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07 July 2014

Reeducating a Former Evil Manager or Lessons That I Learned as a Manager (A Series of Essays) Part 1: “Are You Acting Like an Elitist Middle Class Prick?”

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A few months ago, I accompanied a friend to a department store because he wanted to buy a sofa. We found an attractive blue sofa on sale but my friend wanted a different color. We manage to get the attention of one saleslady who just happened to be rushing pass us. We asked her if only the blue sofa was on sale. The saleslady was slightly startled, but she politely stopped. She listened attentively but she was clearly anxious, perhaps she was rushing to entertain another customer before we stopped her. She then told us that she did not know if only the blue sofa was on sale but she would ask, and told us to wait. Afterwards, I scanned the department store and realized that the place was understaffed. On top of that, I saw many impatient and annoyed customers standing with their arms akimbo, or folded on their chests, clearly unsatisfied. As we wait for the saleslady to return, my friend inspected some furniture while I secretly observed a female customer complaining loudly to the cashier and another salesclerk at the counter. After some time, the customer grabbed her plastic bag and left angrily.  Both the cashier and the clerk looked humiliated but they just continued serving other customers, a few of them also looked annoyed, as if to signify that they agreed with the female customer who just stormed out.

It suddenly hit me. I was that woman before.

Before I became a manager, and even during my first three years managing a company, I did not have patience for employees who give poor service. When I received unsatisfactory service from any establishment, I confidently complained to the person at the counter, the waiter, the salesperson or anybody who was tasked to entertain customers at ground level. I spoke with an authoritative voice and complained. I honestly believed that I was an empowered consumer, demanding proper service equivalent to the amount of money that I paid.  If an employer could not give me a justifiable explanation, I would raise my voice until he or she budged or called the manager.

However, all that changed when I started looking at my co-workers as people not just my subordinates. Being tasked to negotiate for their pay increase, I realized that some entrepreneurs think differently. Certainly, most of us put businesspeople on a pedestal. They belong to an elite class of people, the Steve Jobs, the Henry Sys, the Manny Pangilinans, the Lucio Tans, the Jaime Zobel de Ayalas. These entrepreneurs are willing to take big risks. Now, I think this is “elitist” thinking. Ordinary underpaid employees also take risks. They risk their lives, their future, and the future of their children by working hard and staying in a company that does not compensate them sufficiently so they could live decent lives while big CEOs buy yachts, countless luxury items, and some even bribe government officials and exploit the environment. But ordinary workers cannot quit because they know, the situation will still be the same in other companies. Definitely, the risks that ordinary employees take cannot be monetarily quantified the same way we quantify sales; therefore, the accepted assumption is risks that involve money are the only “true risks.”

Every now and then, we read about success stories of young and old entrepreneurs. “Businessman A” got his first million at the age of 25 and so on. This used to impress me. Now, I realized that behind many financially successful entrepreneur are many underpaid hardworking employees. Ironically, we do not see those underpaid workers even though "we are they." We only see the attractive tycoons, grown figuratively fat and wearing fancy attire on the covers of business magazines.  They are the veil of exploitation.

If we remove the veil, we may become aware that typical entrepreneurs singularly aim for personal profit, the bigger the better. Even more ludicrous, when billionaires reach old age and realize that they cannot take their money to the grave, they start giving their wealth away as if it were a grand gesture of "divine philanthropy." My view is a bit cynical. Perhaps this gesture of magnanimity in the Nietzsche-an way is a last resort for forgiveness or buying your way to heaven. If these billionaires are atheists, they may be simply safeguarding their legacy so we cannot question that they are part of the reason why the poor existed in the first place. 

Bottom line, even if some of these rich businesspeople mean well, they still believe that raising the salaries of ordinary employees is counterproductive. I am referring to employees on the ground level, not the mid to high-level management. These so-called ordinary employees are dispensable. They are regarded as mere workers; they are not the product; they are not the company, even though company rhetoric says otherwise. “You are the company” is just an empty slogan in my experience and observation.

Unfortunately, ordinary employees bear much of the brunt of customers’ complaints. High-level managers, especially business owners, use low-level employees as human shields, to put it bluntly.

In reality, if you lambaste an ordinary clerk for his company’s substandard service or product, you are reprimanding the wrong person. You are punishing the innocent. In fact, you are creating an enemy with every harsh word shooting from your mouth like a bullet. To be really candid about this, you are acting like an “elitist middle class prick (or bitch).” Pardon my French.

