Because I had a connection to the Dead Animal Steakhouse (my future wife was a well liked server) I successfully transitioned from general manger of a clothing store to server. I'm not going to pretend it was a seamless change. The menu at the Dead Animal Steakhouse is complicated and I always felt that the training process was convoluted and disingenuous. My first few days were terrible. I actually spilled hot soup on a young kid. Ultimately, it wasn't my fault (which is why I didn't lose my job) but that didn't stop me from tearing up after the shift. It was intense and I felt awful. Over time, I got the hang of things and it wasn't long before I was being asked to train new servers.
I quickly learned that training a new server, or new hire as they were called, was a colossally flawed process for several reasons. The problems in the system are varied and plentiful. The first is compensation. People wait tables for the money, pure and simple. Trainers are not compensated when they trained new hires. Once upon a time, trainers would receive a higher wage per hour and any meal they wanted off the menu. This could include twenty dollars steaks and entrees. Over the thirteen years the restaurant had been open, these benefits were gradually whittled away to the point that trainers basically did one of the hardest jobs in the restaurant without compensation. As a matter of fact, it often cost the trainer money in the form of lost tips. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a more experienced server will make more money off a table when compared to a new hire. Part of the training process asks the trainer to allow the new hire to wait on his or her tables. In some cases, these first attempts don’t go well.
I’ll never forget one particular new hire I trained named Ellen. By this point I worked at the restaurant five or six days a week and made a decent living waiting tables while I went to school. As I walked in the door to start my shift, I figured it was just another Friday night. Then I was introduced to Ellen. Ellen was a pretty college student about three years younger than I was with very little (if any) serving experience. The manager of the restaurant told me I would be training Ellen and to “show her the ropes” about the restaurant. Mind you, this was not a choice on my part. This was just what I was expected to do that evening. I immediately knew that, no matter how good Ellen might be at the job, I was going to take at least a 15% to 20% cut in my earnings for the night when compared to what I could have made by myself. In a four hour shift, Ellen manage to spill a twenty three ounce beer on a customer, ring in the wrong food on the wrong table repeatedly, and generally disappoint all of her customers in every possible facet of the dining experience. Needless to say, her tips were less than 10% of her sales. Remember, this was money coming out of my pocket.
When I had to train someone like Ellen it drove me crazy. It was a waste of both of our times which brings me to my next point. The training process really begins with the hiring process. The Steakhouse was near a shopping mall and several colleges/universities. As a result, we would receive, literally, thirty applications a week during the peak seasons. However, it always felt like we were understaffed. Why? Because there are only so many attractive women in the world.
Hiring people is not an easy job. However, I don’t think it’s beyond someone with average intelligence. It’s not impossible to hire quality people. You don't need a doctorate to fill a restaurant with people of good character and work ethic.
Hiring does, however, require you take the entire process seriously, make good judgments about the people you are interviewing, communicate your needs to the potential employee, and think with your big head. Hiring new employees also requires that the management team be interested in filling the restaurant with the best people for the job. This was not the utmost priority at the Steakhouse. On busy nights we would have between twenty to twenty-five servers working the “floor plan”. Most nights, 85% of the staff (that the public would see) would be female, young, and attractive. The management team of the Steak House hired women who were pretty and didn’t typically hire men. As I mentioned, I only got the job because I was well connected. Simply put, the management team hired young women who they hoped to flirt with. That was really the most important quality a potential new hire could have.
Availability, previous experience, and personality didn’t really mean much. The bottom line revolved around looks. One particular manager of the restaurant would spend entire shifts standing at the host stand in the front of the restaurant so he could “supervise” the hosts and server. “Supervising” included every imaginable type of flirting, grab assing, and sexually suggestive conversations. Mind you, many of the women in the restaurant were in their early twenties. This manager was easily 35. It was the worst kept secret in the restaurant that he had had affairs with several of the female staff over the years. Did I mention he was married with 2 children?
To make matters worse, it always seemed like many of the new hires would blatantly lie on their application and never get called on it. For example, several new hires clearly had not worked in a restaurant before getting hired at the Steakhouse. It was painfully obvious when they greeted their first table in training. Unfortunately, if the girl was attractive enough, it didn’t matter. Many of the new hires also had awful availability. Over the years, hundreds of new hires would come to the restaurant from local colleges. On the surface this was fine. However, when the less desirable shifts had to be filled, like Christmas and New Years Eve, these same new hire college students would go back to their hometown. This obviously left the restaurant understaffed during some of its most busy periods. Again, the attractive servers were never held accountable.
It was so egregious that I do not recall a single women ever being fired from the restaurant for any reason. There was one occasion where a particularly attractive female server was caught, dead to rights, complaining about her table by that same table. In the restaurant business this is a cardinal sin. The server was scolded by management but never lost a shift or suffered a financial penalty. A similar situation occurred to a male server about a year later and, you guessed it, he was fired on the spot.
Beyond the blatant hiring issues, the parent corporation that ran the Steak House had unbelievable expectation of their trainers and trainees. They distribute huge (85 page) manuals called “Dead Animal Steakhouse Operating Standards Workbook for Servers” to their new hires. Some of the more experienced staff, including myself, were asked to participate in a “certified training course” taught, and I use that phrase very loosely, by a corporate representative. The course lasted about ten hours, for which we were paid minimum wage. The course consisted of a painstaking review of the “certified trainer” manual. Both the new hire and trainer manual together weighed in at about 110 total pages. This is an outrageous number when you consider that I didn’t have that much training material to read when I became a public school teacher.
I feel I need to make a point about the economics of training new servers and the certified trainer program the Steakhouse corporation forced upon us. Most Americans would agree that making money is a good thing and the very reason we take jobs. If money, greed, and the hopes of a better life didn’t inherently motivate us, why would we take jobs at all? Adam Smith was among the first to write a book about this. The “invisible hand” of greed pushes us to take jobs and consequently improve our lot in live. Money is an incentive to work. We take this type of thinking very seriously in America. How many of you love what you do for a living? How many of you would rather be sitting on a beach as opposed to a cubicle performing data entry? Well, I am an American, a capitalist, and I believe in all of these ideas. Waiting tables, in my twenties, was an efficient use of my time because the benefits (money) far outweighed the costs (time, driving to the restaurant, absorbing customer abuse, etc). As I flipped through the certified training material provide to me by this corporate "teacher", I knew it was flawed in the most fundamental ways.
First of all, I wasn’t getting paid to become a certified trainer. As I just mentioned, we are all driven by greed. Being recognized as a certified trainer and, therefore, one of the best servers in the restaurant can only motivate me to a point. If you really think I’m one of the best servers in the restaurant, offer me an incentive like money, free food, better shifts, better sections, etc. This basic economic concept was not taken into consideration when the certified training materials were devised. This corporate teacher was asking us, the future certified trainers of the restaurant, to work twice as hard for the same money. Where is my motivation in that?
The packet of material trainers were expected to become familiar with was some of the greatest corporate propaganda I’ve ever seen. The certified trainer manual began with a mission statement that corporate expected us to take to heart. Many of the words in the mission statement were CAPITALIZED FOR EMPHASIS. The statement asserted that the Steakhouse was the fastest growing casual themed restaurant in America (which was a blatant lie) and that the Steakhouse TEAM needed to be the WELL TRAINED to provide great GUEST SERVICE. It talked about the company’s philosophy and how Steakhouse certified trainers were leaders and that our management team EXPECTED us to “set the tone” in the restaurant. Who knew a soulless corporation was capable of philosophic thought? I learned from this manual that a certified trainer holds everyone in the restaurant to the highest possible standards for food quality, customer service, and becomes the ultimate “TEAM PLAYER”. We were assured that the trainers were the future of the company and congratulated for the honor.
Not to belittle the point but there was no extra compensation for these responsibilities. Reading over this mission statement, I immediately wondered what the management’s job description was if the trainers were expected to hold the restaurant to the highest possible standards. What did the management do? The law of supply says that producers will bring more goods to the market if they are going to get a higher price for them. Makes sense right? If Apple thinks it can make a lot of money with its newest device (iMac, iPhone, iPad, whatever) it will produce millions of said devices and try to sell them to us, the consumers in the marketplace. On the other hand, Apple will stop production of anything that doesn’t make a profit. The wonderful thing about economics is that this same idea works in the same exactly way in the Steakhouse training program. If I, as a certified trainer, see an opportunity to make more money by offering more of my time to the restaurant, the law of supply says I will provide more hours to work. If I do not see that profit motive, I’m staying at home with my wife and kids. I do not have a degree in Economics or businesses. The corporate “think tank” who proposed this training program had both. Didn’t corporate see this?
The manual also outlined the “characteristics of Adult Learners”. On its surface, the inclusion of this information makes sense. We, as certified trainers, would be working with adults so it stands to reason that identifying the best way to teach them is useful. As with most ideas at the corporate level, the execution left something to be desired. According to the manual, adults learn best when they are not threatened. The manual also points out that communicating with the “learner” in a language they understand facilitates the learning process. The adult learner will also be more successful if tasks are broken down into small steps so they are not self-conscious about the new learning situation. So, to review, as long as I remember to not pull a knife/gun on my trainee and speak English while giving them very simple tasks, I’m all set! The problem, again, is that the Steak House corporate offices forgot that “Adult Learners” in this situation only have one characteristic: they want to make money. The incentive for working is money and profit motive. It’s as simple as that. Adults don’t go to work to learn. As a public school teacher who has spent hundreds of hours thinking about educational pedagogy and safe learning environments, these corporate characteristics of “Adult Learners” was more than insulting, they were simply wrong. This corporate list of characteristics might work in a high school but it was immediately clear to me that in the real world, where people lose their house if they don’t pay their bills, people want to make money and keep their job.
By page four of this training manual I had learned a great deal about the corporation that ran the Steakhouse: they were completely out of touch with the reality of their employees. Corporate had created a fantasy world where simple economics don’t matter. In this corporate world, people worked for the love of the company and the growth of the chain. This was manifested in this certified training manual. In the real world, most of the Steakhouse employees were college students looking make money to pay bills, go shopping, fund a killer spring break, or buy beer.
The next few pages of the manual detailed reasonable qualities that we, as certified trainers, needed to have. We were expected to be on time, have a positive attitude, and generally be serious about the job. Then came the predictable corporate uniform demands: pressed, well fitting shirts and pants, brown belt, brown socks darker than the “team member’s” pants, polished brown shoes, nametag “neatly” pinned above the pocket of the shirt, a clean, pressed server apron, etc, etc. A full page of uniform specifications later, the manual moved on how to actual train another person in the fantasy world of the corporate Steakhouse.
Training was broken down into five sessions (or shifts) to take place on different days with a six shift that would serve as “remediation” (their words) for trainees who “weren’t getting it”. Total, this was expected to last about 25 to 30 hours and new hires would be paid minimum wage for their time. Each session began with a “homeroom” where the certified trainer and the “learner” discuss the “classroom topics” for the shift. If I can digress for a moment, this is something that always drove me crazy about working in a corporate setting. The meanings of words that you thought you knew suddenly changed.
