Q: I am several years from retirement age, so I needed a part-time job for extra money. I was happy to be hired at a retail clothing chain that offered new employees a three-day training program. Once I saw that most new hires were college students or new graduates, I was grateful to have been hired, as it showed me the store didn't engage in age discrimination. Sales people were placed on the floor, and the training was replaced with daily morning meetings. These meetings felt as if I had, without warning, stepped into the military.
Employees were ordered — yes, ordered — to line up in two lines facing each other. If a person was not exactly at the line, toes touching, he or she was loudly corrected. We were given six phrases to use when addressing customers, and the phrases were to be the exact words required by management. Employees could not vary the wording. The worst part was the leader shouted out the phrase, and the two lines of employees had to shout it back. We also received a list of rules, such as "Do not talk to your co-workers." Many employees ignored this rule, but some were scared to go against it. The manager told each person his or her sales numbers and pointed out if it was short the quota. We were to sell around seven items for each transaction we rung up. The environment felt heavy and oppressive, and most of the full-time managers showed no emotion on their faces. I had never seen nor experienced such a culture, and I dreaded going into work more and more. That atmosphere felt so depressing that I had to quit. I have never been in the military, but even military personnel are allowed to socialize with others. I don't know how I could have discovered what the atmosphere was like ahead of time, but there were other jobs I could have taken instead of this one, had I known in advance. How does one get someone to be honest and openly share facts about an employer to save a person from wasting time, as I did?
A: It sounds like a shocking but interesting insider experience of a corporate culture that clearly does not value or recognize the human condition. The military has solid reasons for training its members to be respectful and act as a team. Because lives may be at stake at any given time, it's necessary to know precise procedures, together with obedience and uniformity.
Militaristic training, together with policies and procedures that restrict natural human behavior, seem far too severe — and certainly unnecessary — for a retail store, regardless of its size. The company is successful, though, in sending its message that profits are its only goal. The culture you describe reeks of a communist approach used in countries under that type of regimes.
You were wise to quit once you felt the negative atmosphere was affecting your mood, personality and overall ability to be happy and free. Certain types of management and managers do not understand — or perhaps do not care — about the damage done to employees when they are in a restricted environment, as if imprisoned by business practices that are against their value system. Your life experience enabled you to foresee the ultimate damage to your image had you stayed at such a company. Unfortunately, students, the typical part-time retail chain employees, often do not have the financial freedom to quit, regardless of how miserable they are. If you decide to apply for other retail jobs, go into the stores as a shopper to observe the satisfaction level of the sales people. Talk to the sales people about working for the company. The odds are you will not find a repeat of such a restrictive environment. But you may experience age discrimination in the hiring process if you do not fit the mold of personnel you see. Apply anyway.
Email your workplace issues and experiences to [email protected] For more information about career and life coach Lindsey Novak, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com, and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/at-work-lindsey-novak.