If there’s one thing I’m sure of in this world, it is that I can form an immediate connection to any person who’s ever worked in customer service or retail.
When people like us happen to cross paths and engage in conversation, we are overcome with a warm, almost nurturing sensation from the acceptance to air our grievances to someone who will wholly understand every aspect of what we’re articulating.
Listening to another speak out the honest thoughts and horrors that we know all too well is a validation unlike any other. This therapeutic feeling is likely because we are the only ones who can relate to the insidious spirit crush of widespread underappreciation for the work we do.
We know that only within each other can we find the value we deserve.
The process of reflecting back on my own experiences within the workforce is gloomy and dismal, especially when it’s not in the form of a vent session with my friends over drinks and greasy appetizers.
I often try to pretend that most of these memories are nightmares, but to do that would deny how drastic of an impact each has had on me, both physically and psychologically.
I’m not sure if I ever believed in a dream job unless heiress or lottery winner qualifies.
Considering all I now know about work culture in America, I can confidently say that a world in which I dream of working sounds like my personal hell.
The truth is that my definition of the word “work” has dramatically shifted with every single person, role, and obstacle I’ve faced out there. Any hope I had for finding joy in a particular occupation has dwindled down to almost nothing.
However, I do believe there is a slight possibility that my hope can be mended. I have to believe this for the sake of my sanity.
I remember how excited I was when I got the call. I’d never been on the receiving end of a call like this before. One minute, I was just a kid, running around with my friends outside. After the call, I was a grown-up.
I got the job! Not just the job, but my first job. I remember dreaming about using my new debit card because that’s a thing that professional adults do when they earn money.
Leading me into the wonderful world of the workforce was a company that was infamous for its musky cologne intoxicated air, headache-inducingly dim lighting, and pornographic photos of beachy-haired white women decorating the walls.
I happily earned seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour folding and refolding piles of the thinnest cotton t-shirts while smiling at every customer that entered through the imitation seaside shack awning.
At 17, I didn’t care to consider if there was an opportunity for growth or promotion, which there genuinely wasn’t. I was satisfied with my discount of 50% off the latest styles. Especially since, as my position title was actually “model”, I was required to purchase and wear specific items.
Model. There was not much to that role. My training and abilities were never the focal points. The focus was always on how I appeared or how good I was at flirting; two things that weren’t all that important to me until I started working there.
I learned some valuable lessons during my time with this company. I learned that being forced to look into distorted mirrors for 4–8 hours a day can have a deep impact on my psyche and self-esteem.
I learned how to compare my hair body and face to that of other women around me. Because my beautiful face, blonde hair, white skin, and ability to proudly display a brand across my chest are all characteristics that got me this job.
Beauty. Sex appeal. It’s what all the (17-year-old) females I worked with were glorified for, as the hottest girls are chosen to actually model for the company “lookbook.”
It seemed to be the only thing my male co-workers talk about. Who is the prettiest? Who has the sexiest body?
And who are we if we’re not pretty enough to be harassed at work by customers and co-workers alike?
I formed many friendships here. Some superficial, and some surprisingly lasting. Although I never felt like I belonged in this toxic environment steeped in patriarchal vanity, I tried with all of my might.
Square peg, round hole. The more I tried, the more pain it caused me.
After a while, I grew tired of staying at the cashier level having to complete the same mind-numbing tasks day in and day out. My parents told me it was just the wrong job and that I could find something better if I sought out the right opportunity.
Deciding I wanted more responsibility so that I could take pride in what I do, I applied to work as a keyholder at one of the most popular and affordable shoe stores of the early 2000s.
The satisfyingly pungent aroma of plastic-y faux leather hit me like a wall the morning I walked in for my interview. I met with the store manager and then spoke to the district manager over the phone for a follow-up discussion.
She told me I did very well and would be a perfect fit! She promised promotional opportunities as well as ongoing sales training.
I remember how rewarding of a self-esteem boost it was to be recognized for my potential instead of my physical attributes.