Words have an effect on people. How many times have you thought less of a person for using harsh language or not being particularly well spoken? You may not have meant to, but you did subconsciously. The same is true of these words in this corporate manual. How ridiculous is it, honestly, to call new hires “learners”? How equally ridiculous is it to call your training session a “classroom” and “homeroom”? I suppose the purpose of this vocabulary is to suggest that a teacher/student relationship exists between the trainers and new hires. However, throwing these words around in this manner is ineffective and cheapens the training process. The incentive structure that has been created in public schools is significant and far ranging. The reason the student/teacher relationship works in a public school is because failure brings painful ramifications. Failure in our public school system statistically lead to less financial and social opportunities later in life. This is made very clear to the children of this country at a very young age. On top of this, students can’t leave school until there are 16 years old. They either do what they are told or life gets miserable.
In the corporate setting, the same mechanics or incentive structures are not in place. I can’t call a new hire’s parents if they don’t take the training process seriously. I can’t really give them a bad grade. People work (at least in this country) of their own free will. I suppose I, as a trainer, could go to management and get a particularly terrible new hire fired, but that borders on evil and economically speaking, I have no financial incentive to be evil. The Steakhouse did not provide any financial incentives to their certified trainers, so what motivation do I really have to get someone fired who doesn’t take this ridiculous training program seriously. Additionally, if the trainee was a pretty girl, there was no way the management would fire her even if she was god awful. From day one, new hires looked at this training material and immediately saw how out of touch corporate was with reality. Vocabulary is part of this general aloofness. By association, I became part of the insanity. It was very difficult to take the certified training program seriously.
The first training day (session) was titled “Being Part of the Steakhouse Team” and the certified trainer manual included detailed, down to the minute, directions on how to manage the shift. The manual also included resources to keep handy and suggested scripts to read to your “learner” during “homeroom”. For those of you familiar with teaching, you could compare this section of the trainer manual to a lesson plan that a teacher just finishing graduate school would write. The expectations were naive, to say the least, and the objectives were hopelessly out of touch with reality.
The first day of training began with a twenty minute discussion (twenty minutes!) about EXTREME PERFORMANCE. To corporate, this sounded better than calling what you expect of people "expectations". The trainer was to educate the “learner” about EXTREME PERFORMANCE and how the new hire should strive to achieve this extremeness every day. Teamwork was also a major talking point during session one’s “homeroom”. I always thought extreme meant “on the fringe” or “carrying things too far”. I never would associate extreme with a restaurant unless it was a wholly negative connotation. This is just another example of how corporate minds work. If it’s not good service, it has to be great. If it’s not great service, it has to be excellent. If it’s not excellent service, it has to be… extreme?
After homeroom, session one included the predictable walk around the restaurant, introduction to staff, typical kitchen procedures, and a general frequently asked questions session. The manual insisted we inform our learner “what teamwork looks like in the dish room”. The rest of session one included a logical “shadowing” session with hosts and kitchen staff. “Shadowing” refers to the passive process in which the new hire follows the more experience staff members in an attempt to learn things through visual osmosis. Session one ended with some “high stakes testing”. The “learner” was given thirty minutes, strictly timed, to create fictional orders in the restaurant’s computerized ordering software. Then the new hire would then spend fifty minutes with the trainer, being interrogated about the Steakhouse menu. The “learner is encouraged to take notes”. At no point, in session one, was the new hire to associate with a guest, let alone take an order.
Day two of training or “The Ins & Outs of Steakhouse Service”, began with a thirty minute “homeroom” about how to make more money for the restaurant through high speed service. The restaurant had certain time standards that servers must adhere to. For example:
- Within 90 seconds of being sat, the server must “warmly” greet the table.
Example of warm greeting: “Hi! How’s Monday treating you so far? (Wait for response and respond). Welcome to the Dead Animal Steakhouse! Have you dined with us before? (Wait for response - YES). Great! Thanks for coming back to us! Tonight we are featuring the (featured item). Have you had that before? (Wait for response - NO). You should definitely give it a try. I would love to get you something to drink from our bar like a beer, cosmopolitan, or are you a wine drinker? (Wait for response - WINE). We have an excellent wine selection - red or white? I recommend the (recommendation). Would you like me to have our chef start something for you? Some wings or shrimp? (Wait for response - SHRIMP). Great! I’ll see that our chef get started right away on that. Ok, I’m going to be back in just a minute with your wine. In the meantime, take a look at our menu and let me know if you have any questions. My name’s (fake name) and if you need anything at all, I’ll be right over!"
- Three minutes later, whatever drinks were ordered, must be delivered to the table. The order should be taken.
- Five minutes later, appetizers should be delivered.
- The server should check back on the appetizer after two bites by asking “Are your wings prepared exactly to your satisfaction?”.
- Three minutes later the guest’s entree should be rung in.
- Three minutes later the guest’s salad should be brought to the table.
- The server should check back on the salad after two bites by asking “Is your salad prepared exactly to your satisfaction?”.
- The server should “groom” the table and remove all items not being used.
- 15 minutes after the entree has been ordered, the entree should be delivered to the table. (Eight minutes after salad was delivered).
- The server should check back on the entree after two bites by asking “Is your steak prepared exactly to your satisfaction?”. The dessert order should be taken at this point.
- Five minutes after order, dessert should be delivered to the table.
- The server should check back on the dessert after two bites by asking “Is your dessert prepared exactly to your satisfaction?”. The bill should be delivered at this point.
- When the bill is delivered, take 10 steps away from the table and then look back. If the guest is ready to pay the bill return to the table.
- Two minutes after you receive payment, the paid bill should be back on the table with change (if paid in cash) or a credit card slip with pen ready to sign).
- One minute later, the table should be cleaned and ready for your next guest.
I have provided this level of detail to prove a point: these expectations are totally unreasonable. Most of the time, guests are not looking to be managed in this fashion or eat a three course meal in 40 (!) minutes. They are on their own time table and do not appreciate the constant hovering of their server. Additionally, it is impossible to prepare a well done steak (for example) in 10 minutes. This timetable was not taken seriously. The servers knew it. The cooks knew it. The managers knew it. Even the new hires new it. The corporate offices maintained for the seven years I worked in the Dead Animal Steakhouse that these times were totally reasonable. It goes without saying that these policies were created in isolation with little input from actual servers.
Also on day two the trainer was to required during “homeroom” “teach” the “learner” about suggestive selling and “upsells”. Corporate wanted servers to sell add-ons to meals like sautéed mushrooms or onions, salads, larger steaks, etc. The principal behind this, from a corporate perspective, is simple. The higher the customer’s check, the more money the restaurant makes. The corporation also pointed out to the new hires that these small increases in your customer’s check would pay off big time for the server because their tip would be higher. Higher guest checks equal higher profits and tips. Was this really the case?
To me the answer was an unequivocal no. From a personal perspective, upselling was very stressful. I don’t like asking people to spend money they aren’t prepared to spend. A few servers I knew would often joke about how, if they caught the customer off guard, they could "trick" the table into spending more money on an appetizer. How? By directly asking a table if they wanted something they didn’t already order, you (the server) are forcing the table to say no. Most people hate to say no (or something negative) to people who are handling their food. So, by asking questions like this, you are banking that a percentage of people won’t be able to say no to you because it’s not in their character to do so. You are forcing people into an uncomfortable position. Is this really the best way to treat your customers? With this in mind, questions like “How about an appetizer to start off with” after the table has already ordered their meal borders on evil in my opinion. You are preying on your customer’s weaknesses.
From an economic perspective, the server’s incentive for upselling (or as I contend, being evil) was not aligned with the corporation’s incentive to encourage such behavior. If a server upsells a salad to a table for $3.00, the corporation has seen an additional $3.00 of revenue. Let say that additional $3.00 salad raise the customers check from $10.00 to $13.00. A fairly standard 15% tip on a ten dollar bill would be $1.15. A 15% tip on a thirteen dollar bill would be $1.95. Is that 80 cents worth the trouble? At the Steak House, serving a salad to a guest required the waiter to actually make the salad his or her self. Depending on the availability of the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other ingredients, this could take several minutes. On a busy night, finding the ingredients for salads could be extremely stressful and require the server to actually prepare (chop) the ingredients themselves. Even if the ingredients were prepared this still required the server to work harder than they would normally have had to work for that particular order. This also assumes the server is going to see that additional 80 cents from the guest. The guest might round down the bill in their minds to an even $10 and leave the $1.15 tip. At any rate, the upselling incentives for the corporation and server are not aligned and the corporate clearly makes the better of the arrangement.
At the end of day two, the new hires had still not interacted with a guest.
Day three focused on alcohol. Specifically, how to sell it. Wine, beer, mixed drinks, frozen drinks, glass sizes, toddys, and other various bar vernacular. The server went through the bar and the drink menus with the new hire. What the server was not to discuss with the trainee was how to card or ID a guest buying an alcoholic beverage. This was too important, so the training went, to be handled by a server. This was a manager's responsibility. As I have detailed before, the management at the Steakhouse were more interested in reproduction as opposed to education. Consequently, the servers were on their own when it came to alcohol. The results were predictable. Every server had their own policy. Some people carded anyone who look 30 or younger. Others, myself included, carded everyone. I once carded a 63 year old man. Why? Because the stakes were too high.
At least once per year, the local police department would conduct a sting operation in our restaurant. You never knew when it was coming. They would “convince” a minor (a 20 year old or younger) to illegally order an alcoholic beverage. When I say “convince” what I really mean is coerce. The 20 year old was typically someone who was busted for a petty crime like shoplifting. As punishment, the judge would give the shoplifter “community service”. In this case, that meant willfully committing another illegal act in the name of the law. The coerced minor would illegally order a drink. If the server/bartender carded the minor, they passed. If not, the cops would come running in, arrest the server/bartender (handcuffs and all), throw them in the back of a waiting police car, issue a ticket to the restaurant and server/bartender, and report the whole thing to the local media. Right in the middle of a dinner shift. Imagine you are just sitting down to a meal and the cops arrest your server. I’m not exaggerating. The cops really got off on this. To review, the police encouraged an illegal act. There was no illegal act taking place before the police coerce a minor into illegally ordering a drink. The police manufactured the crime and profited from the enormous fine it carried and the media attention it received. The police were “getting tough on underage drinking and the people who allow it.”. Two of my friends were arrested, thrown in jail, and forced to pay a gigantic fine. The restaurant immediately fired them. They never worked as a server again. No local restaurant would hire them after that type of exposure.
This is why I carded everyone who drank at my tables. 99.9% of the time, my guests were not police. That .01% was enough. I wasn’t going to jail for some stranger's martini. This inevitably led to a lot of pissed off 45 year olds who didn’t have their ID on them. I felt bad, but not bad enough to take the chance.
By the end of day three, the new hire was expected to take an appetizer and drink order from a table.
Day four focused on guest service. The new hires were presented with a “guest service” manual and asked to memorize it. The manual presented examples of how to handle specific guest interactions. There was an entire page on answering the phone. When a server answered the phone, they were required to say:
“Hi and thank you for calling the Dead Animal Steakhouse, home of the (insert seasonal menu item here)! My name is (fake name here). How many I be of service to you today?".
