Was I a bad retail employee?

A customer said I was "condescending." My boss said I could improve or quit, so I quit!

Published August 27, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)


Some time ago I held a job at a small-town independent retailer. I had happily worked there for around 18 months when it rather abruptly changed hands. I had gotten along very well with the first owner and was sad to see the end of an era, yet excited, as I understood the incoming owner to be young, ambitious and creative.

About three months after the new owner hired me, she received a phone call from an upset customer complaining that I had acted "disinterested" and "condescending" during my encounter with her. The customer also stated she did not wish to patronize the store should I be on the clock.

My boss handled the situation very well. She had a very honest, courteous discussion with me about the situation and left my fate up to me. She said I could remain an employee with a concerted effort to improve my social skills or leave.

Shocked and embarrassed, I left.

To this day I do not know the identity of the customer nor have I been notified of a specific circumstance, comment, date or point of sale with which I offended her. But that's not the point.

The point is that two months later I find that time has worsened my guilt. I feel embarrassed at having conveyed those traits to the customer. I feel ashamed that it happened at all. I feel confused because I would never intentionally offend a customer, nor do I remember doing so. I feel betrayed and hurt because my boss chose the customer over her employee. I feel regretful because I believe, had I not been so blindsided and shocked by my boss's confrontation, the situation could have been handled differently on my end. I feel like a quitter. I feel like a disgrace to my former employer and her struggling business. I feel offended and hurt that the customer described me with such harsh words.

Mainly it was a huge blow to my self-esteem. It's not a thing I enjoy thinking about, but this incident haunts me. (I am now employed by a restaurant where I am generally happy and lucrative and respected and, hopefully, respectful.)

I can speculate on the problem. I can blame the customer for being too picky. I can blame my boss with my suspicion that she never wanted me working in her store. I can justify my alleged actions with stress or depression.

But I need to move on.

Please help me reconcile my feelings. I understand I cannot go back and change what did and didn't happen, or change how I dealt with the issue at the retailer. I need a technique that will help me make peace with the problem and live on.



Dear Hurting,

Your employer asked you to plead guilty to a vague charge made by an unknown accuser, and then demanded that you either resign or commit to a similarly vague program of personal improvement.

You chose to move on. I don't blame you. You rejected a choice that felt false and insulting and smacked of domination.

This was not a professionally managed human resources situation where an employee is shown a set of documented performance problems and given a concrete set of improvement objectives. It sounds more like a hasty decision made by a young owner, based on fear and inexperience.

So you said, I'm not knuckling under to this vague and confusing demand. Furthermore, you realized that this employer did not trust you. So why should you trust her?

In doing so, you protected yourself. There is strength in that. Why should that be a blow to your self-esteem? I think you showed perceptiveness. You saw that if you knuckled under in this instance, you would have made a promise that you did not know if you could keep, and the new owner would have you under her thumb, and the whole thing would torment you. You chose to call her bluff.

So of course there is a price to pay when you stand up for yourself. But it was worth it to you at the time.

Now you are questioning it. I would suggest that even though it was the right thing to do, you're going to feel weird about it from time to time, and there are costs to bear. You enjoyed that job. You liked it. So you gave up something you liked, on a matter of principle.

You might say the costs of your action are the costs of having some dignity and self-worth in a period of employer domination and a fear-based job market.

Take pride in what you did. You opted for freedom. Good for you. You're not a slave.

There may be times in the future, in your working life, when your very survival requires you to shut up and take whatever abuse your employer is dishing out. Sometimes you just have to eat it and smile, and you have to learn how to do that. But this wasn't one of those situations. You had options. Good for you.

You need a balanced perspective. A balanced perspective would take into account your feelings in the moment, your need for autonomy, the value you place on integrity, and your personal outrage at the owner's actions. What you did was necessary and right for you in the moment, but it had a cost. That is the cost of standing up for yourself.

One other thing: If for some reason you want -- or need -- that job back, feel free to go back and negotiate something.

But in any case be tormented no more! Go forth with pride! It sounded like a bum deal and probably was.

By Cary Tennis

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