The Keyholder was a part-time position. However, I found my hours gradually increase week by week as staffing became a consistent issue within our store. We continued to go through managers and keyholders faster than I could count.
Eventually, my district manager began expecting me to manage the entire store on my own for 8–10 hours a day.
The odd thing is, she never directly communicated her expectations until I failed them. This created anxiety for me as I did my best to fulfill the duties of my, now unclear, job description.
As time went on, more demands surreptitiously crept onto my to-do list. At first, I remember thinking This is just how it is, for now. Things will get better soon. I accepted the conditions and did the very best I could.
It was as if some force was compelling me to bend over backward for this company without so much as a question or afterthought.
Once I realized the turn-over problem was most likely never-ending, I applied and interviewed several times for the Assistant Manager position. Interestingly enough, after the last Assistant Manager had left, my DM made the decision to permanently close this position.
She already had me, and she knew I would continue to complete everything anyway. Because I’d already been doing that for months without a complaint. Because I didn’t know I had the choice not to.
Knowing that my tireless efforts would get me nowhere with this company, I suffered an unbending lack of motivation. It became difficult to come up with reasons as to why I should even try at all for a manager who doesn’t appreciate all I’d put myself through.
I assumed that the only way for my work experience to improve would be if I became a manager myself. Since that definitely wasn’t going to happen at the shoe store, I began another search for a better opportunity.
It was 2015, and all over Facebook, I saw my friends, family, and mostly my friends’ moms selling different products online.
I recalled back to a few memories I had of attending various parties where there was always one lady at the front, rousing the crowd of women as if they were an audience at an infomercial.
Guests would line up and give the loud lady money at the end. What a concept!
After thorough research, I decided to give direct sales a shot. I signed up to sell lipstick for a company that at the time was trumpeted as a top-selling skincare brand in North America.
The director I signed under was of course the seemingly most garish picture of feminine affluence you could imagine. She promised freedom, flexibility, and free cars!
As she lavishly motioned over to her ballerina pink Cadillac she explained that, as an entrepreneur, my business was whatever I decided to make it. If I put in the work, I’ll get results.
It was such a simple idea, yet the presentation made me feel as if she was my fairy godmother casting a magical spell to make all my dreams come true.
This is when I started to believe in the possibility of a dream job. Work hadn’t been working for me before because I hadn’t found my passion. What could be more fulfilling than “helping women to feel beautiful every day”?
Besides, the sparkling pink fairy told me that I could decide what I would be paid and when I wanted a promotion. And she would never lie to me.
That twenty-year-old naivete didn’t bode well for me. My director really sold me on the fact that I had something special, and I was bound to be a star.
After years of feeling undervalued at work, my ears perked up at the sound of her exploding magenta love-bomb as we danced in the glitter raining down on us.
I was the top seller at almost all of the meetings because I followed every single one of the Steps to Success the company guaranteed were fool-proof.
I never made a profit. The business expenses cost much more than I ever made at a skincare “consultation.”
How was I losing money? Was I not working hard enough?
It’s six years later, and I don’t have a free car. I am out nearly $3000. I often think about how I could really use $3000 right now. At any moment.
But don’t worry, I have plenty of miscellaneous unsold lipsticks floating around.
After I quit the “beauty biz”, I was desperate for money. I decided to apply for a customer service representative position at a down-to-earth startup. Health care was not a field I was familiar with, but customer service is universal.
I was confident in my teachability under the right leadership. The candidly casual management style they advertised sounded foreign to me, and I was eager to experience this healthy environment.
At the time, work culture was starting to change for the world. This modern version of work was more relaxed, employee-centered, and accepting of imperfection.
The trending philosophy was that any mistake is a learning experience. I agreed.
I don’t remember how long I was there before this once humble startup pulled a complete 360. The changes whizzed by at the speed of light without notice, and we were all expected to adapt or get punished.
I witnessed panic trickle down the entire staff. None of us were prepared for the metrics or micromanaging. They held no space for error or personal problems, or bathroom breaks longer than five minutes, god forbid.
