When the kids were young, I slung cocktails for a living. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but couldn't actually afford to stay at home, so the hours allowed me to spend the days with the kids and the tips beat minimum wage. Like most service industry jobs, the work itself didn't vary that much from place to place: Customers ordered, I fetched and delivered their drinks. What made working at a particular place good or bad (besides the tips!) was the people I worked with -- and even more importantly, the people we worked for.
Take this one place. Total dive. But any customers behaved in an uncivil manner, all a girl had to do was crook a finger at Jimbo or Steve or one of the other doorguys and wham, that rude fellow was out the door with the boss' blessing. We slid between drunk frat boys and grungy scenesters knowing someone had our back.
In contrast, this other place I cocktailed, a much "nicer" place, had a different system, one involving a middle manager who'd never even waited tables, much less navigated drunks while carrying a tray of pints overhead. When customers messed with us he'd cower in confusion, then order the waitress to apologize and bring the group a round on the house. Our sense of vulnerability ran high as a result -- and morale conversely low.
I've also worked as a waterslide lifeguard, a file clerk, a medical receptionist, a model home tour guide, a temp worker, a gym greeter, a wallcovering consultant, a food server, a bartender, a barista, a journalist and a radio host. Some of those jobs provided fulfillment, some were just a way to make ends meet (or not) while looking for something better. What I learned: Regardless of the inherent worth of the position, the people in charge of your life while on the clock have the power to shape you into a hard and loyal worker -- or a bitter, mistreated cynic.
So, bosses, this one's for you. Think of it as a short guide on How Not To Be An Asshole.
Forgo, whenever feasible, the middle manager. Typically, the only thing separating that person from everyone else is an obnoxious sense of superiority. Lacking the confidence of ownership, they wield what power they do have with a heavy, irritating, micro-managing hand. Otherwise good workers tire of the abuse and your company becomes known as a lousy place to work.
Allow your employees as much autonomy as possible -- and reward it. Ask yourself, "Is this person meeting the requirements of her position?" If yes, then leave her alone to keep doing her job. And find out what you can offer to make her feel appreciated. Perhaps you can't provide health care benefits, but maybe a corporate deal at the health club? Or massage gift certificates. Or birthdays off with pay.
Remember your employees have lives outside of working for you -- and those lives matter. NPR showcased flexibility in the workplace recently, highlighting an arrangement in which a woman would clock in at her usual 5 a.m., call her kids on her 10-minute break at 7 a.m., then was allowed to duck out for an hour (her "lunch") at 7:30 a.m. to return home, make them breakfast and scoot them off to school. Doesn't that seem like a no-brainer? But some places wouldn't consider bending the rules. Don't be like that.
Consider your employees worthy of knowing. Don't be a stranger, and never think you're too good to do the tasks you ask of them. I'm gratified every time I see a certain local business owner on a ladder changing a light bulb. On the flip side, I knew some bosses who'd bring their dogs into the workplace, which would have been fine if they'd been willing to clean up the inevitable poop off the carpet. Instead they'd summon someone to do it for them. The place had a high turnover.
Understand that what may seem like an inconvenience to you may be a crisis to your employee. Car trouble. Sick babysitter. Coughing child. When daily survival hinges on nothing going wrong, the scramble to recover from what does can be excruciating. You may be tempted to judge the person for having the bad sense to be poor in the first place, but remember, he or she isn't any more thoroughly at fault for being in hard times than you are for being born into a situation that allowed you to thrive. We're all products of luck and effort -- and plenty of us have more of the second than the first. So when your employee calls, panicked and embarrassed, to explain the brakes went out or the daycare won't take her son because of the hacking cough, say, "It's okay. We'll cover it. What can we do to help?" I've been fortunate in that the occasional family medical crisis has almost always met with understanding and support, but I'll never forget the one time I called in to say I had to take my daughter to the hospital and was told, "You'd better find someone to come in for you first."
Maybe you're thinking, "Why does it matter? They don't like it, they can suck it." Times are tight. Beggars can't be choosers. You don't expect anyone to look out for you. They have a job to do and if they can't do it, you'll find someone who can.
Sure. It's a somewhat free country. You have the right to a certain degree of assholery. So if being a decent human being for the sake of being a decent human being isn't enough, consider the economic stability of your company. Happier workers are more productive. Constantly having to hire new people incurs endless extra expense. That person you treated badly may move up in society. Ultimately, you're the one with a particular power -- but why use it for evil, when using it for good makes things better all the way around?