If the phone “by some disastrous occurrence” rang more than three times, we were expected to answer it with an apology “Hi! I’m sorry for letting the phone ring so long. Thank you for calling the Dead Animal Steakhouse...”.
The manual provided specific guidelines for addressing angry customers. It was a three part plan: Acknowledge, Apologize, and Act. If a guest was unhappy, for any reason, we were expected to follow those three steps. No matter how unreasonable the request or in the wrong the guest was, we were to Acknowledge the “problem, Apologize for it, and Act to correct it. At least once a shift, every server would be obligated to “Act” on a ridiculous concern from a guest and bring it to a manager. Most of the time, the manager bought the complainer a free appetizer or dessert. I have witnessed literally tens of thousands of dollars of food given away to complaining guest. Some (probably 25%) was legitimate. The overwhelming majority consisted of ticky tacky complaints brought by people who knew they could get free food out of a corporate manager. They knew exactly what they were doing.
Speaking of free food, the manual also went into great detail about birthdays at the Dead Animal Steakhouse. Birthdays were a big deal to corporate. They were of the belief that the free piece of chocolate cake provided by the restaurant to the birthday guest would keep them coming back. Repeat business is the lifeblood of any restaurant. All the guest (or a member of their party) had to do was mention it was their birthday. The manual detailed how a birthday celebration was to be choreographed. A free piece of cake was to be provided to the birthday boy/girl/man/woman. A lit candle was to be on the cake. A large stuffed animal puppet would be brought to the table and a stupid song would be sung.
“Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday with a great big cheer! HEY!!!!!!! It’s your birthday a very special birthday. Happy Happy Birthday is HERE!! YAHOOO!!!”.
The large puppet should be “worked” by the server so as to look as though it is singing the song as well. To this day, I see that God forsaken puppet in my nightmares. At the end of the song, the birthday boy/girl/man/woman was asked to “kiss the puppet!”. I don’t know if people really came back to the Steakhouse for chocolate cake. What I do know is that, in my estimation, at least 50% of the “birthdays” at the Steakhouse weren’t really birthdays at all. We never carded anyone who said it was their birthday (corporate policy). What I do know is that thousands of dollars of free cake was given out every year by the Dead Animal Steakhouse. There was no way of knowing who was out for a good time on their birthday and who wanted something for free. The only satisfaction I get when I think about all the dishonest people who pretended it was their birthday is that, in my seven years, that puppet was never laundered once.
At the end of day four, the new hire was expected to take an entire order from drinks to entree and deliver the food within the accepted time frame.
Day five was the final day of training. The new hire was expected to run their own one table section. The training wheels were off. It was sink or swim time. At the end of the shift, the new hire was required to wait on the general manager of the store. At least, that was the theory.
The reality of this entire five day process is that it never went that way. If a new hire was any good at all they were taking their own tables by the third day. Five days of training for an experienced server who happened to be new to the Dead Animal Steakhouse is insulting and unnecessary. Additionally, I can count on one hand the number of times the general manager of the store was waited on by a new hire. Most of the managers I worked with had no idea how competent the servers on their staff actually were. The best intentions of the corporate manual and policies collapsed under its own weight. The restaurant business is brutally unrealistic. People want their food the second they order it. Servers want to make 30% tips on every table. Cooks never think they make mistakes. Managers don’t want to manage, they want the store to run itself. Most of the time it does. The vast majority of servers are highly efficient people who are driven by the profit incentive. The faster they do their job, the faster you get your food. The faster you get your food, the more money they make. The corporation that ran the Dead Animal Steakhouse never seemed to understand basic economics. We were successful in spite of corporate policies, not because of them. Every single server I trained was successful because they were properly motivated. It had nothing to do with me, five days of training, or micromanaged corporate policies.
(Continued from part 1)
Andrea took me aside and congratulated me.
“I’m really looking forward to working with you. When can you start?” she asked. I explained her about my current situation at the engineering firm and how in another two weeks I would have open availability.
“Ok, that’s perfect. The construction on the store won’t be finished for a few days anyway” she informed me. “Would you mind hanging out for few minutes? I need you to do some paperwork.”
“Sure” I told her. She disappeared into the darkened, yet to be completed store and reemerged a few minutes later with a large stack of papers. She handed me a pen and told me if I had any questions to let her know. Along with the normal tax forms and other common employment information to be filled out, there was an aptitude test in the stack of papers. I didn’t realize it was a test at the time. I asked Andrea:
“What’s this packet?”
“Oh, that’s an attitude test they want you to take. All the management candidates take it. It’s no big deal. Just answer honestly and I’m sure you’ll be fine,” she said.
I have since learned that administering these tests has become a very common practice in today’s employment environment. As best as I can figure, the goal of these tests is to ask you about a hundred questions all relating to morality and honestly in some weird way. What I find amazing about these tests is that if you really answer honestly you will absolutely fail these tests. If you lie your ass off on these tests you will also fail miserable. These aptitude tests that many corporations give to their potential employee are actually tests to determine how well you can blur the truth. I’m serious.
These tests are commonly broken down into two types of questions both of which are answered with a multiple-choice response. The first type directly asks you a personal question. You check off either the “yes” or the “no” answer. The second gives you a hypothetical situation and the hypothetical resolution. The question then asks if the test taker Strongly Agrees, Agree, Somewhat Agrees, Somewhat Disagree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree with the question. Let me give you a few examples of the questions I answered that day.
“Have you ever smoked marijuana?” Yes ___ No____
“Have you ever committed a felony?” Yes ___ No____
“All people who steal are criminals.” Choose One:
Strongly Agree____ Agree____ Somewhat Agree____
Somewhat Disagree____ Disagree____ Strongly Disagree____
“Sally knows Billy is struggling to pay his rent and feed his children. Sally witnesses Billy remove a twenty dollar bill from the cash register and put it in his pocket. Sally tells her manager about it. Billy gets fired. Sally did the right thing.” Choose One:
Strongly Agree____ Agree____ Somewhat Agree____
Somewhat Disagree____ Disagree____ Strongly Disagree____
“If someone drinks just to get drunk, they have a drinking problem.” Choose One:
Strongly Agree____ Agree____ Somewhat Agree____
Somewhat Disagree____ Disagree____ Strongly Disagree____
“Bob is George’s supervisor. When George comes into work he is clearly hung over. Bob lets George go home without further penalty. George did the right thing.” Choose One:
Strongly Agree____ Agree____ Somewhat Agree____
Somewhat Disagree____ Disagree____ Strongly Disagree____
“Someone who engages in recreational drug use will be an unreliable employee.” Choose One:
Strongly Agree____ Agree____ Somewhat Agree____
Somewhat Disagree____ Disagree____ Strongly Disagree____
“Whether it’s a $3.00 pair of socks or $10,000 bracelet, stealing is stealing and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Choose One:
Strongly Agree____ Agree____ Somewhat Agree____
Somewhat Disagree____ Disagree____ Strongly Disagree____
“Bob is George’s supervisor. Bob witnesses George asking for another female employee’s phone number. Bob ignores the situation. Bob did the right thing.” Choose One:
Strongly Agree____ Agree____ Somewhat Agree____
Somewhat Disagree____ Disagree____ Strongly Disagree____
I answered about 25 pages of questions exactly like these. The questions were all over the place. Drug use, alcohol abuse, sex in the workplace, stealing. You name it, it was on this test. Also, the tests often repeat themselves and ask the same question in a different way to judge your consistency. The real bitch of these tests is that you have no idea what the right answer to these questions are. I’m sure that very reasonable people can disagree as to the correct answer to some of these questions. After you finish the test your results are called into the home office. By grading the answers to the test, the human resources rats who are responsible for tests like these determine your hireability. I knew after the third question that I better make sure I sounded as best as I could without sounding like Mother Theresa. As a result I took the test, not looking to be as truthful as possible, but rather to sound as human as possible. Obviously if you answer yes to the “are you a drug addict” or “are you a convicted felon” questions your hireability goes down the toilet. That’s fairly obvious. It gets a little dicey when you talk about people who are poor and are stealing to feed their children. So, you make up answers that sound good but not too good. The key phrase in that sentence was “make up”. If you sound too moral, you’re not getting hired. If you sound too much like a heroin addicted rock star you’re not getting hired. The perfect test score is smack dab in the middle. You must score well on all the hot button issues but still have a few flaws that can be corrected through proper training. I’m sure the companies that subscribe to the use of these tests would defend them as useful instrument in the never-ending employee screening process. It’s fairly evident that many people believe these tests to be adequate judges of someone’s character as is apparent from their extensive use in the hiring practice of many companies. Unfortunately, the only way these tests will stop a potential bad hire is if the person taking the test is too dumb to realize that saying you’re a thief won’t get your hired. If you’re an honest drug user or a moral thief and like to admit it don’t bother taking these tests. In my opinion the only thing these test measure is how good you are at inventing yourself into an image of cooperate hireabilty. These tests encourage dishonestly from the very first moment you join the company.
Andrea took my test and had it graded by one of the Anonymous Outfitter’s human resource rats. I passed. With that final hurdle out of the way I was officially a member of the Anonymous Outfitter’s team. Andrea and I our goodbyes and she said she would call me in the next week to set up a schedule.
All things considered I was pretty excited about my new job. It was a fresh start for me away from the angry engineers with health benefits, a chance for promotion, and twice the money. Andrea seemed excited to have me in her management team and I was happy to be there.
Little did I realize working for Anonymous Outfitters was much like the Red Scare of the 1950’s except without the communism. The upper management of Anonymous Outfitters were either related to Joe McCarthy or read his collective works because, if you listened to their logic, every person ever born on this green Earth was a thief waiting to emerge.
My last two weeks at the engineering firm went well. I have a feeling they were as happy to get rid of my as I was to start new somewhere. People generally ignored me for those two weeks and that was fine by me. My boss wished me luck on my way out the door on my last day. Thanks buddy.
When I started with Anonymous Outfitters, things were great. Really great. In fact for about two months I loved the job. I can honestly say I have never been happier in any job than I was for my first two months at Anonymous Outfitters. I was making more money then I knew what to do with and wasn’t staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day. It wasn’t easy work mind you. When construction finished in the store we had the massive task of cleaning the place up and actually stocking the shelves. It took a crew of about 40 people a full week to get the store presentable. That says nothing about the stock room that the public never sees. I fit right in with the people who worked there. They were friendly and always willing to lend a hand. One issue I did have with the store at first was my training, or lack thereof. I never actually had any official training. The training I was promised by Dick never emerged. The store was so busy in the first few weeks between stocking the storefront, cleaning the stock room, and the general insanity of a grand opening there was no time for sit down training. What I learned I learned by fire. It’s not an altogether terrible way to learn if you have a reasonable boss. I made mistakes but, all things considered, Andrea was a decent person who was very good to me and let me figure out a lot of things on my own. One of the problems of not receiving the official training is that you learn things your own way. Your own way, I can promise you, will not be the company way. I would learn this the hard way.
