advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My employees are ingrates

I’m an assistant manager at a high-end restaurant in a major metropolitan city. I love my job…except for the long hours, needy customers, and potential for burnout! But in all honesty, I enjoy interacting with the public, and it keeps me out of trouble.

       One thing I struggle with, however, is the attitude of some of our front-of-house staff – particularly the servers. There seems to be a lack of…well, ‘appreciation’ for how good they have it here. The pay is great compared to other restaurants in the area (some of them make more than I do!), the hours are reasonable, they have some flexibility in their schedule, and we offer benefits. And if I do say so myself, management treats them pretty good too. Yes, the work can be stressful, but no more than what the kitchen staff has to put up with – and they complain a lot less (and aren’t paid nearly as much, I might add). What’s going on here? Am I missing something here? Or are the servers just spoiled? – Name withheld

People go into the line of work they do for all sorts of reasons.

Often it’s the work itself, or the nature of the industry. As you say, you enjoy interacting with people so restaurant work suits you. For others, it could be what their job allows them to do – like travel if that’s their thing, or work from home if it’s not. Or the job may simply give them the time and money to pursue whatever outside interests they may have.

When it comes to what people are looking for from their job, however, we can be more specific.

Almost without exception, what people want—some would even say need[1]—can be summed up as follows (in no particular order):

  • (1) a paycheck
  • (2) a safe working environment
  • (3) to be treated fairly by their employer
  • (4) to feel successful, and experience a sense of achievement through their work

 

If what you say is true, it sounds as if your organization is doing all it can to meet the first three. Management treats them well, the money is good, and if you’re in compliance with all the appropriate safety regulations, their health and well-being is not being needlessly jeopardized.

But when it comes to your servers, there may be only so much you can do to satisfy need (4).

In Work Won’t Love You Back (2021), Sarah Jaffe explains that most people don’t view retail work as a ‘real job’ – even though it’s the single largest job category in US. She quotes one retail worker who laments that this attitude is ‘echoed constantly’ by her customers.[2] I can recall a career server once telling me that people often ask him: So, are you going back to school or something? In fact, many view these jobs merely as a weigh station to some better, more ‘legitimate’ work.

In other words, the public’s opinion of the work your servers do is robbing them of the full sense of accomplishment they might otherwise experience. And there’s not much you, as a manager, can do about it – or at least not unless you can shift broader societal attitudes regarding frontline service work.

This would also account for why your kitchen and other back-of-house staff seem more content (or at least don’t complain as much). These jobs—as well as yours—are in fact considered ‘real work’ by most people. Nor do your cooks and sous chefs have to interact directly with anyone who may look down on them as a part of their regular job responsibilities.

Bottom line is that you what interpret as the servers’ lack of gratitude for ‘how good they have it’ may instead be their expressed frustration with the public’s dim view of their profession. Again, none of this is your fault – nor is there not much you personally can do to counter it. But it is something you should probably be aware of should you choose to remain in this industry.

My advice to you then, is to do all you can to make your servers feel as successful as possible while they’re at work, at least. Thank them for their efforts, listen to what they have to say, continue to treat them as the professionals they undoubtedly are, and take their work—and complaints—seriously.

Because once they leave the building, you can be sure much of the outside world isn’t, and won’t.

 

NOTES:

[1] For an excellent discussion of what employees want/need from their employers, please see: The Enthusiastic Employee by David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michaels Irwin Meltzer. 2005. (Wharton School Publishing: Upper Saddle River, NJ).

[2] Work Won’t Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe. 2021. (New York: Bold Type Books), p. 113-116.

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