by Brian Thornton
Two weeks ago I talked about my experiences on both fronts of the customer service industry: as a consumer and as a customer service rep. You can find that post here. In that post I alluded to the time when I worked for "someone who really put the 'ass' in 'assistant manager,'" a real jerk who wound up firing me.
I said then that this was a story for another time.
Well. Now is that time.
Everyone's worked for a lousy boss (or more than one!). It's kind of a rite of passage. Lord knows I've had more than my share.
This was especially true when I was working my way through college and grad school after I got out of the Navy. I worked a series of menial customer service jobs while getting my Master's and my teaching credential.
I remember thinking at the time that at least with these jobs, I could go home after work, and not just go below decks to my berthing (not like you can pull the ship over at night and just send everyone home). So even though these jobs pretty much universally sucked for one reason or another, at least I was a civilian again.
Plus, my final boss in the Navy had been a genuine piece of work. Incompetent, ignorant, and frequently mean, I thought I'd never work for his like again once I got out.
Then I went to work at a music store (look it up, millennials!). Now, this was in 1989, so it wasn't a "record store." They sold pretty much exclusively CDs and cassettes (although by this time cassettes were also on their way out).
This was in December, and I was hired as holiday overstaff help. Turned out I was pretty good at selling music. We had a bonus system which rewarded "suggested sales," where someone would come in looking to get something for a music-loving family (because, you know, Christmas) and need help finding something that family member would like.
Bonuses were handed out weekly, and the first four weeks I worked there, I won every week. This was in large part because I was (and continue to be) interested in and familiar with a wide variety of music. Not just pop and rock, but soul, jazz, funk, classical, even a fair amount of country music (hip-hop not so much. One of the other guys led in that category).
So people would come in looking to get something for their opera-loving grandmother, their country-loving uncle, their jazz-head cousin. And because they didn't share this relative's musical taste, they'd need help finding something that would be a hit as a gift.
I cleaned up. The people I worked with (with the exception of the guy who loved and knew hip-hop) didn't listen as widely as I did (and still do).
Now, the guy I worked for, I'll call him "Dick" (not his real name), was the assistant manager of the store where I worked. The manager was responsible for two different stores, and left the day-to-day management of this particular store to Dick. Dick seemed to relish his semi-independent status. He spent most of his time in the store in the back office doing paperwork, or standing half-way up the stairwell that led to said back office, feet spread, hands behind his back, staring out over the store the way I'd seen a ship's captain staring out over the deckhands scrambling to stations.
Dick and I were the same age, and had even attended the same community college, although our paths had never crossed there. I dropped out and went in the Navy, and he graduated from their music program (Dick was a drummer). I had a lot of musician friends. During the middle of my third week working at this store I happened to ask whether he knew a couple of these musician friends while we were busy stocking shelves.
You know. Just making conversation.
I didn't think much of it at the time, but when I mentioned one particular name (a sax player I'll call "Russ," because that is, in fact, his name), Dick hesitated for just a moment before saying, "Yeah, I know Russ."
A week later, I was stocking shelves in the rear of the store when one of the other sales associates approached me with a middle-aged lady in tow. Dick was in his customary spot on the stairwell, doing his Captain Ahab thing.
"Hey Brian," the other sales guy, whose name escapes me, said. "This lady is looking for the new Carpenters album."
"Karen Carpenter?" I said.
"No," the lady chimed in. "She's dead."
At that point Dick, who had been listening in, pointed in the direction of my head, made a cocking motion with his finger, and made a shooting sound. Both the other sales associate and the customer laughed.
Now, anyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy getting the last word. it doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, I savor it. I had no idea what moved Dick to "shoot me in the head," but I can admit I didn't really much like it. I mean, no one likes being called stupid. Not even stupid people.
So I said, "Yes, she is dead, Been dead since '83. But her brother just released a posthumous collection of her stuff called Karen Carpenter." And with that I reached over to the shelf, pulled down one of the new Karen Carpenter CDs I'd seen there, and handed it to the by-now very pleased middle-aged lady.
And then, because, again, I like getting in the last word, I turned back to Dick, and pointed at him and said, "So *sound of a gun going off here* yourself."
And then I went back to stocking shelves.
I was fired less than twenty minutes later.
The chain I worked for had recently adopted a "one write-up and you're gone" policy. So Dick wrote me up for "insubordination." And while I was still sitting there blinking at him, he told me, with a visible level of pleasure I had not seen from him in the month or so that I'd known him, that, because of their new policy, I was fired.
