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Better Than Waiting Tables

Contributed by , of Switch & Shift. Author, speaker, business heretic.

I’ve been pursuing a new direction in my study of the enterprise lately, something I’ve cleverly dubbed “The Engagement Project” because it’s a project all about employee engagement. (Ehem).

The project is based on a two-part questionnaire. Here it is:

  1. How do you like working at your present employer?
  2. Why?

Even just the first question has produced some remarkable results. For instance, I recently asked it of a highly intelligent, well-educated knowledge worker who is a top performer among her peers. Her reply?

“It’s better than waiting tables.”

Her answer was sincere, which I think makes it all the worse for her employer. In college, she waited tables to help pay the bills – as did I, as have college kids for generations now. She didn’t like it much. Her present situation is better than that. She has a steady paycheck, which is a bit higher than the tips she made waiting tables. She doesn’t have to run around, or deal with sometimes-surly customers, or get her hands dirty with the dishes she serves and clears away. She has health insurance and paid vacation time. Oh, and her weekend nights are her own. She’s young and single, so that’s important to her (though I think it’s fairly important to most of us).

…And that’s it. When I pressed her on it, she was clear: that’s all she likes about her present job. “The stuff they make us do? It’s stupid,” she says about her current employer. “All the hoops they expect us to jump through, all the metrics? Management isn’t helping us do our work; it’s actually in the way.”

I hope your most valuable knowledge workers find working at your company better than waiting tables.

Remember, this is a top performer. So she’s hitting those metrics well, better than most of her peers. It’s easy to make excuses for poor performance, and blame that on management. But she is exactly the type of employee her company wants to keep – and she’s beyond disengaged: she’s actively un-engaged.

“If you think it’s so stupid…” I began. I didn’t even have to finish.

“Oh, I’m interviewing internally, to work in a different division. There’s at least one group in the company whose management doesn’t force all these stifling controls on its people. My friends in that role are really happy. But of course you have to hedge your bets. I’m interviewing outside of the company as well. I’ll see what offers I get. Who knows? There’s nothing keeping me here.”

Leaders of all levels, from frontline managers to the Chairman of the Board: I hope your most valuable knowledge workers find working at your company better than waiting tables. Do they?

And if so, how do you know?

*Please note: I had some really good experiences waiting tables, as did many, many of my friends. And it’s important work: a talented waiter is a host to countless memories! I don’t ever want to leave my readers with the impression that I look down on any labor. That’s not what I’m about. Cross-posted from Switch & Shift.

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Reader Comments (5)

The company sounds to compensate your "friend" for the boredom caused to her. Money or inspiration? It sounds like a matter of priorities. (Or this is just what you are trying to underscore?).
January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKonstantin Kayes
Movie "The Office Space" sums it all up.
January 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermar
That's an interesting choice of words; "knowledge worker." It sounds like an attempt to pretty up the basic devide between high status and low status workers. The phrase itself is pretty much worthless. All work requires some level of knowledge. Ever dig a ditch? 'Knowing' which end of a shovel is which is crucial. That plus the theories of displacement, leverage, topography, etc., etc. get you from a level playing field into a pit, or a trench. Enough carping.
I waited tables myself back during school days. A skill set centred around social interactions analysis helps. Learning to manage ones ego is also good for doing the job well. Figuring out where to draw the boundaries is a crucial skill. That one is key almost everywhere.
At present I work in a DIY Boxxstore that is imposing, yes, that's the right word, Metrics upon the workforce. A stupider and more disheartening system is hard to imagine. (Outright slavery might be worse.) This is one of those times when Management, or should I say Kleptiment, has crossed "the line" into disfunctionality. We here on the shop floor are still trying to figure out if the dismantling of the entire enterprise is a feature or a bug. But, yes, most of the workers here are actively seeking out alternative employment, even with the prospect of lowered renumeration. We're learning that you can put a price tag on peace of mind. Lots of us are doing it nowadays.
January 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterambrit
ambrit - thanks for sharing your story. I'm amazed how often management falls into this trap, and how many good people they run off that way. I have to admit, sheepishly, I used to do it myself.

BTW, "knowledge worker" is an expression that has been around for a long, long time. Not sure when it started or who coined it, but it's very common in management lit, however silly it might appear to be for the reasons you pointed out.
January 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterWolf Richter
I think the ultimate solution lies in worker-owned and managed cooperative businesses. The standard capitalist business model is a horror-show of perverse incentives. Transitioning to an economy based on employee ownership and control, i.e. democratizing the economy, should be a top priority for those of us concerned with social and economic justice, imho. Of course, co-ops don't provide profits for rentiers, so you won't hear much about them from the community of business owners and managers.
January 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdiptherio

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