Corporate America: Reflections from the Bottom of the Totem Pole

By Brad Hannah

Like anyone, I had my fair share of crappy, thankless jobs in high school. If you’ve never had such a job, if by some burp in the universe you’ve avoided the rigors of the after-school/weekend register jockey position your whole life, I highly recommend that you apply at your local Taco Bell or Wal-Mart, if only for a week or two. You’ll earn a few extra bucks, and it will be an invaluable life experience. Everyone should have at least one soirée in the ever-expanding field of abusive, unskilled labor. Before you fill out that application form though, there are a few things you should know.

Applications: read the Employment Application before you sign it, especially the fine print. Not so much because it’s important, but more because you’ll get a real sense of just how insignificant you truly are to the grand scheme of things in the chain-store hierarchy. In all applications I’ve ever seen the following statement, or some variation thereof, is present: “If necessary, you may be terminated without prior notice for any reason, or for no reason at all.” They can fire you at any time for absolutely nothing if they want to, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Now in all fairness, they usually won’t fire you for no reason. Most bosses, despite what you might think, are really pretty nice people if you get to know them. In fact, most of them are in the same situation you are. Middle management people at chain stores are a dime a dozen, and their turnover rate is often quite high. During my two-year stint at Menards hardware, I was under the supervision of four different store managers. As customers, people get lulled into a sense of friendliness and permanence about a store. No matter when they come in, the store will be the same, and they will always be welcome. That all ends the instant you put on that nametag. Which brings us to the next point.

Nametags: despite what your boss might say, nametags are not required so the customer can call you by name. They’re so your boss can remember who you are. While it is true that a few customers will try and use your name, the percentage is really quite small and it usually doesn’t make you feel good when they do. If you happen to be one of those people who likes to call everyone in a store by name, please look at their nametag before doing so. Nothing is sillier that someone saying: “Excuse me uh… (pause while they read) Raül, where’s the… etc., etc. There’s nothing wrong with trying to be personal, or with reading their nametag; just don’t be so blatantly obvious about it. Also remember that while they may be the only employee you deal with, you are only one of a hundred customers they’ll see today. Speaking of which…

Customers: the company will try very hard to instill in employees the adage “the customer pays your salary”. This is a load of bunk. You will get paid whether the store turns a profit or not, rest assured of that. The only way individual customers have any impact on you at all is to make your job harder. Don’t get me wrong, most of the people you deal with are okay. About 90% just want to get what they came for and leave with as little hassle as possible. 8% want to have a happy and lighthearted shopping experience, make jokes with the help (i.e. you), and generally spread sunshine all over the store. This is okay too.  It’s the remaining 2% that really chap your hide. These are the people that think anything less than red carpet and rose petals when they walk in is unacceptable. They want you to drop anything and everything you may be doing, no matter how important, and devote yourself completely to serving their every whim. They expect you to read their minds, kiss their asses, and sack their groceries all at once. Do the best you can with these people. The best you can hope for is that they will just go away without threatening to write the company and get you fired. If they start to complain too heavily or try to demand special treatment because of their elite status, I recommend clubbing them over the head with a large, blunt instrument, dragging their limp carcass out behind the store and burying it beneath the refuse in a nearby dumpster. Or you could turn them over to your manager, whichever seems easier.

Managers: your manager is your best friend and arch-nemesis at the same time. On the one hand, he teaches you what to do, takes crap from customers for you, and gave you a job. On the other hand, he gives you assignments, looks over your shoulder, and filters the crap he takes from customers back down to you. Anything, and I do mean anything, you can do to get in good with your manager, do it. If this means taking up smoking so you can smoke with him on break, do so. If it means becoming an alcoholic because you go to the bars with him after work every day, so be it. I might draw the line at taking a bullet for your manager, depending on how many hours you work. When you are in good terms with your supervisor, you will inevitably get the sweet, easy jobs while the people he doesn’t like will end up cleaning the restrooms every day.

Co-workers: observe your fellow workers very carefully. Whenever possible, do a slightly better job then they do, but don’t go nuts and do the absolute best possible job you can. If you do an outstanding job every time, your supervisor might notice and reward your hard work, but all your co-workers will despise you because you’re raising the bar for everyone. If you consistently do a slightly better job, the chances of your boss noticing are just as good, and your fellows will simply think you are trying to suck up, which is usually acceptable. Never forget that you will have to work with these people every day, even more than you have to work with any of the jerkwad customers. They’re in the same boat you are, so don’t rock it.

Useless jobs: occasionally, you will be assigned to do something that apparently has no point whatsoever. Don’t be fooled into thinking that there is actually a reason for it and you just don’t know what it is. There’s a good chance that the job actually is totally pointless. They make you do it because the company can’t have you standing around doing nothing or the employees who are actually doing things will get jealous of your non-work. The now bankrupt (I’m happy to say) landscaping company I used to work for used to make people pat down the mulch if there was no other job available. Patting the mulch was an exercise in futility because every time the wind blew, the mulch would all fly up again and you’d have to start over.

Corporate bullshit: corporations spend millions of dollars a year trying to figure out how they can make the employees work harder, without actually giving them any more money or improving their working conditions. When I was working at Pizza Hut, they used to show us promotional videos for the new pizzas they were unveiling. These were not for the customers; no one would ever see them but employees, yet they were still expertly produced with fancy jump cuts, jingles, lighting, sound, everything. I have no doubt that they cost the company thousands of dollars a year. The intent was to get us excited about our work. They were trying to sell us on making pizzas. Rather than give us a raise, however small it might be, they decided to spend the money on an utterly worthless attempt to motivate us about something we already had to do. They also used to have this program where if you saw a co-worker doing a good job, you filled out a card and posted it on a bulletin board so that everyone would know what a great worker they were. Fine. The idiotic thing was that you had to fill out a certain number of these cards per week to show that you were participating. Needless to say, people started to fill them out for no reason at all because they got to the end of the week without observing anything card-worthy. The whole purpose was utterly defeated and it ended up being nothing but a waste of time. This is what happens when you get people working in upper-management positions who have never done the jobs they are making decisions for, which is part of why I think everyone should have to do one of these jobs at some point in their life.

Whether or not you have any intention of becoming upper-management for a chain-store, it can never hurt for you to experience life from the other side of the cash register. Perhaps it will keep you from becoming one of those infamous 2%.

Brad Hannah <>

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