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Unsolicited Business Advice

  I worked in the service/retail industry (fancy way of saying ‘glorified wait staff’, but there ya go) for several years. I was competent enough to get a promotion and even survive a termination attempt, even if I did have to move across country to do it. That’s the part of my life that numerous people would say is where I ‘put in my time.’ You know, do a high-stress/low-reward job until you manage to get your foot in the door at another, hopefully much better job.

  But I’ve always felt that was a bit unusual. The idea that we have to ‘put in our time’ at a job we hate outright or grow to hate. Certainly there are people who land a job they love right off the bat, either through luck or nepotism or whatever. For the rest of us, however, we seem to be stuck in the mud-pits until we somehow stumble our way out. Does it really have to be that way? Do entry-level positions really need to be so abjectly terrible?

  I think that there are plenty of things that pretty much everyone at every level of a company can do to help improve the quality of life around work. And if you improve the quality of the environment, the quality of work itself improves. You improve that, it helps the customers not think that you’re an affront to humanity. So, in the end, we all win.

  (The various ‘you’s’ below are the impersonal you - no offense to anyone dumb enough to think I’m talking directly to them)

LESS PREACHING, MORE PRACTICE

  Maybe I’m wrong (I’m not), but it always seems weird to me when I see a commercial that doesn’t sell something. Like this one from J. P. Morgan. Now, you could make the argument that it’s selling itself as a place to get loans, but it doesn’t come out and say that. Instead, the commercial is focusing on telling you how great the company is. Now, they use some numbers to back up their claims and all, but this was not information I requested. It’s like they’re putting out numbers and such in anticipation of someone not liking them very much. Even if I didn’t know that much about them, I’d be a bit on the suspicious side that their record - and not their product - is being advertised.

  So, companies, please stop trying to convince me that you value your employees. And, while you’re at it, stop trying to convince your employees about that, too. If you treat your people well, they will do all the gushing for you. They will go out and find you more people to hire because they want to. Have an amazing benefits package? Have fabulous stock options? Have yet to publicly execute anyone for shaming their overlords? Yes, these are all really good things, but for fuck’s sake, why are you trying to convince your customers of this?

  The fact of the matter is that if you feel compelled to go and advertise how wonderfully you’re treating your employees, people like me will start to wonder why you felt it was important to inform them. And if you tell it to your employees, it will seem really disingenuous when you cram a benefits cut/pay decrease/work increase down their throat. If you tell us that something is for our own good while you’re throwing us under the bus, it doesn’t make the tires hurt less, it makes us annoyed and in pain.

  So here’s what you do instead: you practice what you preach. Or rather, you just fucking practice. You know who cares about your employees? Your employees, that’s who. The average customer doesn’t care if you’re flogging your coworkers in the backroom with a cat-o-nine-tails, they just want to be in and out. You want proof of this? Look no further than there is evidence to suggest that, at least at one time, certain Apple products were made using very questionable labor tactics - but have people stopped purchasing their products? (As an aside, anyone else remember those irritating Apple commercials touting how they were American made? I do, but I can’t seem to find it on YouTube... weird.)

  As for your subordinates, they don’t have to be kept appraised of how you’re treating them. You want to know why? Because they are sentient and awake when they’re at work. They know precisely how you’re treating them. And, take away the threat of losing their job if they say something that hurts your feelings or doesn’t toe (yes, toe) the company line, and they’ll be happy to inform you how you’re doing.

  So spend less time and money trying to convince people that your behavior is not making your employees go home every night in tears and spend a little bit more actually not being awful. Perhaps by doing things like...

EQUAL ARBITRATION

  We’ve all worked with someone who, for one reason or another, is somehow impervious to the rules. They reliably walk in late, they take extra time on all their breaks, or they routinely break dress code. Or anything, really. They’re the kind of people that tend to flirt with the boss or pretend to not know any better, and that sort of thing is really annoying. But it really isn’t their fault, now is it? Not when you have a manager who enables that behavior.

  I bring this up not as an angry aside about rules - I fully understand that a business needs certain protocols so that people don’t show up to work nude or drop their bong water in the taco meat. I respect the rules when they make sense and I follow those that I don’t quite get with a begrudging acceptance. What does get my knickers in a bunch is when managers let people get away with murder because... well, whatever.

  If you want people to respect you and follow your directions, you need to have an even hand - not necessarily a heavy one. My issue is not with punishing infractions - even if it’s not exactly the most effective strategy - but with punishing some but not others. It means you really shouldn’t be in a position of authority because you have trouble being fair. And I get it - “Life’s not fair!” some people shout because they speak only in moronic cliches - but you’re in a position where you have to divorce yourself from affectation and become an effective arbiter.