I was stunned.
So I left. And then I did what I ought to have done the week before.
I called Russ.
"Hey man," I said, "Do you know Dick (last name redacted)?"
"Dick (last name redacted)? Yeah. I know him," Russ said. "He's a thief."
Turned out that when my community college's full band had gone back east to play some music festival, they had been put up by the college hosting the festival. Russ was in the middle of getting his party on with the rest of the woodwind players when he'd seen Dick walk past down the hall carrying a brand-new, and very expensive-looking cymbal.
Russ had followed Dick down the hall, confronted him, asked where he got the cymbal, and then Dick tried to blow him off and tell him to mind his own business. Anyone who knows Russ knows that wasn't gonna work.
You see, my friend Russ is one of those guys who has a code and really lives it. It's one of the things I've admired most about him for the nearly forty years I've known him.
And Russ has no use for thieves.
Long story short, Dick put the cymbal back, none the worse for wear. The same could not be said about Dick once Russ was done with him.
After I in turn had filled Russ in on what Dick had done to make particular day memorable for me, he said, "Did he pay you?"
"No," I said. "Why?"
"State law is, they gotta pay you up if they can you. Day of."
Armed with this new knowledge, I called up Dick's direct supervisor, the manager who ostensibly ran the store where I'd worked. Turned out he'd been expecting my call.
"Sorry, Brian," he said, genuine regret in his voice. He was an older guy, all business. Not even all that interested in music. "You're good with sales, and I like you, but Dick is a good assistant, and I have to support him on this."
I said I understood, but that I wasn't calling to dispute my firing. I was calling to ask how I was going to get paid.
"Didn't Dick pay you up on your way out once he'd terminated you?"
I said he hadn't.
The manager swore. Then he apologized, and said, "If you come down to (name of store on other side of town redacted), I'll cut you a check."
I suggested going back to the store where I'd just been canned. That seemed to surprise him.
"That wouldn't bother you?" he said.
I said it wouldn't. Plus it was closer and way more convenient for me to get to that day.
He agreed. "Dick really ought to have paid up when he terminated you. I'll talk to him about that and tell him to have your check ready."
So within a half-hour I was walking back in to the store from which I had been so recently fired. Upon seeing me walk in, Dick, once again on station half-way up the stairwell to the back office, immediately motioned for me to follow him upstairs into the office.
"Got my check?" I said, all business. I'd gotten past shocked and was almost past mad. I just wanted to get paid.
"Yeah. Cute stunt, calling the boss," he said as he handed over a hand-written check drawn on the store's corporate account.
There was a problem, though. I hadn't been paid my final bonus for winning the suggested sales contest from the week before. It was fifty bucks, which was a lot of money to me back then, and I said so.
"You were fired. So you don't get that bonus."
"Who does, then?"
"The person with the second-highest total for last week."
"Let me guess," I said, doing everything in my power to keep a straight face. "That person is you."
Dick actually had the good grace to turn red at that, but he didn't say anything.
I sighed, pocketed the check, and said over my shoulder as I walked out, "Wow, Russ was right about you, Dick. You are a thief."
I'd like to say that getting that sort of last word like that was worth losing that extra fifty bucks. But I'm objective enough now to say it wasn't. That money would have gone a long way for me back then.
Ironically (or, if you prefer, karmically), Dick got himself fired not long after that. I heard a whole bunch of speculation as to why.
In the meantime I got my bachelor's degree and went to another local university in pursuit of my Master's. And I saw Dick on campus a lot there. He'd gotten divorced, grown his hair, and was playing in a reggae band while majoring in music.
Again, this was all stuff I heard. Mostly from Russ, who was wired in to the local musician scene (and still is). As for Dick, he and I passed each other on campus frequently. Never said another word to each other.
In retrospect, I hope the guy's mellowed with age. I have no idea what he's up to now. And I hope he did something nice for someone else with that fifty bucks he stole from me.
And yeah, I'm not perfect now and I certainly wasn't then. I did get cute trying to needle him back. But it was pretty harmless, and in no way "insubordinate." Then again, in retrospect I am pretty sure my being flip with him was just a pretext.
The point? I try to remember what it was like to work for someone like that. And to never act that way myself. I supervise a lot of people in my day gig. None of them deserve to be treated like that.
No one does.
And how about you? Who was your worst boss ever, and how did the experience of working for them affect you? Feel free to weigh in in the comments section.
See you in two weeks!