When a new Anonymous Outfitters store opens the regional manager, Dick in this case, typically gives the management team about three months to get the store organized and running smoothly before his first visit. In essence the regional manager is saying: “I know your store will look like shit for three months after opening. Rather than see your store looking like shit we would rather ignore you for three months. After your three month window, things better be perfect or you’re ass is grass.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it. Things would have been fine for us if it wasn’t for those damn aptitude tests. Turns out the two other people hired to be part of Andrea’s management team were real winners. One quit two months in and the second was transferred to another store for undetermined reasons. So much for the aptitude test. They certainly didn’t see that coming.
Once Andrea learned of our sudden management crisis she tried to contact Dick. Because Dick’s district was so large it could be difficult to get in touch with him. You always had to call his beeper (!) and then he would call you back at his convenience. Andrea immediately paged Dick. It took Dick a full day to return her call. When he did, Andrea asked him if we could hire another manager or at least transfer someone into our store from somewhere else in the district. She was hoping that both would happen. There was some urgency to her request because we had a potential disaster on our hands. Suddenly the only people who could open and close the store were Andrea and I. The store was open 10am till 10am daily. A manager had to be there at all times. What this basically meant was that in order for one of us to have a day off, the other manager would have to work the full 14 hour day including an hour to open the store and an hour to close the store. Usually the magic number of managers you need on your staff is three or four. This insures that everyone is going to get a few days off and work less than 80 hours a week. Dick told Andrea he would work out something, but he never said yes to either request. My BS detector immediately went off. Something wasn’t right with this situation. How long, realistically, can two people run a store without days off working double the hours we were paid to work. Both Andrea and I were salaried for about 43 hours a week. With three or four managers the most I ever worked in a week was a reasonable 47 hours. With only two managers I had 70 hour weeks staring me in the face for the foreseeable future. If Dick wanted to prevent a major managerial burnout from occurring in our store, it was in his best interest to get us some help. Wasn’t it?
A week into Andrea and I’s managerial marathon, Dick paid a visit to the store. He sat down with Andrea and told her he didn’t have a suitable managerial candidate to hire and no one in the district could spare a manager to help us. It was pretty clear what he was saying: deal with it. Deal with no days off and 70 hour work weeks. After his meeting with Andrea he asked me if I was hungry. He told Andrea to watch the store. He was taking me out to lunch. I was stunned. Suddenly I was smack dab in the middle of these two and I wanted no part of it.
Dick, turns out, thought the world of me. Andrea had been singing my praises to Dick for about two months. She told him on more than one occasion “she couldn’t run the store without me.” It breaks my heart now when I think about it. Things were about to get really bad really fast.
“I have to ask you a question. I’m going to come right out as say this. Have you seen anything going on in the store that you would like me to know about?” asked Dick as we sat down for lunch in a small restaurant not far from the store. The restaurant fashioned itself as a once removed New York City deli but offered a Mexican-American menu. Don’t ask me.
“Dick, I’m not sure what you mean” I replied and I didn’t. There were two things about Andrea that I thought he might be talking about. Andrea had her own personal problems. She was also divorcée who occasionally had shouting matches with her ex-husband in public. Andrea was also very close to some of her staff members than the company probably would have liked. Anonymous Outfitters frowns on friendships and relationships at work. The training material I was subjected too encouraged a professional distance between employees even after work. Translated: Don’t be friends with people you work with. Before I met Andrea she ran an Anonymous Outfitters in a different mall for years. She had completely turned that store around and hence the reason she was given the store in the Carousel Mall. She earned it. Opening a new store is considered an honor and privilege. They only give that honor to the most trusted employees. The Carousel Mall store was closer to her home and she viewed it as the perfect situation. She brought several of her staff with her when she made the transition between stores. Some of these kids had been working with her for years and considered her a positive, motherly influence on their lives. Honestly though, who cares? She treated her employees with respect and love. It was all professional. Was any of this my business? No. Was that any of the companies business? Definitely not. She was a good person and a good manager. I thought that was all that mattered.
“I’m going to tell you something that you must promise me you will never repeat” said Dick dramatically. “We believe that Andrea and the staff she brought with her to your store are thieves” he said. He sat back in his chair and judged my reaction. I was on trial here and I knew it.
What was I supposed to do? I had never seen any activity by Andrea or her transplanted staff that I would consider suspicious. As a matter of fact, Andrea let a girl go a few weeks before because she thought she was stealing bracelets. There was no proof of this, just a suspicion. Andrea was no thief but it didn’t matter to Dick. He was convinced. How ironic it was that the beginning of the end of my Anonymous Outfitters career would occur in a restaurant.
“Dick, I can honestly say I have never seen anything like that happening in the store” I said.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about you from a lot of people. The simple fact of the matter is that you haven’t received the training you deserve in this situation. Part of that training is being able to spot of thief. These people are so good at what they do, you might never notice it.” By “these people” he meant Andrea and her transplanted staff. Dick then proceeded to show me one of the scariest things I have ever seen. Conspiracy theorists take note. I became a believer in “big brother” from this conversation.
Dick gave me a little background about himself and Andrea. Dick was moved into this district by the company a few weeks before I was hired because the previous district manager was let go or quit depending on who you asked. Dick was brought into the district to shake things up and determine if the district wide theft that the company believed was occurring was actually occurring. Andrea’s former store was number one on Dick’s watch list. He believed that thousands of dollars of merchandise had been stolen from her previous store and that she had something to do with it. There are several types of thief which is also commonly referred to as “shrink”. When product disappears without being paid for your inventory is shrinking and hence the name. Shrink referred to shoplifting, merchandise being lost due to shipping errors, and employees being dramatically undercharged for purchases. Every store gets audited twice a year by a company sponsored loss prevention specialist. According to Andrea’s last audit, her former store had a major shrink problem to the tune of $10,000 dollars. That a lot of shrink.
Dick pulled out his Anonymous Outfitter issued laptop computer as our fajitas arrived.
“I want to show you something” he said.
Dick loaded up a piece of software that I won’t mention to avoid getting sued. This piece of software was absolutely the scariest piece of technology I have ever seen. Actually now that I think about it, technology itself isn’t really scary. Technology in the hands of simple people like Dick is what scares me. This software did nothing but track all the transitions any employee in any Anonymous Outfitters store had ever made. Ever. Mine, Andrea’s, even Dick’s. That includes ringing a customer up or buying clothing for your own personal use. Anonymous Outfitters gave a tremendous 50% discount to all their employees on any non-clearance merchandise. Unfortunately it was hard some days to tell what was clearance and what wasn’t. Clothing retailers are constantly putting things on sale. Sale items were not subject to the discount. If you gave an employee a discount on a sale item the computers didn’t actually tell you that you were making a mistake. It just gave you the discount. However, the computerized registers would send a red flag back to the district manager whenever an item was purchased improperly. An honest mistake in the store looks like theft on this software. Dick pulled up hundreds of transactions that might or might not have been theft in my store. Some of those transactions were rung in under my name. Many were under Andrea’s.
Does this mean Andrea was a thief? Hell, does that mean I’m a thief? I was pretty sure I hadn’t been stealing from the company. I guess I would know. I highly doubt Andrea was either. Jesus Christ himself would look like a petty thief if he was an associate in Anonymous Outfitters. The software didn’t give specifics as to why something was rung into the registers improperly. It only flagged certain transactions that were “suspicious”.
Let me give you an example of a suspicious transaction to the people using this software. A customer is shopping in your Anonymous Outfitters store. They find a shirt that has been marked $25.00. The actual retail price of the shirt is $35.00 but has accidentally been marked incorrectly. The customer brings the shirt to the register. The register believes the shirt is actually $35.00 instead of $25.00. Remember, the error was committed by a human. That’s a fairly common occurrence in any business. How many times have you gone to a store and had a question about what something cost? It happens all the time. To the computers the shirt is still $35.00. What do you do as a store manager? Do you argue with the guest? Obviously not because it’s your mistake. You override the computers and give the customer the shirt for $25.00 and wish them a good day. If you give the customer a hard time the best that’s going to happen is he or she is going to put the shirt back, leave and never shop in your store again. The worst case situation usually involves an e-mail or phone call to the corporate office complaining about the service in your store. The only solution to this issue is to bend the rules and make sure the mistake that led to the improperly marked shirt doesn’t happen again. In this scenario you only had the betterment of the company in mind but this software made you look like a thief. A ten dollar thief. It was absolutely frightening.
Dick’s judgment of Andrea was a simple case of jumping to conclusions and then searching for the evidence to back it up. This software made that possible. Dick believed that Andrea and her transplanted employees were thieves. It was Dick’s job to clean up the problem. This meant, as I learned about a month later, getting rid of Andrea at basically any cost. You would think that, as a powerful district manager, changing the management teams of your assigned stores would be a fairly simple process. No part of the employment process is simple when a corporation is involved. In fact, nothing is simple when a corporation involved.
Something you should know about the retail industry is that unless you actually watch someone steal or shoplift an item you can’t do jack to them. You can know for a fact that a customer is stealing from you but unless you see them actually shoplift the item you have to let them go. The Corporate Loss Prevention slugs provide suggested courses of action to prevent the thieves from actually going through with the crime. For example, one of the Anonymous Outfitters loss prevention techniques is to imply to the guest you know they stole something without actually saying “give me back that shirt you thief.” If you think someone was about to steal a shirt you could say to them “I really like that shirt you had in your hands a moment ago. Did you put it back?” Unfortunately that’s just about your only recourse. The company would rather lose a $50 pair of jeans then deal with a lawsuit.
Something else you should know is that Anonymous Outfitters doesn’t fire people. It either stops scheduling them or makes their lives so difficult they want to quit. Dick was employing the latter tactic on Andrea. If someone leaves on their own accord there is no paperwork to do. If someone is fired you have to justify the termination. Anonymous Outfitters was all about following the path of least resistance. He never actually caught Andrea stealing. Rather than be a man about it and confront her he simply removed all hopes of getting another manager in an effort to get Andrea to quit. District managers don’t like to be men about things they might be wrong about. He figured that a month or two of 70 hour weeks would do the trick. He was absolutely right.
Andrea was a good employee. She loved the company. She was the best manager in the district. Dick didn’t know her or anything about her. He was as new to the district as I was. He simply wanted to make a splash and show he could get results. He wanted to lay down the law. He wanted to be the alpha male. District managers usually aren’t leaders enough to deal with the day to day running of a business. Instead they only appear when the corporation perceives a problem. Just like the aptitude tests Anonymous Outfitters gives to all new managerial hirelings, they only succeed in seeing what they want to see. Never mind that Andrea was a good, hard working, loyal employee. People like Dick thrive on drama, controversy, and unrest. This is a common trait among district or regional managers.
You might be asking yourself why didn’t I get out? Greed. Plain and simple. I was making good money with good benefits and Dick had insinuated that if I stuck it out, kept my eyes open and my mouth shut I would be greatly rewarded. I consider this to be one of the darkest moments of my life. What I did, or didn’t do to be more precise, is unforgivable. I should have stopped eating my fajita and told Dick I thought he was full of shit. I should have told him I had never seen Andrea steal stitch of clothing and highly doubted she had it in her. Instead I took it all in and allowed him to convince and manipulate me. Honestly, I was scarred. I was suddenly caught up in something I didn’t understand.