  What this means is that if you write one person up for being late once, you should be obligated to do it for everyone. If someone gets away with it multiple times, in deference to others, you need to show the same leniency. Why? Because I guarantee you that being fair will win you a hell of a lot more faithful employees than being either strict or lenient.

  As a personal aside, I was written up for being late once in my seven-year tenure at a certain nameless corporation you’ve probably never heard of. The situation surrounding it doesn’t matter - I was fifteen minutes late, and that was that. It was explained to me that I was being written up in order to crack down on tardiness. Believe it or not, I was totally on board with that. I may have been annoyed it had to happen to me, but if it helps to make other people respect their schedules a bit more, then great. Turns out that no one else was ever written up following that, despite being all kinds of late. The ‘crack down’ was to punish someone who made a mistake versus displaying chronic behavior. Needless to say, it was incredibly demoralizing.

  But, hey, while we’re on this, here’s a similar key point that you need to remember:

DON’T BE PETTY

  You get a number of perks once you are in charge of other people. Most managers are pretty relaxed about the entire thing, but there are the occasional ones who really let the power go to their head. But there’s one particular ability that, when abused, is pretty awful to a lot more than the immediate subordinates who can’t complain when you take an eighty-minute lunch break while listening to questionable music in the back room.

  Of course, I’m talking about your ability to fire people. I’m sure this topic will make some people red-faced in shame (or smug-faced in jackassery), but you really shouldn’t fire someone for personal/idiotic reasons. I’ve been witness to several terminations that boiled down to the fact that the supervisor (or one of their preferred employees) had a personal issue with the worker in question. And it always, always boiled down to the same highly questionable behavior - going through an aggressive interrogation of their coworkers and paperwork to find something egregious or numerous enough to terminate the position.

  PROTIP: if you are desperate enough to fire someone based on hearsay or activities that numerous other employees are guilty of, then it is you, not the target of your witch-hunt, who is clearly in the wrong. In fact, you are so far in the wrong that you’ve now added an entirely separate category to the heading. And if you start to justify it mentally - “Well, he did walk in late once” or “I guess she did forget to do a menial task that would have taken me less time to do myself than firing her does” - you’re straddling mental disorder territory.

  So maybe, if you catch yourself doing this, take a step back and handle the situation like an adult. Remember, firing an employee has long-term effects on future employment - and even if you don’t like the prick, people need money. So sit down and have a conversation with them. Explain that you’re the boss, and you make the rules, and you’d very much like to improve the work environment. Explain that you feel there is hostility or the quality of their work has diminished and if there’s anything - honestly, no bullshit - you could do to help the situation.

  If they tell you to go fuck yourself, then you have my permission to fire them.

  The entire point of this is that you really need to be just in how you approach your role as manager. Firing/castigating someone for something other people get away with is hypocritical and makes you look bad as well as the company you represent. How about this for a motivational poster: “Even-handed: if you can’t handle that, you should really step down.”

  It all boils down to just being fair, which is tough but certainly not impossible. But while we’re talking about being fair, yet another thing you need to consider is...

EQUAL TREATMENT OF EMPLOYEES

  I’m not talking about stuff which really should be mandatory by now (you know, like equal pay for women), I’m talking about treating the individuals under your charge in the same way. Basically, I’m asking that if you bend over backwards to accommodate one employee, you’re going to have to make exceptions for everyone.

  Someone doesn’t want to work Sundays? That’s great - just make sure that everyone gets to have a similar luxury. Someone refuses to close? Sure, why the hell not - provided that they cover shifts that other people don’t want. This is really only important once you start having less flexible positions (such as due to a promotion), but you need to be mindful of the results of this kind of setup, too. Someone who never opens can lose sight of what needs to be done, just as someone who doesn’t want to work a holiday can never appreciate the difficultly behind being under-staffed and under-appreciated.

  But, of course, this leads to one of the biggest things an employer can do to improve the workplace...

DON’T ASK PEOPLE TO DO WORK YOU DON’T OR ARE UNWILLING TO DO

  Before anyone e-mails me a comment or posts on Facebook that I must have been forced to scrub the toilet too many times and, as such, don’t appreciate delegation, let me say that I understand there are shitty jobs that people naturally don’t want to do. Moreover, everyone, at some point, is going to have to suck it up and do it. It’s gross and tiring, but a paycheck is a paycheck, dammit.

  And, hey, ten minutes to clean the bathrooms and I don’t have to deal with angry customers? What’s the problem?

