Recently, I was at my local branch of the Toronto Dominion (TD) bank. It was just a routine stop, to drop off a cheque, but I found myself waiting in line for the tellers. Things went well, as they always did, but on the way out one thing struck me that never had before.
Everyone was smiling. The security guard even wished me a good day on my way out.
It was an odd realization, whose significance only really came to me as I walked back to my apartment that sunny afternoon in April.
Everyone was smiling, because they were happy. They weren’t told to smile, they just did it on their own.
It’s an odd thing isn’t it? To be amazed to have encountered smiling and happy employees? To have employees naturally smile because they are having a good time at work? It made me recall something an assistant manager once told me.
“Smile, it’s part of your job”.
There I was, some ten years later, way past the time in my life where I had to work those kinds of job where a manager shouted bossy things in my ears when I realized just how offensive this order from way back then really was.
Let’s flash back to the mid-2000s. I was just completing my undergrad and, like every other early 20s male in the West Island, I had no idea what to do next. So inevitably I got a job to help kill the time and let me figure things out for myself.
In this particularly story, I found myself working at the Canadian Tire department store in Kirkland, Quebec. I had been hired earlier that year for a seasonal summer post out in the garden center, but the store decided to keep me on (impressed by my work ethic when it came to selling dirt and flowers, no doubt). I was transfered (swapped the colour of my shirt, really) to “Promotional” which really meant logistics (stacking shelves). My main duties at that point weren’t all that different than the ones I had in the garden center. Move heavy stuff from palettes and put them where they belong. Fridges. Barbecues. Model fire places. All the heavy crap that people apparently bought, and needed to be stored in accessible palces. Much of it was still just dirt, and the only differences were that I was now moving things around indoors – not outdoors – and my shirt was now black instead of red.
And that I wasn’t technically a sales clerk.
The hours got longer, the work more arduous. We were perpetually understaffed, and expected to get whatever needed to be done on a particular day done – no matter how long it took. I remember biking home past midnight more than, and then walking home in the middle of the night during the winter months after the busses stopped running.
At first, it wasn’t so bad. I liked the challenge, as well as the physical aspect to the labour, and took pride in the fact that I was essentially doing the work of two people each and every day. My body fat got trimmed by the end of the first month, and I was slowly earning the physique of a body builder. As one co-worker put it “my work is my gym”. Managers from every department called us up when they needed a hand with the heavy lifting, and answer their calls we did – even though their department was technically their turf.
We were clearly the most macho of all the employees at the store, and unapologetic about it.
But then things changed. The store changed owners and plenty of new management came in. One in particular stuck out more than all the other new faces.
Let’s call him “Brad” because he was the most Brad-like of all the not-Brads I’ve ever met. He was built, like a regular gym-goer. He drove a shiny sports car, despite a $16 an hour wage. He wore immaculate white shirts each day, which miraculously never showed signs of dirt. His hair was always combed and gelled, to cover premature balding.
He was also five-foot-six with an attitude that reached well above his hairline.
It didn’t take a bachelor’s degree to know that Brad was going to be an asshole. He liked to talk big, stand in power poses, and “think out loud” – which was really just his way of criticizing everyone and everything around him with immunity.
On one particularly memorable occasion, I saw him standing before an end shelf (at the end of an aisle) looking it over, hands on hips, with all the employees from that department called around him. He spoke:
“Just thinking out loud, but if I was a customer and I saw the state of this shelf, I’d be thinking to myself gosh this department has some really lazy employees”.
The problem? The items on the shelf were properly faced, but weren’t evenly spaced along the edges. One had two inches of space at the edge, the other side less than one. It was something only a man with a ruler, or a tendency for being an asshole, would notice or care to notice.
But that was just business as usual for Brad. His real zinger came one morning during our “power sessions”, a five minute meeting where the store managers used to get us all pumped up for the day ahead. Brad took these meetings as occasions for barking order. He ended that meeting with a new command:
“Smile. It’s part of your job”.
We all shook our heads and groaned, went off to do our jobs as usual, but Brad paced the store all day reminding people to smile whenever their lips were caught off guard.
Later that day, when I noticed him walking my way, and making that half-circle gesture with his two index fingers, I put on my ugliest dog snarl of a smile. He might have told me to smile, but at least he didn’t have the gall to tell me how to smile.
I think we can draw a pretty clear line of demarcation between the experience of myself and the other employees of Canadian Tire Kirkland, and those of NDG branch of the TD Bank.
We were told to smile because it was “part of our job”, but these employees were smiling because of their job.
Smiling is not part of a job description – and particularly not for minimum wage labour. In fact, it’s really only par for the course for jobs where one is required to perform, to entertain, to act.
But we weren’t hired as actors. We were hired to stock shelves, count cashes, do inventory.
Requiring that employees smile when they really aren’t feeling it boils down to requiring employees come equipped with some acting skills to boot. And that’s a huge problem when you think about it.
Smiling is something that should come naturally to people when they are happy. If smiling is something that an assistant manager has to go around reminding everyone to do then something is wrong. It’s not the employees who are at fault, it’s the work atmosphere and like (by extension) management.
Low wages, long hours, and a lack of respect are all things that can make a person feel like crap and automatically be in a bad mood every time they show up to work. Not only is it difficult to put on a smile when everything sucks, but it’s also dishonest – not just to the customers, but to oneself. Requiring an employee lie to themselves on a daily basis sure wasn’t part of the job description.
Now I’m no expert, nor do I have any insider knowledge of the local bank branch, but I suspect the employees there were smiling because it came naturally. Because they were happy. Why were they happy? Well it could be because each and every one of them had something great happen that day before work. Or it could be that every day at work was great. They were treated well, had acceptable working conditions, and were probably even paid well.
Heck, even the security guy, whose job basically amounting to sitting by the door and greeting people, was all smiles.
If even the lowliest employee is beaming, you can be damn sure that something is going well at your workplace.
While a bank is no department store, I suspect a few of the rules for happiness stay the same across workplaces.
First, if you treat your employees better (that is, like humans and not minimum wage slaves) then they’ll feel better. Second, if you pay them better, they will be more passionate about their job, and potentially even want to work harder.
They’ll also naturally show up to work with that smile on their face.
Happy people smile without being told.
So if you happen to be one of those assistant manager types, who’s in a similar situation to Brad, my advice to you is not to tell your employees to smile – don’t ask them to do something that isn’t natural. Find some way to make it happen more naturally. Be nicer, be encouraging instead of aggravating, talk to your higher ups on their behalf, and just don’t be an asshole.
On the other hand, if you completely disagree with me, and go ahead and do tell your employees to smile anyways, here’s some polite advice: kindly go fuck yourself.