Unquestionably, some employees deserve reprimand from customers, especially if the fault entirely falls on the employee; however, it is a different matter all together if your complaint is about the company product or rules. 

Ordinary employees are regarded as foot soldiers. They are in the front line in the battle between irate customers and dubious company owners, and these foot soldiers are mostly underpaid.  Most of them are probably paid just slightly above minimum wage, and worse, they are contractual employees. They might not even know if they will still have a job in a month or two.  They are most likely overworked and doing tasks outside their job descriptions. 

Without a doubt, some people may say, “If you focus on the money first, then you will never get ahead. Do the work first, and your good work will bring in the money.”  Yes, this is still true, and I used to say this to my co-workers. But I have also accepted that some workers have worked hard for a company for a long time, but they never get a raise, if they do, the amount is inconsequential. Eventually, they will become demoralized and unmotivated, especially if they cannot afford to quit.  Why would they kill themselves for a company that treats them as cattle rather than human beings? If they perform poorly, but still manage to keep their jobs, why make the extra effort? You may ask, "what about personal fulfillment or plain old good work ethic?" Try listening to angry customers for a day while Henry Sy counts his millions, then try to squeeze personal fulfillment between every harsh word.  Personally, your good work ethic should also be co-terminus with your contract. In the end, the company that exploits its employees will suffer. Why should employees take the complaints of customers seriously? Is it not enough that they are the capitalist's slave being publicly humiliated?

Do you think any underpaid employee would bend over backwards to assist a customer when the employee knows he or she does not have the power to give what the customer wants? However, while he is being attacked, the bosses are sitting comfortably and safe.

I once witnessed a customer berate a customer service employee. The customer kept complaining about the company’s slow internet speed. The employee calmly listened to the customer’s litany of grievances. I thought to myself, “Shut the fuck up! Prick. Even if you berate this employee for twelve hours, he does not have the power and the skills to fix your internet speed.  Why don’t you go to the house of the owner of the company and complain to him. He is about to buy a billion dollar network. He can afford to solve your problems. You are just attacking the human shield; stab the one behind the shield.”

Luckily, these days, we have the internet to air our complaints. We can use Facebook, Twitter or similar venues. Instead of airing our grievances to ordinary employees, we can write open letters to company bosses. Flood their websites or Facebook pages with countless complaints. Let us storm the “Cyber Bastilles” of big businesses. Our computers and mobile phones will be our pitchforks.

Perhaps instead of airing our complaints to these hardworking underpaid employees, we should win them over. As in wars, get them to fight for our side. 

I once did an experiment in a restaurant. The place was understaffed even though it was supposed to be posh, and the dishes ridiculously pricey.  When a waitress finally approached me after I waited for a long time, instead of acting like a prick, I told her, 

“You have many customers tonight. You must be tired and stressed.” 
The waitress replied, “Yes sir, we're multiple tasks, double duties.” (Translated from Filipino).  
I replied, “Your boss should hire more people because this place is packed. Are you even paid enough? They should pay you more.” 
The waitress just shyly smiled. 
I asked her, “What’s the easiest and fastest thing to prepare on the menu so you guys do not have to work hard.” 
She said, “Sir, you can order what you want.” 
I said, “No, I’ll just order something easy to prepare and serve.” 

She then suggested the pasta. True enough, after just ten minutes, I was served. After I ate, I stayed longer to wait for my friend. When he arrived, most of the customers were gone. I noticed that the waitress was more attentive to us, and even gave my friend bigger servings. My friend and I lost track of time, and did not notice that it was already closing time, but the waitress said that we could still stay a bit longer, they were not leaving yet. When we did finally leave, the waitress and another waiter waved goodbye to us. Eventually, we returned to the restaurant because we love their coffee, and the waiters and waitresses were more attentive to us. Imagine if I had acted like a prick, berated the waitress for being too slow, and demanded special attention.

However, I still believe she is underpaid, but perhaps she cannot afford to quit. Most likely, she is the breadwinner of her family.

I still do have some complaints about the place but if I do get pissed, I will air my grievances to the right person, the owners of the company. Whoever they may be, they are the ones getting rich, not the overworked underpaid employees.

In your case, have you recently yelled at an underpaid employee? How did you feel about it? Most importantly, do you want to know what these underpaid employees say about you during their free time? I heard most of them; let me put it this way, what you do not know will not hurt you.

Coming Soon, Part 2

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