  What I’m saying here is that managers and other assorted higher-ups need Need NEED to realize that they are in a position which needs to effectively be able to, at the very least, understand their employees. And the best way to do that is to actually do everything that you’re tasking others to do. You have the privilege of better pay, having near-complete control of your schedule, and a healthcare plan that doesn’t require your first born as a down payment for a physical - cleaning an oven is not too much to ask.

  You really can’t expect to know aspects of the business you run unless you routinely get practice at doing it - all the training or schooling in the world is great for getting you theoretically ready, but experience is far more valuable. And then - and really, only then - can you actually begin to more successfully delegate tasks and have reasonable expectations.

  I’ve had managers close once in their entire career and talk openly about how they ‘knew’ everything there was to know about it and how best to approach it, even though an individual at an entry level position had far more closing hours under his/her belt. There’s something incredibly frustrating about being told how to do your job by someone who has only done it once and under the supervision of two much more experienced guides. It puts a wedge between you and your employees - either you sound like that idiot who took a 101 course in college and thinks that they’re an expert or you sound like you think there are certain jobs in the company that are below you. Neither may be true, but they’re still the toxic images that you’re giving off without realizing it.

  And the same goes for corporate bureaucrats. If you’re in charge of a corporation that is focused on service or retail, spend time at the lowest rungs. Get the feel of it. Talk to people. Learn the ins and outs. And for fuck’s sake, only change things for the better. I know it’s common practice to ordain some sweeping change to make a name for yourself or fire a lot of people so everyone knows you’re not to be trifled with, but come on. If you’re going to change something, show that you are working with it. You developed it with your own hands-on experience, tweaked it and perfected it. Actually make something workable because you went through it versus watching other people work and telling experienced people they’re wrong. Remember, they’re the ones making your salary. Just as they wouldn’t have a job without you, you wouldn’t without them.

  And that brings us to the finale of the longest column to date that doesn’t have to do with video games:

TREAT YOUR EMPLOYEES LIKE HUMAN BEINGS

  You know what’s dehumanizing? Working at a job that ignores your comments and suggestions but insists that you’re its most valuable resource. It makes you feel that you’re only a valuable resource when your mouth is shut. You know what’s even more depressing than that? When your upper management begins speaking to you in buzz words and cliches as opposed to sentences that didn’t spring from the diseased sphincter of a motivational speaker. You know what’s even worse? When your boss is SO GODDAMN EXCITED about our newest OPPORTUNITY to expand and ACTUATE our NEWEST line of PRODUCTS in order to reach a SALES GOAL! So you need to GIVE 110% and push our BRAND-NEW line of BOILED LARD!

  Hey, hi, yeah. Jonathan. Entry level guy who hasn’t drank the Kool-Aid (how have we not gotten a new expression, by the way?). Suggestion: how about you talk to us like we’re people as opposed to excitable sales robots? Oh, wait - stupid excitable sales robots. Sorry. Missed a modifier.

  If you just do this, you could probably even get away with half-assing the rest of these ideas. Don’t tell us a new product launch is going to be fun - I don’t come to work to have fun. I come to work. When you say something is going to be fun and every bit of evidence I’ve ever had shows that this new work will probably prove to be - shocking - every bit as worky as the old stuff, it comes off like you’re a dangerous lunatic or just a lying asshole. And honestly, it’s not the asshole part that’s bothersome - it’s the lying.

  So let’s try a different tack from now on. Something a bit more forthright. Something like this:

  “Hello, employees. We have a new special rolling out next week. Here’s the material you should read in order to prepare. If all goes well, the ad campaign will bring in a lot of extra business, which we will only slightly account for. We’re going to severely underestimate it like we always do, because we’d rather have you stressed out and angry with us than lose money if customers don’t show up. It sucks, yes, but for the entire promotion, your district manager will be on the floor helping one store a day. Don’t worry - they’ve been trained appropriately and they’re not allowed to sit in the back room and watch you work. If they fail to report for duty or try to hide, they will have to close that store one night next week and then open the same store the next day.

  “No, there won’t be some random prize given out to the store that does the most business, because every store has a different rhythm and customer count and, besides, not everyone is comfortable verbally ear-raping a customer to open a special account with us. Instead, we’re just hoping that this brings in a lot of money which you will never see. We will, however, make it up to you by continuing to not be patronizing and lying to your faces. We will also take all your advice into consideration rather than force you to attend a yearly conference which always seems suspiciously like attempted brainwashing. And we will never, ever do doofy team-building exercises because the only thing worse than attending meetings is attending a meeting with awkward and ill-thought-out physical activities.

  “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go run over your dog and cheat on my spouse with a prostitute. HONESTY!”

  Oh, shit.

  You may want to leave out that last part.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.

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