Monday, January 25, 2010

In Which I Broke My Own Record for Time Employed

An important step in developing a career is learning about what you don’t want from your employer. I think it is easy to decide that you want a team-orientated environment or family-positive policies, but it is a lot harder to put names to the things you don’t want in a workplace. Part of the problem may lie in the fear of sounding negative or unlike a team player, but another part of it may be due to inexperience or naivety.

About eight months ago when I left Edelman, I began my second voyage into the food industry. I started working for Tap & Vine, a local restaurant bar with an incredible beer selection from independent breweries around the country. Although I worked part time at a bagel shop and deli while I was in high school and college, this was my first time working full time as a server in a restaurant.

The food industry is unique in itself, and there are as many cons as there are pros, but I enjoyed it. I liked the people, I loved bartending and waiting tables. For all the unruly children or inappropriate bar guests, there were the sweet families on their “first restaurant excursion” or the cheerful regulars who tip an amazing 35%. We had fun in the kitchen and on the floor, and when I made the decision to move back in with my parents, I was sad to leave everyone behind.

Last month, I started looking for a part-time job to supplement my (non-existent) income while I apply to Atlanta PR firms, and I was happy to include local restaurants on my list of possible employers. I was excited when an Italian restaurant asked me to come in for an interview, and pleasantly surprised when they e-mailed me that very evening to extend an offer for a server position. I had been a fan of the restaurant for several months: when you walk in, it smells like my Grandma’s kitchen on Sundays. The owner set me up to begin training that week.

My first warning sign should have been the way the owner spoke to me. I am Italian. My family is very, very Italian. My childhood is defined in part by our Sunday visits to Grandma for macaroni, meatballs and gravy. Although I had mentioned my familiarity with Italian food—both New York style and more traditional dishes—the owner informed me that I have not had “real” Italian food: the food they make in the restaurant is “real” Italian, not like what I would have had.

The owner pointed to an item on the menu and asked me to say how I thought it was pronounced. Now, I knew exactly where this was going, but I still mispronounced the word, and the owner quickly corrected me and launched into a lesson on how I need to learn the proper pronunciation and what the items contained. Caught off guard, I smiled and agreed—and mentally noted that I am illiterate in Italian, but I can certainly pronounce the names for the food I eat every week.

My ego was bruised, but I gave the owner the benefit of the doubt. After all, how many times have I gotten into tiffs with friends over Ragu and the color of gravy? How many times do I scoff at people who ask for spaghetti and meatballs when they could have ziti and a wonderful, meaty red gravy that hides so perfectly in the al dente tubes? When it comes to my heritage, I know I am proud and stubborn and a little bit of a know-it-all.

I returned the next day to begin training and meet the rest of the staff. Everyone was nice and happy to help me as I trained—they were young, but knowledgeable and good teachers. In fact, my first official day went really well. I wondered if, perhaps, I had imagined the condescension because I got my feelings hurt. Everyone else seemed to be pleased with their jobs, so it must have been me, right?

Unfortunately, my discomfort culminated with an offhand comment made by one of my coworkers as she was showing me how to clock out of their computer system. “Keep this paperwork,” she warned me, “the owner will test you.” Oh, I think, that’s strange—how would he test you on hours worked receipt?

My coworker continued, “He’ll short your pay—he’s shorted me a few times, and you need your paperwork to prove you worked more hours or received more tips.”


I mulled over this. From what I understood from my coworker, the owner didn’t make mistakes: he shorted his servers on purpose to see if he could get away with it. My previous employers may not have been perfect, but they never, NEVER intentionally withheld pay. I came to a decision: as much as I need a part-time job right now, this is not something I will deal with. I refuse to work for someone who takes advantage of his employees in such a way. There is a difference between hurt feelings and disrespect, and I will not tolerate the latter.

And so, with just four hours on the clock, I turned in my resignation and I will continue my job hunt elsewhere.

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