Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Her name is not really Sally

The management at my part-time job has been on a hiring frenzy lately. Between back-to-school shoppers and the upcoming holiday season, they have decided to nearly double the size of the staff. It has been a bit of a challenge to learn everyone’s name. I've started to call everyone by the name Sally.

One thing I have learned after 10+ years in retail – Don’t get too attached to coworkers. They come and go pretty quickly and there’s an awkward breaking-in period. Just when you get used to bonding with the same people, they move on and are replaced by new hires. The new Sallies always ask a lot of questions. I think it’s important that they know where the bathroom is, the rest they can figure out on their own. I’m not a complete jerk, but generally I don’t go out of my way to be nice to Sallies.

These days, a lot of the new employees are over-qualified victims of a bad economy. Some of them will tell you upon your first encounter, “I have a degree in engineering. This is only temporary for me.” Others you can assume by the look of contempt on their face that they are clearly taking a position below their intended path in life.

But then, who isn’t? Everyone is underpaid and it is the rare individual who is fortunate enough to find themselves 100% fulfilled, challenged and compensated. It just doesn’t happen very often. Most of us fall into a sliding scale of acceptance of what we do for a living versus our dream job.

Over the weekend, I worked with three people I had never met before. After working a busy cashwrap with one such person, I was struck by how comfortable she seemed and how effortlessly she interacted with customers. She didn’t have any questions and seemed completely in her element. When we caught a free moment, she formally introduced herself, “I’m Sally, by the way.” This was after we had been working side-by-side for 30 minutes. Most of us sneak a peak at a nametag when we’re learning names, but I appreciated the friendly gesture.

We chatted a bit and I was surprised to find that despite her apparent expertise, she’d only worked there a month. She said she had been working in several different departments within the store that she didn’t like as well. She quickly clarified, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy to have a job in a bookstore. This is a nice place to work; I just enjoy some departments more than others. Well actually... I’m just happy to work. Period. I moved here to live with my mom after I graduated and wasn’t sure if I’d find anything, so this is great. I’m very happy to be here.”

For a moment, I thought maybe she meant that she had just graduated from high school. Not because she looked that young, but because she was so upbeat about working at the bookstore after graduation. There is a different tone that is generally used by recent college grads to convey this information. I am accustomed to the undertone that says, “This is not what I had in mind when I spent years of my life and thousands of dollars on an education.” Her tone did not imply anything at all. Everything she said came across at face value – I’m happy to have a job. Things could be much worse.

Her peculiar optimism led me down a line of questioning that confirmed she had just graduated from college, at a school in the same conference as my Alma mater (Go Big Ten! (except Michigan)!!) Her mother is currently living in the DC Metro area, so she moved in with her mom and has been sending out her resume in DC and got this new job with the recent hiring blitz.

She admitted that her situation was not ideal. She would like to have a job in her field and earn more money. She doesn't want to sleep on an air mattress in her mother's small apartment forever, but for now - she's able to contribute and she's willing to work hard to move up. She'll work hard while she's at the store. Whatever she's doing, she does her best to make herself invaluable. That's the best way to work her way up. And she's happy to have a job, that's the first hurdle.

These are all her assertions, not mine. And she continued on about her situation without an ounce of cynicism. I was stunned. Sure, we all remind ourselves that things could be worse - but that's usually after feeling sorry for ourselves for a while. This girl still had the ambition of a recent college grad - despite taking a less-than-ideal job, despite the air mattress, despite the compromised hourly wage. I was impressed. I told her I knew a few people and would pass her name along for potential entry-level jobs.

And on Monday morning, that's exactly what I did. Now, you should know, I'm not usually any more proactive about job referrals than I am at introducing myself to new coworkers. If your Facebook page is updated constantly throughout your work day with new YouTube videos, I'm not a good person to come to for a reference. I would never suggest someone for a job unless I was confident that they would work out. Yet, Monday morning, there I was sending off multiple emails to anyone who may have entry-level office positions that pay more than what Sally is making now. And I don't even know her.

I sent an email to a friend working for a placement agency and she said she will contact Sally about possible administrative positions, based on my "glowing referral". It was at that point I realized how much I have taken for granted. Can this girl even type? I assume so. She pushed the buttons on the cash registers quite efficiently. It is a safe assumption that anyone with a liberal arts degree has experience in writing and typing papers, using the Microsoft Office suite, and using multiple databases and research materials. But it is still an assumption.

What is it about her that makes me not only wish her well, but actively put forth the effort, despite any knowledge of her qualifications? I only spent an hour with her, some of it while at work and some in the breakroom (we didn't have the entire conversation on the sales floor. Give us some credit!) I was really inspired by her positive attitude and her work ethic. It wasn't just to help her out, but felt like I was helping anyone who is fortunate enough to employ her. Who wouldn't love to have an employee with that kind of attitude and ambition? That's really all I was thinking of when I spread the word about this great potential employee. Clearly I wasn't thinking about any skills or experience, because I don't have a clue what kind of experience she has. Perhaps I should have asked a few more questions before boasting about her.

I wish I could end this story with a happily-ever-after, that one of my friends hired her and now she's worked her way up and is running the company. That would be impressive since it's only been three days. I'll give her a little more time and keep you updated. Whatever happens, I'm sure she'll land on her feet. And I hope she never loses that great attitude. But I'm still not going to get too attached to her. There will be a new Sally next weekend. I'm sure of that.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Remember what Willy Wonka said when Charlie gave back the Everlasting Gobstopper instead of passing it on to Slugworth? I think it applies here, too:

So shines a good deed in a weary world.