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.

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