As I walked around O’Hare Airport waiting for my flight I became acutely aware of a serious problem that exists in our country. I have seen this problem elsewhere before, experienced it first hand in some of the places where I have worked, and likely have had moments where this problem consumed me for a moment or two. I am not talking about the typical problems that we see on CNN and FOX News every day, nor am I referring to those issues that are grandstanded by our politicians and political candidates. I am referring to a festering problem that lies beneath all of the sizzle of today’s “breaking news”, I am talking about a problem that is eating away at our everyday lives, I am talking about the plague of discontentment.
Jan Carlzon, formerly of SAS Airlines referred to it as “Cattle Calls and Coffee Stains”, while others may simply call it ”Not giving a s—t.” Checking in and retrieving your boarding passes has been relegated to electronic kiosks not just because it might speed things up, but likely due more to the fact that employees are uninspired, unwilling to smile, show little interest and concern for passengers, and would prefer to not be bothered by real people. Better service to the airlines is to take people out of the formula as much as possible. Checking your bags is robotic and rarely helpful (granted there are some positive exceptions, but not on this day in Chicago) and a rather simple process becomes something to dread. We are herded through a maze in an effort to make people feel anxious and for some reason “guilty” of something. Temple Grandin of “low stress cattle treatment” should be engaged to fix the problem.
Finally, you are free of the unfriendly and intimidating screening process and able to meander to your gate (unless of course you spent too much time in screening and are now forced to run the 50 yard dash to try and reach your plane before the door is shut) and buy a bottle of water, a newspaper, and maybe grab a bite to eat before departure.
Ah, foodservice – my industry! This will certainly be the place where it is possible to right the ship, forget about the uninspired service, and enjoy a meal and a smile from a happy employee or two. Don’t you believe it. The lack of interaction, the avoidance of eye contact, the never present “Good morning”, and the drab call out cadence of “Next” is about all you can hope for. Now this attitude or lack there of, is not isolated to airports – in fact it is far too prevalent in many businesses. Department stores, boutiques, grocery stores, and restaurants of all types seem to be flush with uninspired, sometimes angry employees. We have become numb to this and as a result the problem grows exponentially. Visitors to our country must think that Americans are mad and disillusioned with their lot in life.
Our unemployment rate may be 4.6%, but it appears that a growing portion of those who are working – choose to be pissed off and very willing to let everyone know through their actions. Where should the blame lie? Why is this the case in restaurants, airports, factories, offices, clothing stores, grocery stores, and other “service” industries? This problem is not isolated to those lower paying entry level positions, it is rampant through all industries, all businesses, and all positions whether the job pays minimum wage or six figures. This is, in my unscientific opinion, a disease that is eating away at the foundations of our country. Am I over-reacting? I think not.
We have all had jobs and worked for people that we don’t particularly care for. Sometimes these jobs are temporary, or necessary stepping-stones to the next phase of a career, but it is still possible to give it your best effort and put a smile on your face. Note one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
If your current position, whether in the restaurant business or anything else, is not your ideal job – how you approach it will help determine your ability to move on to something that suits you better. I have observed that people who tend to be positive, hard workers, willing and able to do what is necessary, and happy even when life is trying, are the people who carry these same traits to every job placed before them. Those who are miserable are more likely to always be miserable regardless of the job they have. If the later is what you choose then please pick a job with minimal contact with customers – I don’t want to share your pain.
The real damage follows the old rule of thumb that one bad apple can ruin a bushel. Unhappy, uncaring, angry employees pass on those same attitudes to the customers they seem forced to serve. Walking around O’Hare I was hard pressed to find many people who seemed content, smiling, and filled with a positive vision of a great flight experience. The same can be witnessed in shopping centers, numerous restaurants, and other service businesses beyond the tarmac. The only somewhat consistent exception is when these folks have an infant in their arms under the age of 1 – a child can occasionally bring out the best in people.
Why do we except this? Who needs to take on the task of fixing the problem? Why is this not a major news story on the 24/7 channels? This is an epidemic that is eating away at the foundations of our country and should be viewed as a disease that needs treatment and even more importantly – a heavy dose of preventative medicine.
So…who is at fault – who should work on correcting the problem? The answer is all of us. It is a management problem, an owner problem, an individual employee problem, and our problem as consumers. Owners and managers must learn to create open vehicles of communication that allow employees to talk about the environment they work in, owners and managers must invest in ongoing training, and most importantly invest more time in hiring positive attitude. In most cases, skills can be taught, but negativity and anger is carried to work by the individual employee and often beyond a manager’s ability to fix. The employee must understand that he or she is responsible for his or her own attitude and morale. Employees can choose to let the work environment or the task at hand bring them down, or they can simply choose to give it their best and put on a positive face.
Consumers should not allow these negative, uncaring attitudes slip into the realm of acceptance. It doesn’t have to be this way! Call the employee to task, try to engage them with a positive smile and greeting, and if all else fails – avoid spending time and money with those who simply refuse to “get it”.
After surveying about ten different food outlets and the absence of vibrant, welcoming employees, I chose to buy a bag of cashews and a bottle of water at the newsstand. At least the employee smiled at me and said “Good Morning”.
To those businesses that get it, those employees who work hard at viewing their glass as half full, and those operators who, whether it be in restaurants, ticket counters, gas stations, TSA cattle chutes, or retail shops, always seem to find time to say hello, thank you, and have a good day with some modicum of sincerity – thank you.
Anderson Cooper – this is a story worth investigating.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training.