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Cepeda: At your service? Get real

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Esther J. Cepeda
September 25, 2013

CHICAGO -- Something so out of the ordinary happened to me the other day that I simply haven’t been able to get out of my head.

 Over the past few years, my readers and social media followers have empathized with my utter disbelief at the way people go about their jobs these days.

 From witnessing job interviews where the aspirant treated the interaction like an episode of playing Xbox on the couch to being waited on by servers wearing F-word-emblazoned accessories, I’ve written about both the general lack of civility in our society and the complete cluelessness of employees who have to work with the public.

 For a while now, I’ve taken a break from chronicling shock about having clerks, “associates,” “team members” and “directors of first impressions” approach their jobs with the adage “The customer is not my problem.”

 I’ve felt it necessary to spare readers from my exasperation when encountering workers who chew gum with their mouths open the entire time they’re helping you, are so bored with their jobs that they yawn—loudly and without covering their mouths—while announcing your totals, look as though they just rolled out of bed, ignore you in order to talk to co-workers, or check their phones as they execute your transactions and don’t bother to say “thank you.”

 Why? Because such “service” has stopped being atypical. Who among us hasn’t experienced being treated, with alarming regularity, as an annoyance in our neighborhood grocery store, restaurant, bank or doctor’s office? We’ve simply come to expect it.

 But I was stopped dead in my tracks the other night when I went into a restaurant for carryout. The young woman who handled my transaction behaved in a way I didn’t expect. She greeted me pleasantly, gave me her undivided attention while processing my payment, asked if she could do anything else for me and bid me a good evening.

 It’s terrible that such niceties seem so exceptional nowadays. But as I go about my work interviewing university professors, hiring professionals, executive coaches—and kvetching with the customers suffering alongside me at the deli counter—it always comes back to people no longer knowing how to behave with others in professional settings.

 Over the years, I’ve talked to many experts who have cited these culprits of poor soft jobs skills: lax social mores, the shortage of customer-service and business-manners training in colleges and universities, and the dearth of experienced mentors to guide young employees through their first jobs.

 But I think more and more people just don’t want to work hard to please anyone but themselves.

 This is also the verdict in many news articles where a CEO explains why even in the middle of a period of extended high unemployment and record-breaking college graduation rates, it’s hard to fill job openings.

 Yes, there’s the issue of skills mismatch—a surplus of English majors and a deficit of certified welders—but there is also character.

 In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Bob Funk, the president of Express Employment Professionals, the fifth-largest employment agency in America, said that to land and keep a job isn’t hard, but you have to meet three conditions: “First you need integrity; second, a strong work ethic; and, third, you have to be able to pass a drug test.”

 Unfortunately, the explicit teaching of character is increasingly ignored in homes where such skills are becoming widely seen as the responsibility of the education system. In schools across the country, “character education” has been taken up by necessity and is often boiled down to the simplistic “don’t be mean.”

 And hard work has become a relic of a past when people went to college to push themselves to learn about the world and not simply to inhabit the role of the consumer who hands over tuition and then feels entitled to collect a diploma promising a high-paying job.

 Marijuana legalization laws may legislate away the right to demand the third condition, but I doubt this will help with the quality of future employees.

 We are a nation enthralled by technology-driven conveniences and a society where the individual, not the customer, is king. I enjoyed my respite from customer dis-service the other night but won’t hold my breath for it to become a trend.

 Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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