Monday, June 18, 2007

Dealing With Crap

Owning a small business has been an ongoing lesson in dealing with crap. Manners and work ethics being what they are in 21st century America, I have had to seriously adjust my crap tolerance level. Time was, I wouldn’t even consider putting up with the kind of bullshit attitudes to which today’s young people subscribe; NO employer would. Fifteen years ago, I used to tell potential employees during their initial interviews that the first two things I required of my staff was that they show up and wear the uniform. We would laugh…they would get it. These days, even those tiny acts of responsibility/courtesy are beyond the ken of most job candidates.

I am NOT a micro-manager. Many years ago, I developed the theory that my job as a manager was to give my people the tools they needed to do the job—the training, the equipment, the authority—and then let them do it. I had a lot of success with that formula in the past. But it just doesn’t seem valid anymore. First and foremost, an employee needs to show up, and be willing to accept training. If I do manage to get ones that show up, they aren’t too keen on being told what to do. How do they expect to learn the job? Osmosis?

I have put up with behavior from employees that I never would have expected, much less tolerated, in the past. A couple weeks before she finally quit, my late flaky cook crossed a major line. One night, we were slammed at dinner and ran out of everything. I left a message on the prep board for the opening cook (who just happened to be the one responsible for creating the things we ran out of) that I was "not happy." Flaky cook stormed around the kitchen for two hours the next morning; when I came in at 9:00 and asked her how she was, she replied, "How dare you criticize me where other employees can see?" As if I had dressed her down in front of the entire crew in the middle of a shift.

My first thought was to preserve the peace and smooth ruffled feathers. I told her, "Well, dear, there’s only one other employee here, and she is a counter girl who has no interest in, and has probably not looked at, the prep board." And then I got to thinking about what she had said to me. How dare I criticize her? How DARE I? I DARE because I OWN THIS RESTAURANT. I have every right to point out an unacceptable performance, and I’m sick to death of tap-dancingaround prima donna employees. It was then that I realized Flaky Cook’s days were numbered. Unfortunately, I also realized that I had to bite my tongue and let this incident slide, because I was all too aware of how difficult it would be to replace her mediocre, unreliable, insubordinate ass.

Around about the middle of this past week, two weeks post Flaky Cook’s ignominious exit, I began to second-guess myself. Had I somehow tipped my hand too soon? Certainly I hadn’t told her that her days were numbered, but one way or another, she anticipated my intentions; and decided she was going to beat me to the punch. After working four consecutive open-to-closes, I started to wonder whether I wouldn’t have been better off letting the cafĂ© revolve around the dramas and moods of Ms. Flaky Cook. In the interest of self-preservation, if nothing else. The realization was dawning that there was a vast difference between being capable of being the only real cook in the restaurant, and actually being the only real cook. And, of course, with us being short a real cook plus one cook-in-training, it has been busier than hell. Customers can be counted upon to smell blood in the water…


Which brings me full circle to the crap-tolerance issue. I am the kind of person who has always had high standards. High personal standards, and high standards for the quality of work I will accept from the people who work for me. I’m in no way a perfectionist…and I always believed that my expectations, while high, were no more than a bit of a stretch for an even moderately decent employee. But it’s become obvious that what could be considered acceptably high standards fifteen years ago, are the impossible dream in the twenty-first century workplace. I still haven’t figured out how to get people who will just show up and wear the uniform, much less fulfill any of my loftier ideals—like being able to perform the most basic functions of the job without being asked over and over and over again.

It bugs me no end that I am going to have to lower my personal standards in order to keep enough people on the payroll to run this restaurant. There are times I wish to god I could run it by myself…and yet, I know that satisfying feeling of having a crew that has really clicked. I’ve had it before, and up until now, I’ve naively assumed I would have it again. But with each passing day and each incident of unbelievable crap I have to let slide just to keep a staff, it becomes more obvious that "having it again" is not going to happen. Slowly, my goal has shifted from having a good, cooperative, well-trained staff, to having bodies to plug into positions.

