I recently left my food service job at a popular chain, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I remain confused by that fact and confused by how a seemingly unimportant place could make me experience the spectrum of feeling that it did. But it’s undeniably true.
We all know that the service industry can be hell on earth, but this community was special. It didn’t feel like going to work; it felt like going to hang out with friends for eight hours in a day.This was why I stuck around for so long when things started to change.
In late August, there was a shift in the management team and a new manager was transferred in as the second-in-command. For our purposes here I’ll refer to him as “D.” On my first shift working with D., he commented to the assembled group of male crew members that I should set my career goals higher and become a stripper. Later that week, he ended a shift by telling everyone they were free to go, except for me because he and I were going to “go get naked in the fridge together.” One night he came to the bar with a group of my coworkers and I after a late shift, and his aggressive sexual “joking” went even further on the scale of things-you-don’t-say-to-your-crew, which for reasons of propriety I won’t restate here.
I had never felt the physical manifestations of stress to that extent before. I had trouble sleeping and eating. I found it impossible to focus on school with the mental discomfort that was constantly weighing on me. The things that always cheered me up weren’t working anymore. I told a select few of my friends about what was going on, and their rightfully concerned reactions only made me feel worse.
I decided to report D. to the corporate liaison for our store. I was told he would be “talked to.” On future shifts with the two managers I still trusted, I felt like I had a safe space to talk about what was happening. I heard about their individual problems with him—that he made constant “jokes” about being able to fire whoever he wanted, that he would lay the blame on them for not picking up his slack, and so on. Talking to other people who felt the same way reassured me that my reactions were justified. We tried to brainstorm ways in which we could fix things because, as horrible as things were getting, we still cared about the place.
Even though talking through our problems was comforting, the emotional battery of seeing other people I cared about so constantly upset was worse than my own individual problems at work. The feeling of mutual powerlessness was completely draining. I found myself unable to concentrate on anything, and I didn’t feel like myself.
A few weeks after I reported D., I was pulled aside by my boss and asked what my remaining issues were. I told him that I didn’t think my complaints had been responded to appropriately, and I received a surprisingly accusatory response: “Do you think that maybe he didn’t understand how he was coming across to you?”
I was then told that I had made a mistake by not talking to D. directly about my problems with him, and that being intimidated by him wasn’t an excuse. I was told that talking to the other managers about my feelings of discomfort was unprofessional and akin to petty gossip. I was forced to have a meeting with my boss and with D. to sort out our “issues.” Framed as a formal apology, this was essentially a threat against “misinterpreting” and “gossiping” about comments I perceived as aggressive. I was told that I needed to work on my communication skills to ensure that the “hassle” of writing up a formal reprimand would never happen again.
What was so disappointing about this was that I had trusted my boss to do right by me. As much as the original incidents with D. had hurt me, this betrayal felt worse as it came with the realization that my voice had no value to him.
That night I headed home from the store with a coworker who knew most of the details of what was going on. We stopped at the subway entrance and I apologized for being so mopey, saying, “I know that people have it way worse off; I’m sorry for complaining about something that isn’t such a big deal.”
He jumped a little bit and gestured in the direction of the store sign. “Are you talking about what’s happening in there? What’s happening in there is a big deal. I just wish I knew how to fix it.” From a couple of blocks away, the store looked very small.
It seems odd to me, too, that I waited for months to commit to finding another job. I could have walked out and it wouldn’t have been unjustified. I know I could have found something else in a matter of days. But I didn’t want to give up on the people I liked there, and I resented being forced out of the place when many of my best friends were still there. I was scared to say goodbye and scared to admit that it was an unwinnable situation.
After I was reprimanded for gossiping, I was no longer being scheduled on shifts with managers that I trusted and felt comfortable with. That was the breaking point, and I started really looking for another job.
When I walked out of the successful interview a week later, I felt physically lighter than I had in months. But when I went to work that day and told my few trusted friends that I was planning on putting in my two weeks’ notice, it hit harder than I expected it to. I caught my two managers who had remained supportive in the back office. I didn’t think I would feel like crying, but I did, and apparently they did too. Still, they waved away my apologies. “Don’t be sorry; I’m proud of you. I’m going to miss you, but I’m proud of you.”
In a way, having their blessings made me feel validated in an experience that I hadn’t yet been able to draw a positive conclusion from. The situation and its outcome were pretty bleak. But feeling so supported by people in an environment where I also felt so antagonized made it seem a little bit better.
Leaving was messy. One coworker was so distraught that he threatened to take up smoking again if I left (I don’t think it was a joke). A few people told me they felt heavy-hearted to think about me leaving. I felt the same way. I didn’t think I would feel light and heavy at the same time over leaving a part-time service job, but I was caught off-guard by the intensity of feeling over it.
A few people were laying on the guilt a little bit thick, and someone backed it up by saying, “You realize we’re only saying this because we like you. If we didn’t care, then we wouldn’t care about you going.” It might seem strange that I dragged out my departure for so long, but I think the reason this seemingly black-and-white situation of textbook harassment became so convoluted was the fact that the rest of us cared so much about each other.
It seems like I’m treating the dissolution of the crew as a great tragedy, and I believe that it was. A genuinely supportive and loving workplace environment is a rare gem to come by, and when it falls apart because of one destructive person, it is a tragedy. These small places contain big histories and big communities. It’s possible to feel isolated and antagonized in the same place that makes you feel loved and supported. Simple things become complicated when people care about each other. D. is still employed by the same company, retaining the same high-ranking position and rate of pay as he always was. It’s true that we didn’t win the battle, but after having formed such unconditionally supportive relationships with people, I’m hesitant to describe it as a loss.