I began to dread coming in to work. I was in a constant state of anxiety about if what I was doing at each given moment was right or wrong.
Could I be more productive? I probably shouldn’t fill my water bottle right now. What if I’m on my period and need to take a long bathroom break? These thoughts were constant with every little move I made.
Was that ok? Is my manager going to pull me aside?
A familiar force began to take over my nervous system, and it wouldn’t allow me to take care of my physical needs. I simply pushed everything down, as I did at the shoe store.
In the end, all of the time and energy I put into working despite my inner calamity didn’t matter.
I had broken policy by daring to suffer health issues and family emergencies, and they’d had several conversations with me about them.
I should’ve known that the sick time I was allotted was only hypothetical. This was the first time I was ever fired.
As the newly hired head of HR told me she was “disappointed it had to come to this”, my immediate manager was packing up my desk in front of all of my peers.
I held back tears, but I wasn’t exactly sad.
I remember the feeling of liberation that washed over me as I walked out the door, cleansing me of any stresses or responsibilities. Holding a rather cumbersome box of my personal belongings, I felt nimbler than ever.
The September breeze whipped alongside my jaunty sigh of relief. For a moment, I was completely free.
I learned that getting fired isn’t as frightening as I imagined it’d be. This supposed mark on my record never stopped me from getting another job.
I decided I missed fashion and wanted to go back to retail. Deep down, I held on to the belief that it could be possible to enjoy work, as long as I found a good manager.
There were several enjoyable moments I remembered from my previous job when I was under good leadership. Management makes the experience, is what I thought to myself.
I supposed I had it all figured out by now, so my misfortune was bound to be over.
I was working for a well-known high fashion luxury brand at an outlet mall. After all the shoe store and lipstick and startup drama that eroded my self-belief, I finally made it up to the well-deserved title of Assistant Manager.
Things were looking up…. until reality had to go and do its thing.
My first experience of narcissistic emotional abuse was surprisingly not a romantic relationship nor a family member. It was from my manager.
Having been manipulated before, I saw the red flags. I thought that since this was a manager and not an emotional relationship, I could just deal with her abusive behavior, keep my head down and collect a weekly paycheck. Harmless, right?
Wrong. Abuse is abuse.
I was lucky enough to never experience the brunt of her narcissistic rage fits, which were reserved for my two co-managers. But nonviolent psychological manipulation is nothing to shrug at.
Even though I thought I’d had a handle on protecting my emotions, I failed to realize that my mental health was on a downward spiral.
She tried to pit us all against one another. She used the schedule as a weapon to punish us when she failed. She attempted to get each of us fired several times, claiming we were conspiring against her and that she was the real victim. She successfully turned our district manager(s) against us.
I felt depleted, used and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. Even so, it took me about a full year to allow myself to consider the possibility that this experience was not just a “bad job,” but one that traumatized me and my co-workers.
I knew that my tendency to minimize what had happened was because I’d been gaslit, but was this woman the only guilty party?
I started to wonder if work, in general, was a concept that gaslit me into thinking that I am a robot. As if my emotions and physical well-being were things that vanished as soon as I clocked in.
It was here I learned that no matter how much evidence and testimony you provide HR and LP with, they would rather replace an entire sales team than fire a store manager. Upper management cares about deligating and profiting, nothing else.
I also learned that the requirement of giving your two-week notice is a fear-mongering myth.
It is a “common courtesy.”
How much courtesy did the company show me as they dismissed my evidence of our manager manipulating the staff and stealing from the store?
Of course, I still felt guilty.
Now that I learned all of these lessons and experienced the “real world,” I felt like I had a lot more clarity when approaching potential jobs. Despite being fired and abandoning a position, I was still hired as an Assistant Manager by at least three companies in the future.
But even after I decided I would only treat work as a weekly paycheck, and never take it too seriously, American work culture continued to trample and muddy me up as if I was a doormat.
Along the way, I suffered multiple traumatic events in my personal life, and I wasn’t properly equipped to deal with them on my own. Without realization, I was already programmed to minimize these events.