In retail theft is the cardinal sin. If someone calls you a thief it’s like being called a “Red” in the 1950’s. When someone accused an employee of stealing it was serious business. Dick was telling me that thousands of dollars of clothing had disappeared, on paper, out of Andrea’s former store and there was only one explanation: Andrea and her cohorts had stolen from the company.
Obviously there was more than one explanation. I hate myself for believing him however. It’s not like I treated Andrea any differently or performed my job with less professionalism because of what Dick told me. But I was in the middle of it. Dick had played the trump card. He called her a thief to her only peer, her only assistant manager. Dick had successfully put a wedge between Andrea and I that would lead to my promotion to store manager in less than four months with the company. I was playing politics as much as he was. I knew that she might get fired or forced out and didn’t say a word to anyone about it. Looking back on it I feel like I watched an innocent person fall so I could advance my career. I wasn’t the reason Andrea was on the verge of losing her job but if you’re not part of the solution you are part of the problem. I was young, but not stupid. I didn’t want to lose my job that had made life fairly comfortable. I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck anymore and it was a great feeling.
After lunch (he bought), Dick and I returned to the store. Dick spent the remainder of his visit picking apart the store piece by piece. He gave us a laundry list, literally, of things we needed to fix before his next visit in less than two weeks.
The next two weeks sucked. Plain and simple. Dick basically wanted us to completely remake the store’s entire appearance. He wasn’t happy with a single decision Andrea had make with her visual designs. Corporations like Anonymous Outfitters give their managers a little leeway as to how to present certain products. There is a blueprint, called a floor plan, that details how new products are to be displayed. For the most part these floor plans assume all stores will be similar in square footage and construction. Our store was newly constructed and, as a result, deviated from the normal Anonymous Outfitters store designs. Andrea had to make several judgment calls. Judgment calls are fine if the district manager likes them. Unfortunately Dick didn’t like Andrea and therefore hated every decision she had made in the store that deviated from the floor plan.
To compound the problem Dick demanded we completely re-arrange the stock room. This was no small task. Our store was packed to the brim with product we couldn’t move. Our store was being shipped an unbelievable amount of shirts, jeans, sweaters, and coats under the assumption our business volume would be extremely high. While our store was successful it was not meeting the expectations the company had for us. As I have mentioned, companies love demographics and census data. They look at the sheer number of people in an area and per capita income to determine potential profitability of a store in that area. The Carousel Mall is very conveniently located for many people and, potentially, could be a great place for a retailer like Anonymous Outfitters. Unfortunately there are four other malls within a half hour of Carousel Mall. Our business was less than the company expected and, as a result, our stock room was overflowing with product we couldn’t possibly sell. We told the corporate rats back at the home office in Pennsylvania that they were shipping us too much product. It didn’t matter. The product came at us hard and fast despite our pleas. They told us “sell more stuff”. Clearly we would have loved to sell more “stuff”. It just simply wasn’t possible to sell the volume of clothing they sent us in the market our store was operating in. The Anonymous Outfitter’s brand had reached a saturation point in the area. We couldn’t sell it so we had to store it. It didn’t take long before our stock room was packed to the brim. Does it really take a brain surgeon to figure this out? This was my first retail job and I could figure this shit out. What was wrong with the corporate rats? Couldn’t they see this?
The pressure was beginning to show on Andrea. She was snapping at people and saying a lot of things I know she didn’t mean. She was angry with Dick and couldn’t understand what had happened. She went from company poster child to lost cause in a few months. We were both working seven days a week, 10 hours at a clip. Andrea was completely frustrated with her efforts to get another manager for the store and started to consider other job opportunities. One morning, a few days before Dick’s return visit Andrea told me she found another job and was thinking about taking it. She wanted to talk to Dick first. I knew this was going to be ugly.
Dick arrived on Wednesday morning and was happy to see me.
“Today is going to be a good day. Wait and see” he told me. I wasn’t completely sure what he meant. I was hopeful Dick had discovered his software was wrong and Andrea was a good person again. I opened the store that morning and Dick was pleased with our progress. He told me the store looked a lot better and the stock room was actually navigable. His apparent good mood put me in a good mood. Maybe this was going to be a good day.
Andrea came into work around noon. Dick immediately took her into the stock room and locked the door. I have no idea what was said in that room over the next hour but Andrea eventually emerged visibly upset. She said to me:
“I’m leaving. I just quit. I can’t work for that asshole. He thinks I’m a thief and I won’t work for someone like that.”
Mind you, I’m paraphrasing. There were several expletives thrown in for meaning. She hugged me, told me good luck, and she walked out the door. I never saw her again. Andrea lost her job and I’m not sure if she ever really knew why. I did talk to her on the phone a few days after she quit. She told me that Dick accused her of stealing. Over the course of that hour in the stock room she asked Dick to provide specific details. As it turns out, there was a week to ten days when a lot of the merchandise apparently was lost in her former store. It was a documented fact that Andrea was on vacation during that period of time. How could Andrea steal clothing when she wasn’t even in the store? Dick had no proof and hadn’t even done his homework. Every attempt to rebuff Dick’s accusation only angered him more. The conversation ended with Andrea quitting and Dick getting exactly what he was hoping for.
After Andrea left Dick emerged from the back room. He took me on another walk through the mall.
“Andrea quit” he began.
“Yeah, she told me” I replied.
“How do you feel about that?” he wondered.
“Well, I like Andrea as a person but she has to do what’s best for her” I replied. It was such a political answer. I hate myself for it. When someone leaves a company like Anonymous Outfitters, people are instructed not to say anything positive or negative about the former worker. You can’t even give references if a former employee puts you down as a previous employer. All you can do is confirm or deny the dates of their employment. Every former employee, good, bad, or otherwise, receives the same reference blacklisting. It’s nauseating.
Dick nodded his approval at the answer.
“I am left with a serious problem with this store. You are the only manager left. I have two other managers ready to transfer into this store and take things over. I’m not sure how the staff would react to that.” I agreed with him. I didn’t say anything about how the staff was going to react to losing Andrea. Andrea was very popular with the staff. He continued.
“I want to give you a chance with this store. I have to run it by my boss, but I’m offering you a promotion to general manager” Dick said. There is was. My reward for being a good little patsy. I kept my mouth shut and was rewarded with my own store. With the promotion came a large increase in pay, benefits, and the ultimate responsibility that comes with being “the boss”.
In four months I went from an engineer firm to a retail outlet. I had been promoted way out of my league in both places. I had never worked in retail before in my life but here I was about to accept a job as the general manger of an Anonymous Outfitters. Some people wait for years to reach general manager. I was never trained properly to be an assistant manager. Now I was offered the general manager position of a store clearly in trouble. It was the Wednesday before Black Friday, the busiest retail day of the year. Like an idiot I accepted the position.
Most soon-to-be-general managers are trained for two weeks to a month on top of their assistant manager training before they take over their new store. Due to the circumstances in my store, I did not have that option. I was to receive no training. I was given the reigns and told to drive. Just before Dick left that day he asked me “Do you think you can do this? It’s not too late to back out.” I told him if I got the help I needed, I could do anything. I was about to learn two things. First, everyone is expendable to a corporation. Second, I couldn’t do everything.
The week of Thanksgiving I worked 85 hours. I was being paid for 43 of those hours. The week after Thanksgiving I worked 80 hours. The week following that I worked 76 hours. I would not see a week where I worked less than 60 hours for the next two months. I wish I could tell you there is a happy ending to my career with Anonymous Outfitters. There isn’t. I was a temporary solution to Dick’s problem. Andrea was only one of Dick’s targets. Three of the stores in Dick’s sphere of influence were supposedly full of thieves besides Andrea’s. I didn’t see Dick again for weeks following my promotion. He had bigger fish to fry. I was, just like with the engineering firm, a calculated risk to Dick. The logic was simple. I knew the staff in my store and could take over a lot easier than an outsider. Dick obviously wanted to start over with the district and groom it in his own image with his own people. He gave me the opportunity because he didn’t have anyone else at the time and he hoped I could learn enough on the fly to get through the holiday season. After the holiday season, all bets were off.
At first I was very grateful for the opportunity. I loved being the boss and running my own business. Unfortunately I was screwed from word go. To steal a phrase from the corporate world, I was not set up for success. Dick was so wrapped up with his firings that he didn’t have the time to answer the simple questions I had, let alone major protocol issues. I was so worried about doing things by the book I lost sight of the big picture. On top of all this I was learning how to be a manager in the middle of the holiday rush. It was absolute insanity.
It wasn’t that I was a bad manager necessarily but I immediately had major problems with huge aspects of my job. Take hiring new employees for example. Dick told me to hire an entirely new staff to replace Andrea’s people. I wasn’t going to fire Andrea’s old staff mind you, Anonymous Outfitters doesn’t fire people as I mentioned. I was ordered to replace them all and not schedule them. I liked a lot of these kids. Most of the staff members that Anonymous Outfitters hires are 16-18 year olds. Who else is going to work for $5.75 an hour? Nevertheless, I was interviewing potential new employees and giving aptitude test on virtually a daily basis. When I would conduct an interview I tried to ask the really “hard” questions. I really did. My problem was always that the moment I asked someone “what do you want out of your job with Anonymous Outfitters” I felt like a fraud. I already knew the answer to that question so why was I asking it? They, just like everyone else, wanted money out of their job. Besides that, some of the questions they recommend I ask potential employees were simply outrageous. I’m going to be paying this potential employee $5.75 an hour to fold clothing. Who am I to ask them “what are your best qualities?” The chances are, for $5.75 an hour, I’m not going to see their best qualities anyway. Have you ever heard the saying that if you put enough monkeys into a room with enough typewriters and give them enough time they will eventually produce Shakespeare? Well, if you put one monkeys into a room for 20 minutes he figure out how to fold a pair of jeans.
The questions I should have been asking are more like this: “How do you feel about boredom?” or “Do you mind being paid like shit for menial labor a monkey could figure out in 20 minutes?” What does a question like “What do you consider your worst flaws?” have to do with folding clothing? I’ll tell you. Absolutely nothing.
I also saw an obvious contradiction in Dick’s logic. Dick gave me the chance to manage the store because I was good with the staff. The staff worked hard for me and I treated them with respect. However, Dick’s first order of business was to have me replace all the old staff with new staff. What was the point of me taking over the store if I was just going to replace everyone anyway? Wasn’t my strongest assets to the company my working relationship with the old staff?
To complicate matters Dick transferred two managers into my store that were complete and total idiots. I was grateful for the help and the days off after a month of hell but one of these assistants managers would eventually be suspected of stealing from my store and let go. The other was interested in replacing me and was constantly calling Dick with “progress reports”. I never knew if he was calling Dick because he was prompted too or if he was doing it on his own accord. I suspect, judging from Dick’s track record with Andrea, that the calls were encouraged. At a time when I needed good assistants, I got the bottom of the barrel in the district. It was simply a poisonous atmosphere. All the hours, the lack of training, the complete idiocy of my assistants, and the neglect of my district manager eventually caught up with me. I gave my two week notice in March almost six months to the day after I was hired by Anonymous Outfitters. So ended my meteoritic rise in the company. I had watched what happened to Andrea in silence. The company destroyed the reputation of good person who eventually quit to save her sanity. I reaped what I sowed. The same exact situation played out with me. Shortly after I left Anonymous Outfitters a few friends of mine in the company let me know that Dick was telling anyone who would listen that I was a thief. It’s a sick and vicious cycle propagated by equally sick people.
