For the last three months, I have been bringing a study group to a local eatery in Superior, WI for Saturday sessions. Even though the eatery is a franchise, I support it because I understand that franchises are still locally owned, and local investment is important to me. And the specific food types there are available at few other places in the Twin Ports. (I’m not naming the place because my goal is not to punish the specific eatery, but to offer some principles for empowering employees everywhere.)
We keep attending this place despite the fact that, almost every week, someone’s order was inevitably just slightly wrong. This was usually because the place seemed always to be training new people (although as a writing teacher, I can also tell that the system for annotating purchases for the kitchen is fairly loose). In retrospect, constant training is a bad sign — an inability to hold onto your employees is a sign that more is wrong than just the pay scale (as I am sure the young people working there must be minimum wage employees). These young folks clearly enjoyed working there, though, as they always corrected the errors with grace and enthusiasm. The eatery is close to UWS, so I imagine there is no short supply of young folk willing to work for minimum wage and possibly for a discount on yummy food.
Today, though, the side effect of mistreating employees was revealed to me. There was the usual confusion with the orders (this time, it seemed, caused as much by a lousy communication system between front and food prep) — no big deal. There was no toilet paper in the women’s room — a problem that wasn’t fixed until the second complaint. And, there was no hand soap in the men’s room. In fact, there was no dispenser in the men’s room — there was only tape marks where the dispenser used to hang from the wall. There was no place for soap to be. I mentioned this to the counter staff, who responded knowingly and with some small frustration in their voice, that the bathrooms are serviced by an outside company, and so there was nothing they could do. Well, I mentioned, it’s a bit creepy to eat in a restaurant where there is no soap in the men’s room. (It makes the sign indicating that employees sh0uld wash there hands seem useless.)
The problem here is not the lack of soap. It was that the employees did not feel empowered to fix the problem. Wait, I thought to myself, here is $3. Don’t wait for the service — just buy a pump from Super One. We can solve this together! But I only thought that to myself. Instead, I limped back to my table and borrowed some Purel. Poorly trained minimum wage employees who are told that the bathroom is handled by someone else don’t feel empowered to solve a problem like that. Maybe more to the point, minimum wage workers who don’t feel that a place is invested in them don’t feel invested enough in return to step outside the sharp confines of narrowly defined job responsibilities to solve a problem like this.
I spent 6+ years working retail for just-barely above minimum at a Barnes and Noble. The minimum wage job system is designed to grind through workers — to barely train them and to barely retain them because, after all, the next one is available cheaply. But my managers (Tracey Dingel and Julia Landa, woot to you guys) made me feel like I was worth investing in, in other ways — sharing great reading selections, sharing travel adventures, even just training me in parts of the bookselling process that were way outside my job class because they knew I liked to learn. And I like to think, I hope, I gave back as much as they gave me, beyond the narrow confines of my job class.
Minimum wage employees are freely available, but so, too, is affordably priced breakfast food also freely available, and I’d rather spend my money someplace that makes its employees, even the minimum wage ones, feel empowered and feel invested in their work, and invested in by their employer.
My favorite video on managing employees is here, by the way:
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