Even though I’d done this dance several times before, and pretended I knew how to rebel against it, I still felt the overwhelming obligation to power through.
At first, this repression and perseverance felt like “strength”, but it soon became difficult to ignore the malignant drain on my psyche.
“Managers come to work even when we’re on our deathbeds.” These words from my previous manager haunted me. No matter how sociopathic this woman was, I knew that this statement rang true in the world of retail.
I witnessed my store managers cancel vacations planned months before, stock up on cold medication and orange juice in the break room, stay well past their shift end every day, call the store multiple times after they got home, and check in on us on their days off.
Work, work, work, work, work.
As much as I admired some of my managers, I did not envy them. I knew I would never want a life like that.
The irony was that although I was privileged enough to have health benefits, I didn’t have much time to schedule regular doctors and therapy appointments.
Requesting time off was discouraged because it was dependant on my managers’ desired schedule, and it was highly inconvenient for them to have to move things around.
On my two days off, all I wanted to do was lay down and disappear into a fluffy pink pile of blankets.
Just like that, my processing and healing from these traumas were automatically moved down on my list of priorities. Because recovery is not a money-making activity.
I was too exhausted to fight this reality, so I surrendered and proceeded to fit my life and my progress around work. As hard as I tried to ignore my symptoms of PTSD and get the job done, I was scolded, written up countless times, and fired once more.
I learned that surprisingly no amount of money could make me feel better about accepting this abuse.
Even while I was in a position that paid higher than I ever thought I’d make, and I told myself that dealing with another psychologically unsafe work environment is the small price I pay for financial stability, it didn’t feel worth it.
So, when the pandemic offered me the unexpected privilege of choosing between a demotion or a layoff with a mediocre severance package, I knew the answer immediately. But I felt the need to act like it was a tough one.
There was that freedom again. But it came with a little more guilt.
After these experiences, during quarantine, I took a serious inventory of what I’d learned. Because it couldn’t be that I just had bad luck with jobs, could it? All of them?
The diverse group of people I worked with over the past 8 years of my life seemed to have the same attitudes about retail. If we enjoy selling things to fellow fashion enthusiasts or styling the unstylish, why are we all miserable doing it?
I learned that in the workforce, there is a completely normalized lack of agency and dignity. The entire concept of customer service alone requires you to give up self-respect.
On top of that, there are attendance policies, time off requests, production micro-metrics, phone policies, write-ups… as if we’re children that need to be monitored constantly, except not for our safety, but for our anticipated failures.
I was thoroughly fed up with the fact that so many systems could be put in place to make people feel less than human. I no longer considered work to be something I would expect to find joy in, but as something I’m obligated to put myself through in order to survive financially.
I eventually came to terms with the fact that I would forever be perceived as one of the “difficult” employees that management gossiped about behind closed doors.
Because in order to be considered a good employee I had to be willing to put work first. Good employees work overtime on holidays and cut into their family time and social plans and devote all of their energy to the company.
Good employees receive praise for being loyal or dependable. They earn prizes, gift cards, presents, and shout-outs at the meeting.
I had the privilege of getting to know several good employees over the course of my work history. They were all remarkably driven people that I both appreciated and felt sorry for.
What depressed me more than anything was that most of them never earned a promotion, bonus, or pay raise when they deserved it. They were going above and beyond, exhausting themselves, for free.
I often asked my co-workers why they did these things, and most of them would tell me that putting in that much time and effort genuinely brings them joy.
The truth is, I wanted to believe in this little fairy tale. But I knew it was bullshit.
This overachieving workhorse standard is all part of our capitalistic programming.
From this point on, I wouldn’t dare ever go above and beyond for a company unless there was a guarantee I would personally gain something from it.
I vowed to only accomplish exactly what I was expected as outlined in my job description for the precise amount of hours I was scheduled according to the initial schedule posted two weeks in advance.
Creating these boundaries definitely did not make me popular or well-liked, but I was already at a point in my life where I began to stop consuming myself with people-pleasing habits.
