thought, and Emotional control.
Not surprisingly, the typical MLM uses all four of these control methods. A documentary was made in 2016 by BRIC TV titled “The Sweatshop of Wall Street.” It exposes the company CrediCo, an active MLM scheme.
The doc explains the tactics used to control employees. One man explains how every morning tons of people would pack into a room and “start the morning rituals of chanting, yelling, and screaming at each other.” He also noted that ”Usually the windows are closed so that there’s heat in the room.”
This creates a cult-like environment. Dr. Susan Lipkins, a hazing expert explains that “They’re using chanting and song, they’re using mind games, where they want to make everybody feel like they’re part of a group but in order to be part of that group you have to prove that you’re worthy. The group atmosphere engages them in such a way that they feel they do not have a choice.”
Keep watching and you’ll see shocking footage of employees being forced to do dares if they bring in the lowest number of sales, a frat-reminiscent technique for controlling the employees. One shows a man chugging a cup of hot sauce. Another focuses on a woman harassed into giving her boss a lap dance. No one in the room questioned whether or not she was okay with it. They all cheered.
These MLM employees are no longer individuals: they’ve morphed into an army.
Realizing all of this, I sat, mid-interview, anxious to leave. Knowing that there was no way I was going to take a job at the company, I worked up the courage to ask what I’d been wondering the whole time: What did the job entail on a day-to-day basis?
She dodged the question by talking about how important direct marketing is but I kept pushing her. Turns out the job is glorified door-to-door sales hawking cellphones to people on the street.
It would be all commission-based, which she neglected to tell me at the time. No health benefits. The company wanted to suck me into its army under the guise of promising promotions with no real future.
I got six calls from people at the company that day. To be honest, I was afraid of them and didn’t answer at all. After the sixth time, I sent them to voicemail and I think they got the point. I wasted my time interviewing for it. Had I not been aware of how MLMs work, I might have even accepted the position.
You never know who’s going to get back to you and if the job posting will still be listed by the time you’re called in. Safety aside, it is important to know exactly what you are getting yourself into before an interview.
If you Google the company and you can’t find the website, that’s a red flag. I managed to find the site of the company I visited, but it was deep into my search. If it doesn’t come up on the first page, so be careful.
The description might make big promises that ultimately mean nothing, like “easy potential for promotion” or “make tons of extra income.” Those kinds of statements don’t tell you anything about what the actual job is like. When you’re looking for jobs, stick to ones with detailed lists of what work you will be doing.
Most job listings state they want to see some relevant experience in the field. Many require 1+ years of work just to be considered. Even entry-level positions ask for it. But MLMs will hire anyone. They have a constant flow of people building up an army of workers. If you don’t think you would normally qualify for a marketing position, it should set off some alarms when the company jumps at the chance to interview you anyway.
DO NOT be afraid to get to the bottom of what the job actually is. I made that mistake and ended up giving my contact information to a company I want nothing to do with. I also had to sit through that woman talking for an hour. Be courageous if you do accidentally interview at one of these places. Force them to tell you the truth.
The job market is tough but if you keep trying, you will find something great. Don’t take the MLM job just because you’re afraid you won’t find anything else. You will. And do not feel obligated to respond to a scheme after you interview there. They will not leave you alone until you cut them off completely. You will find something much better because you deserve so much better.
And just in case, here is a site with a list of MLMs to watch out for.