My dilemma now is, where is the bottom? What is the absolute minimum I will require of an employee? Where is the line of discipline that they absolutely may not cross? I’ll have to turn my entire way of looking at this issue completely upside down. I’ve tended to look up—to the goal of what traits my ideal employee would have. Now, I have to look down—to the minimum I will accept. Instead of "how good can they be" it will be a matter of "how bad can’t they be."

I’ve never had to do that before. And I just don’t feel good about having to do it now. Somehow, it seems so defeatist, so faithless, to give up on the younger generation this way. But it is what it is, I guess. And unless I can figure out how to run this restaurant entirely by myself (which would involve splitting into at least six different "me’s") I’m going to have to get with the program.


  1. Yes, handling difficult employees can be draining and so frustrating.  We are business owners also and just had my neice's boyfriend helping on a job with a crew of three others.  He kept standing there leaning on the equipment watching everyone else work.  This young man is going into our military for goodness' sakes.  Very frustrating indeed.  I can totally relate.  We also had a cleaning company and would employ up to 12 or more employees at one time during that era... boy oh boy it was all I could do to drive around sending people back in to fix their mistakes.  I agree, finding good help is really hard.  I felt more like a glorified babysitter, constant hand holding and consolation and going back over the rules.  I didn't micro manage either, but seemed like I had to hire constantly.  I did all sorts of recruiting to keep the flow of possible staff coming.  Eventually we landed some good people but the good ones don't stay long either.  Hugs,

  2. Oh how I can relate!  At least you can FIRE them!  In state service I was absolutely STUCK with people who couldn't, wouldn't, didn't have to do their basic job and how dare you tell them that you expected them to do what their job description said!!  They had the most powerful union in California backing them up and increasing their wages more than mine as a manager!  It was HELL!  There really is such a difference in work ethics in the younger people now.  I would much rather have an older person working for me, as at least they'll show up and do the job.  Gosh Lisa, I don't envy you for a second........but I do have a friend here in town who runs a successful small restaurant (for 20 plus years) in our small town and I bet she'd love to talk with you and give you some ideas.  She's known to be a tough cookie to work for too!  Let me know if you'd like to talk with her and I will arrange it for you!  Hugs, Lisa

  3. I started to write another of my long-winded comments. After the third paragraph, I realized I needed to just stop and tell you how much I feel your pain and disappointment. I really haven't anything to offer. The new worker is simply lazy, greedy and motivated only by ready access to sex, drugs and TV. Sorry, that's the long and short of it and it absolutely sucks to be a manager or employer these days.

    I hope you find the people you need to stay the course, but I fear it is impossible. Maybe it is just negative old me, but the more I think about it, the more I think it is time to cut your losses, get out and retain whatever little bit of sanity you still have lurking in the back of your mind. Get back to seasonal sandwiches at special events and call life good again...

  4. Mom has had younger passersby compliment her on the yard and then ask 'why are you doing the work?" "Becuase I don't want to pay someone to do half a job and then have to fix it and finish it myself." They don't know how to work because they've never had to.

    And we've bought into the "somebody else can make it for us" instead of doing it ourselves.

    I remember an article in TV Guide years ago. It was by an English teacher who was almost at his wits end trying to get his high school students to do their homework. "I couldn't do it, Dynasty was on." So on, and so on, and so on. Now these kids are parents and we're starting to come up against THEIR kids. God/dess save us all.


  5. NEVER lower your standards...they will lower theirs too.




    I managed those types of kids for twenty years, keep giving them YOUR rules or the highway my love.

  6. I wish I could offer some hope here, but so much of my teaching experience has involved kids saying, "I couldn't do the assignment because I go to a wedding, to meet my sister at the airport, to watch the basketball game, to sit on the bench during the soccer game, to take the dog to the vet, to study for my math test...".  All totally supported by parents.

  7. Your essay Lisa, is just what the entire country needs to read -- you see, while not saying it right out loud -- you are passing on the message that all parents (and children) need to learn.  Kids need responsibilities and they need to be told in clear, firm language when they are not living up to those responsibilities.  

    Grrrrrrrr.  It's frustrating to think that an entire generation of kids have 'no clue' and will be ruling the country in years to come.  

    I feel your frustration and your pain.