I was 23 years old and I felt like I was totally out of options. I had no idea what the next year would bring in my life. I was a college graduate with a 3.6. I had already worked in a major tourist attraction, the House of Representatives, an engineering firm, and a retail clothing store. You think my story is unusual? Maybe, but talk to some recent college graduates. Pay special attention to those with degrees in English, History, Political Science, Art, Art History, Psychology, Sociology, Archeology, and Geology just to name a few. People, like myself, with those types of majors have two choices: graduate school or employment outside of their field. Colleges and Universities are turning out unemployable graduates at an alarming rate. You’ve proved you can stick with a program for four years but have little in the way of employable skills.
One of the most powerful lessons I learned from the engineering firm, the tourist attraction, and Anonymous Outfitters was that I could walk into a lot of places and get a job. My degree opened doors to me I would have never thought could be opened. A large percentage of these jobs were out of my field. Some of these jobs, like my job at Anonymous Outfitters are good jobs for the right people. Unfortunately most of these jobs were menial work for menial pay like the engineering firm. I was pretty lucky all things considered. I said to myself several times while I was at Anonymous Outfitters “the degree I have has nothing to do with my job but I wouldn’t have gotten this job without the degree.” It’s a catch 22.I was in a situation that was growing all too familiar. I didn’t know what was next for me. Should I go back to school? I wasn’t sure for what. I needed another job and some time to think and figure things out. As my final two weeks were nearing completion my girlfriend said to me “You know, the Dead Animal Steak House is hiring servers again…..”
Let me tell you a little bit about why I got into the restaurant business. For as long as I can remember my wife has worked in restaurants. My wife is a very pleasant woman who has since found a very happy living teaching. Whether it is was part time on weekends or full time during the summer months, my wife has been employed at a restaurant one way or another for almost a decade. I never saw how she did it. Waiting on people seemed so difficult to me. It wasn’t until I had been with her for several years that she finally said to me “you should work in a restaurant, you definitely have the personality for it.” I thought about it, but it would take years before I finally followed her advice.
As I have mentioned, I have worked in a number of public relations type jobs for all of my life. I was a tour guide at a popular tourist attraction for the better part of five years when I was in my mid to late teens. As a tour guide I would walk groups of thirty to forty people around the grounds of this attraction four to five times daily. Each tour took about and hour and twenty minutes. Did I mention this tourist attraction was an underground cave with a long ass boat ride? It’s a pretty cool place to visit. I’m not going to give you the name of this attraction because, again, I’m not looking to draw them into this blog or get sued. Just know this attraction was very good to me and taught me real life skills I doubt I could have learned anywhere else at that point in my life. I started working at this attraction when I was barely sixteen years old. Giving tours to that many people for that long is an awful lot of responsibility to place on the shoulders of a teenager. Personally, I am very thankful for the opportunity looking back at it now. The pay was terrible but I learned how to talk to people, how to manage a crowd of total strangers, public speaking, and how to judge a person and tell them exactly what they want to hear. When I started working at the attraction I made a cool $4.75 an hour. Five years later when I left I was all the way up to $6.00 an hour. Nevertheless, the people I met working this job still influence my life to this day including several good friends and my wife.
At any rate working at this attraction was a great summer and part time job. When I neared graduation from college I wasn’t sure what exactly what my next step was. I could continue my schooling at the graduate level, go to law school, or take some time off. I couldn’t bear more schooling at the tim0e so graduate school was out. I didn’t want to be the punchline of thousands of jokes so law school was out. I took some time off.
When I graduated I needed a job. A job that was going to provide me with health benefits and a decent salary so I could actually afford to live and not be thrust into inescapable debt should I get an ear infection or, god forbid, appendicitis. I took a job as a delivery person for an engineering firm. After about two months of delivering blueprints to other engineering and surveying firms around town, they had me actually making the blueprints using a computer program called Auto Cad. One thing I’ve noticed about some people is when they realize you graduated from college they automatically assume you can do anything they want you to. Especially if they are your boss and are looking to get more out of you for the same money. Maybe that’s a universal thing about bosses, I’m not sure. Anyway, this engineering firm had me using Auto Cad. Auto Cad is a piece of software that costs several thousands of dollars to license and people go to school for years to master. Years. I’m the worst mathematician you have ever seen. Auto Cad is highly mathematical and to really understand the inner workings of the program you need to grasp pre-calculus concepts at the very least. As I said, an engineering background is also nice to have. How they got the idea to put me in front of a computer and start using a piece of software I have never heard of, let alone been academically trained on, is beyond me. The conversation that prompted this sudden “promotion” from delivery person to Auto Cad designer went something like this:
“Come into my office. I need to talk to you” said my boss. My boss was a fairly short balding man in his mid fifties who was in great shape for his age but had a legendary temper. To this point in my “career” at the firm, his temper had never erupted in my direction.
“OK boss, what’s up” I said, walking into his large and totally disheveled work area. Maps, blueprints, and various sketches were everywhere in this office. I wasn’t sure how anything got done in this place.
“You graduated from college didn’t you?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, I did. Just this past winter” I replied.
“That’s great. Now, let me ask you something. How are you on computers?”
Right there I should have said “God awful” or “What’s a computer”. Instead I replied “Actually, I’m pretty handy with them.” Pretty handy? Has anyone, besides me, said “pretty handy” since 1956? Call it my never dying goal to please anyone I come across. Blame my first tour guiding job for my ability to sense and then, like a jerk, tell people what they want to hear. Who knows.
The fact of the matter is I actually am pretty handy with computers. I still remember my father teaching me about computers at a very early age. My dad had a Vic 20 before I was old enough to know what a computer really was. My dad would borrow Apple IIe's from the school he worked at over the summer months so my brother and I could play educational computer games like “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” when it was raining outside. I had been using computers since I was a little kid. Computers didn’t scare me like half the people in this engineering office and like the boss who was now grinning widely at me.
“Pretty handy with computers eh? I’ve got something to ask you.” my boss continued. “We’re a little short staffed here right now. The summer is our busy time and we’re really getting our asses kicked with map requests. How would you like to try working with the computers? I’ll pay you a dollar more an hour and if you take a liking to it we can talk about more money down the road.”
Again, I should have said “What’s a computer” or better yet “Can I get you more coffee sir?” I didn’t want a promotion. I didn’t want more responsibility at the time. Jesus Christ, I just graduated from college with a degree in Political Science. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life and I certainly wasn’t good enough with computers to manage Auto Cad. I was perfectly happy delivering maps. It was easy, I didn’t take my job home with me, and I kept reasonable hours. Was I making a ton of money? No, but the job had health insurance, vacations, and major holidays off. I was getting my head together and figuring a few things out. Why in God’s name I said “Sure boss, I’ll give it a try” is beyond me to this day. At the time of my promotion my salary was raised from $7.50 and hour to $8.50 an hour.
In my defense I honestly believed that my promotion wouldn’t change my life too much. People liked me in the office. I liked the people I worked with. They were consistent and friendly. You always knew what you were in for every day when you walked in the door. This all changed once I became a junior Auto Cad designer. When I walked into the office the first day I was to begin my “training” on Auto Cad everyone was different. Suddenly I wasn’t just hired help. I was part of the production team with real deadlines and goals to me. Nothing had changed except where my desk was and the fact I now had my own computer. Another major difference was that I was expected to report to work at 6:30 in the morning. 6:30 is early to be reporting to work. I don’t care what anyone says or thinks. If you can consistently report to work at 6:30 in the morning you are either an extraterrestrial or have been blessed with some chromosome that seems to have skipped my generation. Getting up at 6:30 am? Fine, I can do that. Getting to work at 6:30 requires waking up a lot earlier than that. Unless you’re making six figures, I can’t possibly imagine a job worth a 6:30 start time.
When I was the delivery person I was all over the place in the office. It probably should be mentioned that this engineering firm used an old Victorian home as their offices. There were rooms everywhere and the place even had its own basketball court. As the delivery person I would go from room to room and ask each engineer, the ones who actually went to college for engineering, if they had anything to deliver. Some days were busier than others. I never really talked to the Auto Cad engineers. They were squirreled away in a foul little room on the way to the building’s kitchen and next to the only bathroom in the place. Dozens of rooms and one bathroom in a building full of engineers. How does that happen? Anyway, one thing that stood out in this room are the ceilings. They must have been 30 feet high. The room always smelled like copy toner and printer dye from the huge printers used to make original engineering designs from, you guessed it, Auto Cad. I’m sure you’re not suppose to be breathing that crap in on a daily basis. It always seemed like a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Throughout the room were 6 or 7 different computers stations all networked into 2 or 3 of these foul smelling printers. At each station was an Auto Cad Designer. These computer stations were an absolute joke. As I have said, I know a little bit about computers. In hindsight I also know that Auto Cad is a very memory intensive program. Translated, you need a decent computer to really use Auto Cad to its utmost potential. Or to use Auto Cad period. The computers the bosses of this engineering firm had these poor designers using couldn’t effectively run Tetris let alone Auto Cad. Was it any wonder these designers always struck me as angry people? Maybe it was the fact they stared at a computer screen for 9 hours a day. Maybe it was the fact that computer viruses constantly took the office computer system down often resulting in the designers starting over on projects. Maybe it was all the nasty smelling toner in the air. Maybe it was their complete and total lack of people skills. Maybe it was the money. Maybe it was the job in general.
As I settled into my new desk and computer set up in this nasty room I realized I was now one of these angry, frustrated, underpaid, overworked designers.
My boss was happy as hell to see me on my first day as a designer. Maybe I should take this as a complement. Maybe he really thought this was going to make his life a lot easier. Here I am, a college graduate who knows something about computers. We never really defined what “something about computers” meant. It could have meant that I knew how to turn one on. Nonetheless my boss treated me, at first, like the Albert Einstein of computers. It was at this point I was introduced to Steve. Steve had been working at this engineering place for several years. He was very tall, had moppy brown hair, and wore the thickest goddamn glasses I have ever seen. Chalk it up to starting at a computer screen all day I guess. Steve was also the quietest person I had ever met. To say Steve was a man of few words would be understating it a bit. The only reason I had to be introduced to Steve was because, in the months I had worked at the firm, he had never said one thing to say to me. I knew, and knew well, every other person in the place. I could tell you their family situation, if they were married, where they went to school, and what they thought about each other. I quickly found out why Steve was so quiet. Steve hated his job, hated his boss, and I think he hated his life too. Unfortunately for Steve he was really, really, really good at engineering work with Auto Cad. He was the definition of “stuck in a rut”. Steve was in his mid thirties. He was good enough with designing to run the firm but a propensity to be angry and his anti-social persona kept him right where he was. Sitting in a computer chair, staring at a computer screen for 9 hours a day. Steve got to work earlier than 6:30am. He loved getting up early apparently. I could tell that Steve and I were going to get along just fine. Or not.