Despite creating this new philosophy around work, I severely procrastinated the job search.
I stayed unemployed until enough people had asked me what I do for work and the answer “writing” felt oddly humiliating. “Food delivery” sounded a little more relatable.
I simply had no plan and that was fine by me, but it confused the others around me.
Ultimately, that mediocre severance package didn’t last nearly as long as I imagined it would. I needed money.
I couldn’t afford to be picky about my new position. Besides, I knew it would be the same anywhere I went, just a battle with a new monster.
I found a job selling sunglasses for a company worth 9 million dollars that couldn’t protect their own product, managers’ job security, the lives of customers during a pandemic, or any of their female employees’ safety for that matter.
Although none of that surprised me, I couldn’t take it anymore.
After the trauma I’d personally been through and had been forced to ignore, after the compounded PTSD I continued to gain with each disparaging experience, after I continued to witness the mistreatment and normalized abuse of co-workers and friends…
..After the collective trauma we all suffered as a global pandemic threatened our safety while our leaders told us to keep our heads down and make money… it was finally enough.
My biggest regret is the fact that I still felt that familiar twinge of guilt when I moved on, even when, finally, at the age of 26, I truly believed that I deserved better.
Now I am the only boss I ever desire to work for again. And I’m no walk in the park either. I’m pushing myself too hard with crumbs to show for it, so the self-talk can get downright savage.
I accumulate a lot more income through food delivery than I do through my monthly payouts for published writing. This means that my art, my joy, and my development are all pushed to the back burner. I sprinkle it in when I have time and energy left over.
But the knowledge that I will not be stonewalled, yelled at, or punished for making a mistake is security.
If I need to take a half-day or time off because I’m on my period or sick or there is a family emergency, I simply do it. No passive-aggressive comments, judgment, or repercussions to deal with.
This all feels worth it to me. I decide. I balance my priorities. I manage my own life.
I imagine that if I can find success in writing, which is something I love to do, I may consider it my dream job. But then I think about the fact that ever since I started monetizing my art, it has killed a little bit of the joy.
Before I had access to such metrics, I did not care to manage myself.
The only management techniques I know have been passed down from the managers before me. These memories are all I have to pull from. There are some gems, some golden nuggets. And some examples that were so awful, I know to strive for the exact opposite.
All of this is to say that I learned a lot from the toxic managers, and the capable managers, and the managers that had good intentions and were doing their best to keep their heads above water. All of them.
My purpose for writing this was not to compare the severity of my experience to anyone else’s. And no, I don’t want a cookie for any of this. I didn’t do anything remarkable that anyone reading this hasn’t. That’s the point.
Unfortunately, I’m aware that my words will resonate with most of you, even if you’ve never worked in retail. Because of the 250 or so people I have had the pleasure of getting to know along my journey, most, if not all, of them have been put down in similar ways.
I witnessed it happening. We went through it together.
Many of these hardworking and talented people may think nothing of these circumstances, because of how normalized they are within our culture.
It’s just the way things are.
And on top of it all, we have to exist in a society that allows this abuse while people who don’t work in retail, or never worked in retail, or food, or any service, get to debate whether we all deserve a liveable wage.
This is for all of you out there doing the damn thing while simultaneously being looked down on, disrespected, sacrificed during a pandemic, and publically scrutinized as if the world doesn’t need us.
They do need us. Even if we are just cogs in the capitalist machine, every cog is necessary.
They want us to think that we need them more. It’s why we minimize everything else in our lives. Because we must keep food on the table.
Unfortunately, it’s true. We need each other. This means we have to work together to find a healthy balance, which may or may not be possible given the ambiguity of the current political climate.
It’s a funny feeling, knowing that I completely reject our work culture, but I can’t do anything to escape it.
Reflecting back on these dark memories has revealed my hypocrisy. I say I’m done, and then I go back every time.
I need money. We all do. When I need it badly enough, I’ll throw myself right back into the middle of it all over again.
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