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“If a task has once begun,
Never leave it till it's done.
Be the labor great or small,
Do it well or not at all.” – Anonymous
“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
Late President of the Bi-Lo Stores[i]
I can hear you in my mind, asking “What the heck is SWS, John?” It’s an acronym I made up back when I was in college – it stands for “Student Worker Syndrome,” the bad attitude and poor work ethic I observed among student workers at college jobs and summer jobs (and sometimes had – shame on me! ). Basically, the SWS sufferer (who’s making YOU suffer poor customer service) is thinking something like this “This isn’t going to be my REAL JOB! I’m a COLLEGE STUDENT! I’m going to be a high-paid PROFESSIONAL!” What the SWS sufferer fails to understand is that the habits a person develops at a “stupid” low-paid burger-flipping/convenience-store/office-temp job are the habits he or she will bring to his or her “real job,” if that person even gets past the interview stage with a bad attitude.
To paraphrase a quote my father has attributed to Richard Nixon[ii] : “Work every job as though it’s the only job you’ll ever have.” Watergate notwithstanding, Nixon was an internationally respected statesman and came up from having almost literally nothing (he slept in an abandoned toolshed for a while when he was in law school[iii]) to being the President. If you learn how to deal effectively and politely with people who are in a hurry, hungry, having a nicotine fit, or otherwise not having a good day and taking it out on you as you check them out at a store counter, you can deal with clients at a law firm, patients in a medical office, government officials at busy offices (think the DMV, the courts, police, etc.), and more! While you, as a convenience store clerk, might be able to get away with being rude to a kid buying candy or some guy who pulled in off the highway to get some cigarettes who will never see you again, you’re not going to get away with being rude to an important client in your “real” professional job.
I’ve also had enough real-life experience with irony and coincidence to know it’s not only possible, but probable, that someone you treat badly in a student job, or in any other situation in life, will have control over whether you get something you want – a “real job,” school admissions, or the like. The guy you cut off in traffic on the way to a job interview may turn out to be the interviewer. Trust me, I’ve said something rude about the performance of someone I didn’t know when I was at a grade-school talent show, not knowing I was near one or more of her friends, and of course, ended up having to deal with her when I was covering someone’s paper route and delivering the paper to her house. That was no fun. It’s an old example of karma at work, but one of the first I recall.
Furthermore, practically every job checks references. One of my convenience-store jobs I had while I was in college called every reference and former employer I included, even the food service manager at my out-of-state college, back when long-distance phone calls were still billed by the minute and were a significant expense. I know, because the store manager told me “They really like you there!” These days, long-distance communication is essentially free and records last forever on the Internet. Again, I’m a firm believer in karma, coincidence, irony, and also Murphy’s Law – as applied here, that means the online comment, record or email you WISH would disappear will be there forever, and the one you’d like to keep will end up being accidentally deleted from every possible online archive[iv].
Trust me – the bad job reference from a “fake job” can potentially haunt you forever, even in odd situations such as “after-acquired evidence” in job discrimination cases. Seriously, California employment law defense firms have successfully used evidence that an applicant lied on his or her job application to defend sex and race discrimination or harassment cases, even where there was obvious discrimination and harassment, because after all, if the applicant had not lied, the applicant never would have gotten the job, or would have been fired if the employer had discovered the lie. Fortunately, in my opinion, the California Supreme Court has since ruled that the “after-acquired evidence” rule can be used to limit damages, but not liability (i.e., your employer would still be responsible for the racism or sexism that hurt you, but you wouldn’t be able to collect as much money, since you might have gotten caught and fired)[v]. There’s no guarantee the law where you live in the future won’t be California’s old rule. Imagine having to defend your failure to mention that you got a bad review at some burger place you worked at in high school when you've been sexually harassed and fired for complaining about it. Yeah, that would be bad.
If you think I’m just being melodramatic, please read this paragraph. I recall reading of a preeminent employment defense firm using that doctrine to defend a sexual harassment case based on an employee’s statement, while applying for the job, that her C average in high school was “good.” She was a waitress in a brewpub. No< I don’t know why you need higher than a C average in high school to serve beer, or why a C average otherwise isn’t “good” for those purposes[vi]. If a defense firm will grasp at straws to that extent, they’ll definitely latch on to any complaints they can find about you from former employers, former customers, or on Yelp.
I am SO glad Yelp didn’t exist when I was working convenience store jobs. It would have been a nightmare to read a review about me from the crotchety old lady who felt I didn’t authorize her gas pump without her coming in was a product of my being “lazy” and not a policy to prevent drive-offs. After loudly complaining to me, she complained (the next day!) to my manager, who fortunately, knew her and knew me (not to mention authorizing a gas pump involves pushing one button under a flashing light that tells the cashier “Someone wants to pump gas from this pump”). This is an illustration of no matter how good you are at your job (another customer called me “the politest person who worked there”), you’ll get a few cranks who can’t be pleased under any circumstances, since they’re probably taking their personal pain out on you (the old lady had “just gotten out of the hospital!” as she loudly and insistently stated to me). But I digress.