My boss introduced me to Steve on a Monday. Steve shook my hand and immediately went back to his work. Steve hit the keys on his keep board harder then any person I have ever encountered. I believe that Steve felt the harder he hit the keyboard the quicker the work would get done. It pained me to watch him work. I felt bad for the keyboard. My boss told me to watch Steve work for the entire day. Then, the following day, I would start working on a project. My pulled up a chair for me and left. When my boss left, Steve turned to me and said, “if you have any questions, let me know”. Boom. That was it. I was dumbfounded. Where was my training? I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Keep in mind I have never seen Auto Cad in my life. I had never been introduced to the most basic principles of engineering. I had never even taken Calculus. But here I was, staring a computer screen with Steve. Steve worked fast but today he worked extra fast. I’m sure it made his day that a 21 year old punk like me was being asked to doing his job for several dollars an hour less. Steve went to college for engineering. It’s not like he actually told me that or anything. I had to infer it from his angry silence. I totally understood where Steve was coming from. He was pissed at the world and I can’t say I blame him. Steve was really good at his job and getting paid less than he was worth. Now our boss was asking him to train me in a program he wasn’t prepared to talk about and I wasn’t prepared to learn. He was the backbone of the firm. He was their best designer. None of the partners in the firm even had a computer in their office. This was several years ago, but even several years ago this was laughable. They often hand drew their designs. How can an engineering firm not be computer based in this day and age? This is just an example of how this place did business.
For the next eight hours I watched Steve pound away unmercifully at the keyboards and confuse the hell out of me. There was no tutorial. There was even no on the job training. It was swim or drown. I drowned, but I did it with style. Who am I kidding? I was terrible. I only use the world terrible because there are few words better than terrible to describe my job performance. Abysmal? Yeah, you could say I was abysmal.
That is not to say I was terrible at using Auto Cad. It turns out that if you give me enough time, I can figure anything out on a computer. I know that’s not very modest but if you consider the circumstances of which I just described, the fact I basically got the principals of Auto Cad in a few weeks is pretty impressive if I do say so myself. Having said that, I knew and still know absolutely nothing about surveying and engineering. Nothing. The plans I would produce over the next few months would look great but be completely and totally incorrect. This was clearly my fault. My boss quickly went from a nice guy trying to help me out and give me a promotion to an angry tyrant who honestly believed he wasn’t getting his money’s worth. I was a scarred 21 year old kid. I didn’t have the balls to point out to him that this was a mess of his own creation. One of the reasons I accepted the “promotion” in the first place was because he told me they would train me and help me out when I need it. McDonalds trains people with more vigor than he did. If you screw up a cheeseburger, the world doesn’t end. I was working on plans that were fairly important. If I really screwed something up the company would lose money: the payroll it cost for someone else to fix my mistake, the delays in construction that my error caused, and the potential loss of future business. I caused these problems because my boss believed I would pick up the basic principles and, for what he was paying me, get an absolute bargain. I was a calculated risk. My upside was potentially huge and if I could swim long enough, I would be of tremendous value to the firm at a hell of a price. Once I realized this, my days at the firm were numbered.
Math was my downfall. A lack of training was my downfall. I shouldn’t have been doing the job to begin with. I was screwed from the start. Who, in their right mind, would believe it’s a sound business move to put a 21 year old kid into a job where he has zero training, education, and motivation. It’s much asking to asking a doctor to fly a spaceship. The doctor is probably a smart person but asking him to fly to the moon without any training is a little insane. The doctor will always be playing catch up and learning the controls of the aforementioned ship until he finally crashed the spaceship on some nice person’s suburban house in Illinois. Flying space ships and being a doctor are vastly more important than what I did at this engineering firm, but couldn’t help but think I was out of my depth and overwhelmed as an Auto Cad designer. This experience was a painful but educational experience. One that I would call on later in life.
It took me about 3 hours to realize I had made a terrible mistake. It took me three months to finally decide I needed another job. My next job would take me places I never thought I would step foot: a retail clothing store. One Monday morning in late summer at the engineering firm my boss walks into the design room and rips me a new asshole. I mean it was bloody. Apparently I had made a fairly large mistake that cost the company several man hours and now something had to be resurveyed. My boss also said that in the fall and early winter business slowed quite a bit. Hours might get harder to find for everyone. I was about at the end of my rope with this guy and I started to see the writing on the wall. Clearly Steve, the firms best Auto Cad designer, wasn’t going to get his hours cut. It was going to be my ass on the street and with it my health benefits, vacation, and income.
I started working at this firm to clear my head, take some time off, and figure out what my next step was. Instead I had a self serving boss who was using me for whatever he could get out of me and was ready to kick me out as soon as the weather started getting cold. I had really tried to make the job work but the cards were stacked against me. I was not going to get the chance to grow and learn at this place. My boss wanted results immediately from me despite the fact I had no education in the field and was completely untrained in Auto Cad. “Welcome to the real world” I thought to myself. In the three months I had been working with Auto Cad I had picked a lot up. Three months might sound like a lot of time to learn the ropes of a new job but not when you talking about surveying. There is a reason it’s called Civil Engineering and several colleges specialize in it. People don’t make up fancy sounding names like Civil Engineering for no particular reason.
Following work that particular day, I needed to blow off some steam. There is nothing I like better than walking around the mall in the summertime to relax. I know that sounds crazy. Hear me out. The mall is air conditioned and typically a pleasant distraction from the summer heat. Business-wise, the mall is very slow in the summer. Most people are barbecuing, swimming, camping, traveling, vacationing, and generally enjoying themselves outside. The mall is relaxing and quiet all summer. A mall I like to frequent is the Carousel Mall. The Carousel Mall isn’t far from where I live and is always deserted in the summer. The mall gets its name from a huge merry-go-round smack dab in the middle of the food court. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time they were building the place but there is no way, without major construction, to move this carousel now. It’s so big they would have to take it apart and put it back together just to move it five feet. In the ten years I’ve been going to this mall, I’ve seen maybe 10 people ride that dumb thing.
I really have no idea how the collective stores in the place stay in business. Sometimes you can walk an entire wing of the mall and not see another person. It does make for great walking and relaxing however. As I walked through the mall on this particular late summer Monday, I noticed a large amount of construction being performed on an old storefront. The signs tacked up near the construction said “Future home of Anonymous Outfitters”. Now it’s not uncommon to see vacant stores in this mall and it’s also not uncommon to see new stores replacing old stores. However, the sign also said they were looking for managers in this new store. There were promises of health benefits, a 401k program, good wages, and opportunity for advancement. After the morning’s reprimand, I decided I needed to be a boss and not be someone’s slave. I grabbed an application and continued my stroll around the mall.
I’m not big into clothing. I’m really not. I like to look presentable but that doesn’t mean you have to pay $75 for a pair of jeans. Anonymous Outfitters was, and still is, a fairly expensive retail store specializing in late teenage to early twenties fashion. I have changed the name of the store for my own protection. Their prices are predictably high. Not outrageously high to the general shopping public but fairly high in my opinion.
When I got home I told my wife (at the time girlfriend) about my day at the engineering firm, that I had picked up this application for Anonymous Outfitters, and was thinking about filling it out. She told me to do whatever would make me happy. I could tell she had her own misgivings about the retail industry but she wanted me to do what I thought was right for me. She also mentioned to me that maybe I should apply at the restaurant she had been working at for a year or so called Dead Animal Steak House. I told her I could never be a waiter and filled out the application for Anonymous Outfitters.
The next day I went back to the mall and submitted my Anonymous Outfitters application to customer service as the instructions indicated. Customer Service assured me they would forward the application to the store’s manager. Within 2 hours I received a call on my cellular phone.
“Hello, is this Luke?” replied the caller.
“Hello, my name is Andrea. I’m the future manager of the Anonymous Outfitters in Carousel Mall. I was wondering if we could set up a time to get to know each other a bit more?” she asked.
The way she said “get to know each other a bit more” was both encouraging and weird. I’ve never had a potential boss talk to me that way, almost as an equal. It was encouraging because people don’t generally say things like that unless they want you to work for them. I set up a meeting time for the next day during lunch hour.
It wasn’t uncommon for me to leave the engineering firm during my lunch break. I didn’t live far from the offices. I told my boss that I was taking a long lunch today. I didn’t care anymore. I was sick of him, sick of the job, and sick of his demands. He was pissed but didn’t make too many objections. As I left he did mutter “you’ll just have to stay late tonight, that’s all.”
I made the short drive to Carousel Mall and met Andrea for the first time. She was very tall,, blonde, and friendly. She was in her mid thirties and a poster girl for the Anonymous Outfitters brand. She asked me a lot of interview type questions that I was fairly prepared for. “Why do you want to work for Anonymous Outfitters?” “What is your best asset?” “What is your worst flaw?” I won’t bore you with the specifics of the interview but I would like to tell you how I answered her last question which is always one of my personal favorite interview questions: “What do you want out of your job with Anonymous Outfitters?” There is a fairly clear answer to this question. Obviously I want money. How many of us are fortunate to take a job for educational enlightenment or the challenge of it all? The people who take jobs for reasons other than money probably don’t need the money to begin with. This is not to be confused with people who love the jobs they make money at. I know my wife loves teaching kindergarten but she is paid to teach. If she didn’t need the money would she be teaching kindergarten? Probably not. If she wasn’t being paid would she be teaching? Again, probably not. She would be forced to find another job that pays her for her services. Such is the burden of the proletariat. The answer to this question is so obvious it drives me crazy every time I’m asked it. I want a job. I want money. I want health benefits. I want to pay my rent. I want to go to the movies on Sunday with my friends. All this happens when you hire me. Obviously that’s not how we answer. We make up some nonsense about wanting to interact with the public, showcase our person to person skills, and build the Anonymous Outfitters brand. I’m no different. I threw as much public relations psycho babble as I could lay my tongue to. As the interview ended Andrea was polite and said she would be in touch.
A few hours later I received another call on my cell phone.
“This is Andrea from Anonymous Outfitters. Would it be possible to come in again tomorrow evening and meet our regional manager? He would love to speak with you.”
This was to be my first experience with a regional manager. I wish I could say it was my only experience. Unfortunately, the next ten years of my life would be affected, directly or indirectly, by the opinions of various regional managers.
I told Andrea I would be back to the mall at around 6pm the next day. Work at the engineering firm was getting worse by the day. People knew the end of the summer was coming and a lot of the design and field guys were getting really antsy they were going to be laid off for the winter. I also found out a piece of information that basically pushed me out the door at the firm. I over heard Steve talking to his wife on the phone early in the afternoon. Steve’s wife six or seven months pregnant at the time. Steve was really worried about making ends meet. Who isn’t I guess. That’s basically the point of this whole post. Judging from the tone of the conversation, it sounded like his wife was too. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on his call, but he was having the conversation in the middle of the design room. I wasn’t really paying that close attention what Steve was talking to his wife about until I heard him mention how his meeting with the boss went. Turns out Steve went to the boss and asked for a raise earlier in the day. Steve wanted everyone, including the boss, to believe he needed the extra money to help pay for the costs of bringing a new life into the world. I know that was definitely part of Steve’s reasoning. However, Steve also knew he had the boss between a rock and hard place. Steve had been offered another job for more money at a different, competing firm. The health benefits were just as good and pay was better. Steve, from what I gathered, gave the boss his two week notice unless a big raise was in his future. Steve got the raise. The boss had no choice. Don’t get me wrong. I was happy for Steve, his expecting wife, and his new raise. You could almost see Steve’s standard of living increasing before my eyes.
