Sunday, September 10, 2006

Café Stories: #1. How NOT to Land a Job with an Utterly Desperate Employer

I’ve owned a restaurant for 71 days. An indescribable roller-coaster ride. If you had a couple of spare hours, and I could reconstitute the trillion brain cells I’ve shorted out in the process, I’d endeavor to tell you about it. But as things begin to settle into a routine, and I regain some of my equilibrium, stories do float to the surface. Stories that my writer’s heart can’t not share, when conscious time permits…

As I knew would happen, the crew I inherited from the previous regime has begun to exit, one by one. Since returning triumphant from our record performance at the Scandinavian Festival, I have lost three employees. One of them actually gave notice. The other two…not so much. Let’s see…one left a message on the café’s voicemail at midnight, saying he wouldn’t be coming in the next day because he quit. And the most recent—a "woman" of thirty-four whom one would assume should know better—told me on Thursday that Friday would be her last day. Annoying, frustrating, and inconvenient…but not unanticipated. What can I do but roll with the punches?

What has been unanticipated, however, are the dynamics of running a small business in a small town. And the incredibly tiny labor pool available into which to tap to supplement my dwindling crew. Three weeks ago, I interviewed and "hired" four…two of whom actually reported for their first day of work. And one of those has, in the interim, acquired two more part-time jobs, making her availability to me limited and unreliable.

Which is how it came to pass that on Thursday, in the aftermath of Ms. X apprising me of her one-day notice, I sat down with the telephone and the pathetic pile of applications I had stockpiled through the auspices of two newspaper ads and a sign in the window. From a field of six acceptable applications, I managed to wangle three interviews. Since losing one of my three remaining cooks (Mr. Midnight Voicemail), I have been working seventy hours a week. (The café is only open 74 hours a week, or I’m sure that total would be higher…) On Saturdays, we close at 3; it is one of the few times I can conduct job interviews while I’m still at least partially cognizant. So, today was designated "Half-conscious Interview Day."

Interview Number One: Applicant arrives fifteen minutes early. Applicant speaks English. Applicant is dressed (relatively) conservatively. Has thought to insert an almost invisible "plug" in her pierced lip. Applicant is hired on the spot. Shake hands. See ya on Wednesday.

I report back to my two counter girls that I have hired this applicant. Joke with them that my interview questions are, "Are you breathing? Do you have a pulse?" They laugh. Not all that amusing, really. Too true to be funny…

Interview Number Two. Applicant is breathing. Has a pulse. She, too, is hired on the spot.

In the back of my mind, I am wondering if I have become an "employee whore." If I am so desperate for help that I will hire anyone. To be fair, I did draw the line at the homeless man who submitted a barely legible application. Although I’m not entirely convinced that I wouldn’t have set up an interview with him had he supplied an address or a phone number…

And then along comes Interview Number Three.

She is dressed…not all that objectionably. A strange coral—colored matching top and capris. With a rather deep décolletage, about which she is obviously not the least self-conscious. I’m willing to ignore the tendency for my focus to shift from her cleavage to the huge dark circles under her eyes to her unkempt, peroxided hair. When she opens her mouth to speak, I cringe inwardly…her voice has that sort of ignorant, quasi-southern, not quite cowboy cadence cultivated to sound optimally redneck. Acknowledging that I have a tendency to be somewhat of a dialect snob, and prompted by the urgency of my present need, I club my aging hippie soul to insensibility, and wade into the interview with what I hope is an open mind.

Unfortunately, having dealt with the sound of her voice, I now have to digest what she is actually saying. And I can’t really believe she is regaling me with stories about the messy divorce she is currently in the middle of. And that her soon-to-be-ex is sleeping with her ex-roommate. And that the reason she needs the job is that she needs to move out of "his" house and get her own apartment. She and her two kids, of whom she is about to become a single mom. Out of the corner of her mouth she wisecracks, "wouldn’t it be funny if you were also interviewing my husband’s new girlfriend for this job?"

The flags appearing before my eyes are getting redder and redder, but I am so desperate, I decide to ask her about her customer service experience. The first story that pops into her mind, to demonstrate her ability "to handle all types of customers" is about the time at the Winn Dixie when she chased a "colored man" out the front door of the store, steaks flying out of his baggy shirt and pants…but by golly, she stopped ‘im, and got that meat back. And got her tires slashed by his girlfriend for her trouble.

I look at my watch. Surely this interrogation has gone on for hours. It’s 4:10. We have been "interviewing" for an interminable ten minutes. (And I have already learned so very much about her…!) My depleted brain is chugging on its last fumes, but I am desperately looking for a way out of this conversation. She has been filling out applications for months, she tells me. She is mystified as to why she can’t find a job. I am not. Mystified.

Eventually, it occurs to me that I can tell her I’m going to be interviewing a few more people, and then making calls for second interviews in a week or so. This will keep me from having to tell her to her face that I can’t possibly hire her (which I’m convinced I could not do without somehow telegraphing what a horrifying prospect she is…) In the blurry recesses of my exhausted mind, I’m already planning how I can "lose" her application and just never bother to call her back. Not a week from now, or any other time. I’m sorry I can’t be more mature, more professional, more considerate of the applicant’s feelings. But I have only just enough presence of mind to look out for my own survival. And this girl might as well have come into the interview with "Do not hire me under any circumstances" tattooed on her forehead.

So, on the one hand, I am bummed. I really, really, really need the help. But, on the other hand, I’m gratified to learn that desperation has not blown my standards completely out of the water.

Just another day on the roller coaster…


  1. Call it protection. She might have friends who are more qualified and who might actually be good customer service people. Just don't burn your bridges.


  2. That quaint little custom of giving two weeks' notice prior to leaving a job seems to have fallen by the wayside.  It never ceases to amaze me how often people choose to simply not show up for work with no regard whatsoever to their employer and fellow employees.  The work ethic has certainly changed and not for the better!

  3. You know, for a moment I thought you might hire her and then in the ensuing months we's hear how she is Employee of the Decade!  

  4. It sounds to me like she learned her definition of appropriate interview conversation from Jerry Springer or Dr. Phil.  I caught a few seconds of the latter the other night and I could not BELIEVE what those people were saying on television.

  5. Me again, I can so "see" this gal. What a horror. LOL


  6. I'll come work for you AND I'll cover my girls.



  7. Ah yes, the joys of being the boss. Better you than me!

  8. Shoot!  Thought you'd hire her and we'd have weekly updates on her divorce story!  Not nice, I know.

  9. I could use a job..... not near you darn it.
    thanks for the laugh!

  10. Hey, I know how to wait tables, work a cash register, do food prep, and I can clean with the best of them.  However, the commute is a real nightmare.  Good luck.  I semi-seriously recommend stealing from your competition.  Go to restaurants you like for an appetizer and a drink, observe the staff, engage in competition and sell your place like crazy.  You know the turnover in restaurants.  Working conditions and humane management make a world of difference to employees.

  11. She sounds like a sit-com character.  There was a moment that I thought you'd say you'd hired her.  She may have made for good blogging material, but she sounds like she'd be a nightmare of an employee.

  12. Hey Lisa ... thanks for the laugh at your expense ... lol.   Seriously, it sounds as though you are one brave gal for taking all this on.  I don't think I could manage it.  Wait ... I KNOW I couldn't. And you still have time to document all this in here. I'm impressed, my friend.  You hang in there. This has all the makings of a great book.  Tina

  13. Umm...she sounds like one of my family members. We have that hillbilly accent...

    love, Kas