If you apply for any job where you have to get a license from the state, e.g., doctor, lawyer, etc., you will be faced with a background check where investigators will ask the references you give if THEY know anyone who also knows you, dramatically increasing the likelihood the investigator will contact someone who is willing to tell them something bad about you. Think about it – do any of your friends have at least one friend who doesn’t like you? Does your friend know his or her friend doesn’t like you? If your friend doesn’t know that, he or she could easily list his or her friend who knows, but doesn’t like you, as a reference.
Don’t give that person facts to support his or her reason for “having a problem with you.” “I think Bob’s a jerk” is much less convincing than “I worked with Bob – he was always late, often smelled of alcohol when he showed up for morning shifts, and told at least one customer to ‘Shop somewhere else if you don’t like it.’ Other than that, I guess he was a pretty good worker.” Imagine applying for a license to practice law and having the State Bar investigator read that. If you were the investigator, would you start looking for more “dirt” on the applicant. You bet. Imagine the hiring partner at the firm where you’d like to work reading that. Would you hire someone like that? My guess is your answer is “No,” “Nope.” “Never,” or “No flipping way, man!”
Here’s a video on the mindset for success – Louis Rossmann and his old boss, Michael Carvin:
I like the part about “sorry” being shorthand for “Leave me alone,” probably because I’ve thought of the “Bay Area ‘sorry,’” a phenomenon I noticed after I moved out here in 1995. Basically, I, like most people around here, say “sorry,” about 10 to 20 times a day just as a shorthand for “Yes, I realize I accidentally got in your way or bumped into you, I didn’t do it intentionally; I’ll be out of your way in a second/I’ll try to be more careful next time.”
Much more to the point, I’ve been as guilty as anyone of using “Sorry” the way Louis mentions it – as a “Yes, I know I’m wrong and there’s no excuse for what I did; but I don’t want you to call me on it and I don’t want to think about how my actions have consequences not just for me, but for you.” Hey, we all grow up, some of us more slowly than others. Okay, some of us NEVER grow up, and they end up being losers, which is why I’m giving you this advice. No one wants to work with or for someone who’s always got an excuse rather than results. Definitely, no one wants to HIRE such a person. Notice that Louis said those people were FORMER employees.
I shouldn’t have to write this, but I will, since if we don’t sometimes repeat the obvious, it becomes no longer obvious. So I have to write this. J Here it goes: Do you remember the story of The Little Boy Who Cried “Wolf?” Of course you do. The little boy would cry that there was a wolf attacking the sheep; wake up the whole village, and have a good laugh, which was fun for him and annoying to everyone else. So, when a wolf really came, everyone ignored his frantic cries and his sheep became Purina Wolf Chow.
The same applies to you – if you’re always late because “the bus was late,” “traffic was bad,” or “my train was delayed,” no one will believe you when you were REALLY unavoidably delayed by a traffic jam or bus/rail problems. Believe me, I’ve been stuck in Bay Bridge traffic for an hour because of accidents, construction, etc. Even if the person to whom you are apologizing believes you, if you’re chronically late (or worse, often don’t show for appointments), he or she won’t care.
“Fine, I saw the BART train delays on Google, so I believe you this time, but what about the 50 other times you were late ‘because the train was slow?’” See the Louis Rossmann/Michael Carvin video for two New Yorkers’ response to people who tell them “Sorry I’m late; the subway was delayed.” They’re not too sympathetic. No one else will be, either, no matter what city or what mode of transit is involved, especially if the appointment is a job interview. As I’ve pointed out in other blogs, if you’re late when you are trying to impress a potential employer, the employer is going to figure you’ll be an unbelievable flake once you have the job and think you’re not going to be fired.
My experience with college food service was that the people who really took the job seriously, who actually became student managers, or even just paid attention to what was going on and performed tasks without being asked, went on to do great things. The one student manager I have in mind (I was also a student manager), who really took scheduling, etc. more seriously than I did, was working as an attorney at a large law firm in Chicago, and the student who was “on the ball” and did things without being asked, owns her own stage-and-event-lighting-firm, has been active in New York City theatrical lighting, and so on. While it’s likely that these two people already had good work ethics that transferred to their student jobs, and then to their “real jobs,” they learned those work habits somewhere, and they kept the good work habits as students. It’s never too late to learn good habits, and your first paid jobs are particularly good places to learn them.
In a nutshell, even if you’re middle-aged or older, it’s a great idea to be the kind of employee you’d want working for you and provide the kind of service you’d want if you were the customer. If you can’t or won’t do that, maybe you should find a job where you’re happy to be there and want to do the best job you can, or figure out what in your life is making you so unhappy that you’re making others unhappy. None of this is new or earth-shattering, but it’s worth repeating, and all of this is just a bunch of words unless we take action. Thanks for reading this rambling blog – basically, if you’re just starting out, take every job you have seriously.
[i] As quoted in http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/10/watch-your-thoughts/ - these saying evolve over centuries and are attributed to numerous sources.
[ii] I couldn’t find this quote online, but my dad’s a pretty reliable source- he reads a lot.
[iv] Pro tip: If you want to keep these, print them out, take screenshots, save them to Microsoft OneDrive or Google Drive, and store them on removable media such as DVDs and external hard drives.
[vi] I can’t find this, but I recall reading it roughly 20 years ago in a newspaper aimed at attorneys.
Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.