Three things didn’t sit too well with me about the whole raise game however. First, I found out that Steve was making more than double my $8.50 and hour. As I have said, Steve was educated in the field and damn good at what he did. The problem I had was that I was being asked to do some of the same things Steve was doing for half the money. Second, I could help but think that Steve used me as an example of what the firm would be left with if he took this other job at this other engineering place. He did “train” me on Auto Cad after all and the firm had no one to thank for my ineptitude but him. Third, the way Steve conducted himself on this phone call led me to believe that he wanted me to know that he made more money than me, he got a big raise, and was a hell of alot more important to the company than I was. It’s almost like he wanted me to hear the call. I never understood why, but it always seemed like Steve took my presence in the design room personally. Maybe he thought it was an indictment by the boss of his skills. Who cares. All I know is I was pissed at Steve, pissed at the boss, and pissed at the firm for what they expected me to do without training, guidance, or tutoring. I stood up and walked straight into my boss’s messy office.
“Boss, I need to tell you something” I said.
“I’m really busy. Come back later” he said from under a pile of drawings.
“I’ll make it quick. Consider this my two week notice. I’ve found another job and I will be starting by the end of August” I blurted out with a measure of satisfaction even though it wasn’t technically true. People quit jobs every day however you have to understand something about this particular action on my part: I have never quit a job in my life without a serious back up plan. I like stability and assurance in my employment. I’m not someone who is constantly scouring the classified ads or sending his resume out to 80 different potential employers. I like consistency. Things had just gotten so bad at this firm and I was so sick of the constant stress and belittlement that I had to make a change. I was quitting a job without another job lined up. This was big.
My boss leaned back in his chair. The real bitch about my boss was that he was and still is a decent man when you can get him away from the stress and craziness of the firm. He throws office parties for the major holidays. He has a fourth of July picnic at this house. Away from work, he’s someone you want to know. His face softened, his mouth turned into a frown. His entire demeanor changed. It’s almost like he was shocked and maybe even a little sad by my announcement.
“You found another job?” he said.
“Yes, I did. In the mall.” I relied.
I stood there for a few seconds. He stared at me measuring his next move.
“If there is anything I’ve done to cause this I want to say I’m sorry. I know things have been a little rough for you here lately. I think putting you into the design room might have been too much too fast….” said my boss. He continued “Let me know if I can do anything for you.” I thanked him and walked out of his office and back to my desk. I must admit I was a little surprised by his candor. I still, to this day, think he’s a decent person. I just think he’s a terrible boss. To be sure, he was a man of many faces. It didn’t matter at that point. The damage had been done and I was happy as hell that in two weeks I would never think about this firm again.
The gravity of the situation suddenly dawned on me. In two weeks I didn’t have a job since I was 16 years old. That scared the crap out of me. I knew my second interview with Anonymous Outfitters had to go well.
The day passed surprisingly quickly. My boss was much friendlier with me now that he knew I was leaving and didn’t really care about his needs, deadlines, or firm any more. I guess he didn’t want me to just up and leave before he could find some other lackey to replace me for $8.50 an hour.
After work I drove over to the mall and took a quick stroll to calm my nerves. Landing this job suddenly became the most important thing in my life. When I look back today and think about that I can’t believe how dumb I was. How can a job be the most important thing in your life? That’s pretty pathetic. If I can sound a little hippie for a second here, your friends, your love, your family, those are so much more important than a job and money. It would unfortunately take me several more years to realize that. I guess I should consider myself lucky. Some people never get it.
6:00 pm rolled around and walked to the Anonymous Outfitter storefront. There was Andrea and another man whom I assumed to be the regional manager. The man was short, round, and wore a baseball cap with Anonymous Outfitters scrawled across the front. For some reason the hat he wore really annoyed me. It was yellow, faded, and torn in various places. Why do people buy NEW clothing that is faded and torn? Maybe that should have been my first warning that retail wasn’t for me. That hat would look stupid on a sixteen year old, let alone a thirty something fat man with squinty eyes and a deceptive look about him. I really hoped wearing hats like that wasn’t part of the job. Come to think of it, the man also wore Anonymous Outfitters apparel from head to foot. His shorts, his shirt, his socks, his sandals, his watch, and for all I know his underwear were all part of the Anonymous Outfitter’s “back to school” line up.
“Thanks for coming in to meet with us” said Andrea. “This is Richard, my regional manager.”
I shook Richard’s hand. His handshake sucked. I should have known right then and there not to trust this Dick. A handshake is a window into someone confidence and self image. I’ve learned over the years that if your handshake sucks, so do you more than likely.
“Glad to meet you. Thanks for coming in to talk to me. Feel like taking a walk?”
“Sure” I said. Dick spoke very softly and deliberately. He thought about everything he was going to say before he said it. Or at least that’s what he wanted you to believe. As Dick and I walked through the mall it became clear this was more than an interview. It was a demographical research. As our “interview” commenced, Dick seemed very interested in what I thought of the area, the store, and the mall.
“Let me ask you something. How long have you lived in this area?” he started.
“Oh, all my life I guess” I replied.
“What do you think about this mall?” he prodded.
“Well, it’s a nice place to shop in my opinion. It’s quiet, it’s calm” I said.
“That’s what I was afraid of. Our demographics show this mall is very slow in the summer and busy in the winter” said Dick. I could already tell that Dick liked the word demographics.
Let me stop myself for a moment here to make a point. Who doesn’t know a mall is slow in the summer? As I said before, the reason I like coming to the mall in the summer is exactly because it is slow. Obviously the mall is busy in the winter. It’s cold outside and the Christmas seasons starts in September nowadays. The mall is a concentration of retail outlets by definition. There are more shopping holidays in the winter than there are in the summer. Demographics? You need demographics to figure that out?
“In order for Anonymous Outfitters to be successful in this mall, we need to build a loyal customer base. Do you think you can be part of a team committed to customer loyalty?” Dick continued.
I love these questions.
“Absolutely sir. I’ve been working with people since I was in my mid-teens. I was a tour guide for many summers while I went to college…”
“College did you say?” interrupted Dick. “Where did you go to college?”
“Well sir, I went to school at XYZ College. It’s not far from here” I proudly stated. The second I said “I went to college” Dick’s entire demeanor changed. I pride myself as being able to interpret body language. I watched this show on the Discovery channel once about how people project different emotions physically. There are the obvious ones like love and happiness. When you’re in love you hold hands and kiss. When you’re happy you smile. However, the body projects different signals for emotions like curiosity, attraction, interest, depression, and so on and so forth. Basically it boils down to eye contact, nervous ticks, and body movement. It’s all fairly obvious stuff. In a nutshell if someone is doing all kinds of weird ass things like looking off into space, playing with their hair, or folding their hands across their chest they are telling you something. Dick was actually talking to me now that I mentioned I was a college graduate.
“XYZ. I’ve heard of that school. It’s pretty expensive isn’t it?” asked Dick.
“Yeah, it is. Thankfully I had a decent scholarship and very understanding parents,” I truthfully replied. Why is it that whenever someone talks about college they find the need to ask if your school was expensive? I went to XYZ College. It is a very expensive school. When I was an undergraduate it cost over $30,000. Now I hear it’s up to about $50,000 ten years later. What school isn’t expensive? The more I think about this weird question, the more I think it has something to do with a need to compare school prices like you would automobiles or apartment. We’ve all seen conversations like this: “I drive a Hyundai Accent.” “Oh yeah? Well I drive a Lexus.” Who honestly cares? Where I went to school has about as much to do with my intelligent as my shoe size. You get out what you put into college just like everything else in this world. Every knows the S.A.T.’s are total nonsense anyway and a degree is only as good as the paper it’s printed on. That wasn’t a theory that Dick subscribed too however.
I could sense, thanks to the Discovery Channel, that Dick had really warmed up to me now. I firmly believe that Dick hadn’t even looked at my application before this interview. He knew my name and what time I was showing up. Now that I mentioned college he wanted to know all about me. As I learned later in my employment with Anonymous Outfitters, if you have a college education you are immediately considered for management positions. I’m not talking about key holders or shift managers. I’m talking about real deal bosses who can hire, fire, make payroll decisions, and handle thousands of dollars a week. All it takes is a piece of paper saying you graduated from college. I could have been the crookedest bastard on the planet and it wouldn’t have mattered. My degree is in Political Science. What that has to do with corporate retail clothing is beyond me. All I know is that once Dick figured out I went to school he wouldn’t shut up about what the company had to offer me.
“Let’s talk a little about Anonymous Outfitter’s brand image and corporate goals” said Dick. “Anonymous Outfitters is a clothing company that markets laid back fashion-right clothing for mid teens to late twenty something.” I swear to God that’s what he said. I will never forget it as long as I live. It’s like I was reading the training manual or something. What, exactly, does “fashion-right” mean anyway?
“We also have very competitive salary, bonuses based on sales for managers, health benefits, and a great 401k program” he continued. It was like I flipped a switch on him or something he went from totally aloof and talking about stupid demographics to his hardcore employment sales pitch. People, if you take one thing from this book I hope it is this. If some one ever uses “brand image and corporate goals” in the same sentence to you, run. Don’t walk. Run. I wish I had. Unfortunately Dick had me in his sights and there was no stopping him. I was a deer in headlights.
The problem was I was hearing the things I needed to hear. He promised me the company would provide the type of training I would need to fit in a retail environment. He told me about the health benefits. He told me about the retirement plan. He even told me about how quickly the company was expanding and I could have my own store, my very own store, in less than a year if things went right. Then he dropped the bomb on me.
“I’m willing to offer you the assistant manager position and pay you $13.00 an hour”. What could I say? He just offered me more money an hour than I had ever made in my life. I was 22 and making $8.50 an hour to be abused by an engineering tyrant. My previous job paid me about $6.00 an hour after five loyal seasons to guide people through a subterranean tourist attraction. Why not give retail a try? I was going to be unemployed in two weeks if I didn’t take the job anyway. It took me about 2 seconds to make up my mind. I was the new assistant manager of the Carousel Mall Anonymous Outfitters by the end of our walk.
Let me reiterate something. I had never worked in retail before. I had never even thought about it. Suddenly I was the assistant manager of a clothing store with real responsibilities. I was the second in command and didn’t even know how to fold a shirt. Why? Because I went to college. When I got my job at the engineering firm I knew that college helped get me in the door. Now that I was leaving the engineering firm and searching for something new, college had once again got me into a place I didn’t really belong. It was only going to get worse.
I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. I really didn’t. Retail is a bitch. It’s not as big a bitch as waiting tables, but it’s not far off. Dick asked me one last question.
“If there is one thing you want from a boss, what is it?” This was too good to be true. A boss asking me what I wanted from him? I answered honestly.“I want my boss to be as honest and respectfully as I try to be with them.” I replied. What more can you ask from a boss? Dick grunted his approval.