On none of these occasions was I caught stealing, hurting another person, or endangering the livelihood of the business. I never lied or cheated to get ahead. My fireable offenses were always chalked up to “poor fit.” In the moments, I was mortified. But, looking back on it- I wouldn’t do it differently.
I am a curious person, a self-proclaimed natural innovator. I respect tradition, but if there are process inefficiencies- I have to understand them. Very often, I yearn to fix them. In the wrong work environment, this can get me into trouble because some people are just happier sticking with the status quo. Even if the supervisor is sympathetic to the need for transformation, he/ she may not think it’s in his or her power to make changes due to the size of the parent organization. It turns out that helping someone realize their lack of influence is a clear way to ensure your termination.
My first job was at an Italian restaurant near my house. I worked as a hostess and waitress after school and on weekends. I was so young that I couldn’t even legally bring the wine to the customers’ table when they ordered it (which was a pointless rule set-forth by the US government but at 15, I wasn’t ready to take them on). The menu had 37 options. 12 appetizers, 18 entrees, and 7 desserts. After working there for a few months I stopped carrying my little waitress notepad because, out of the 37 choices customers could pick from, only 3 or 4 were ever actually chosen. The ingredients to make the other meals were sourced, paid for, delivered, put away, and then- at the end of the week- thrown away because no one ever ordered the veal or the haddock.
I decided to help the manager by collecting data from all of the waitstaff on their orders over the past month. I spoke with the kitchen staff about what they thought could be eliminated or reduced. Just as I suspected, the restaurant could be sourcing dramatically fewer ingredients and maintain customer satisfaction.
When I brought my findings to the owner he was livid and I was shocked. “Why”, I asked, “wouldn’t you want to save money? ” He figuratively threw me out of his office and literally told me to turn in my apron.
I worked through high school and University at various restaurants and bars as a hostess, waitress, bartender- you name it. I honestly think everyone should have to work in food service because it gives you a perspective on life that is invaluable to being a good person with good morals. I was fired from 2 more restaurants for nearly the exact same thing. Asking why something is done a certain way should spark an exciting discussion about how to improve operations and spur organizational growth, but more often than not these types of discussions are viewed as threatening because the central authority feels challenged- and for that reason, the “rogue agent” must be destroyed.
Is that ethical?
I worked at a night club as a VIP bottle hostess which is a fancy way of saying that I brought the bottles out to people who ordered them in the VIP lounge. If you have ever been to a VIP table you know that these tables aren’t cheap. One bottle of Grey Goose, for example, can cost upwards of $200. It seemed wasteful to me but I guess if you have the money you might as well spend it… but then I noticed something. The bill we were bringing to the patron at the end of the night included 20%, but the customer didn’t know that- and they often tipped 20% on top of the included gratuity.
It looked like this: when the customer bought a $200 bottle, the state tax was 5% ($10), we included 20% ($40), so we would bring them a bill for $250. The patron would then tip 20% ($50 on a $250 bill), sign the receipt, and go home- never having any knowledge that they tipped us 40%.
When I brought this dilemma up to my colleagues they literally laughed out loud and looked at me with confusion... “that’s the point.” I wish I could say I was surprised at the reaction but that would be a lie. I did, however, assume there would be at least one other person who also felt that this scheme was wrong. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
I knew that management would disapprove of my opinion on this double tipping proposition- so I didn’t bring it to their attention. Instead, I refused to participate. I would let my customers know that 20% was already included but they were free to tip on top of that if they would like to. Some did, some didn’t, but I developed a reputation for being honest and suddenly, every customer wanted my table every weekend. No one could figure out why and within a few weeks I was hauled into the manager's office to explain myself.
I told them about the double tipping problem and, as I imagined, they were not happy. Not only was I taking money out of their pockets, but I was exposing their scheme to customers- which was a liability for them.
“Is it ethical though? Think beyond the money and the theatrics of it all. Ask yourself- is it fair?” I waited for their reply and the owner of the club looked at me over the desk and said- “honey, I don’t have to ask myself anything because I own this place and you don’t work here anymore.” I could have tarnished their reputation or been spiteful but, what was the use? It’s my opinion that free markets always work themselves out. I knew they would run that corrupt club into the shallow grave it deserved. I was mortified to have been fired but ultimately happy to leave. It is to my distinct satisfaction to report that the club in question is all but abandoned to this day.
Can I have more?
To be fair, this last occurrence was less of a firing and more of a parting ways. I was working for a company in the private sector in operations management. I was on call 24/7 and it was common that I answered the phone to a screaming boss at 3 am. The CEO told me once, and I quote, “I don’t pay you to think, I pay you to do what I say.” Regardless of the aforementioned conditions, the job in question was one of the coolest I could have imagined. It involved world travel, great people, and autonomy to make high-level decisions. The breaking point came when I was offered a job with a consulting firm out of the blue. They had heard about me and my skills from a colleague and thought I would be a really valuable asset to their team.
I took everything into account and decided to reach out to my boss to see if we could find a way to work on some of the problems I had with my current position because I wanted to stay. I listed my issues with the role I was in and described how they could be resolved. I ended the monologue with “I think I deserve higher compensation and the right to take the vacation that I have earned. Do you think that is possible? Can I have more?” After a long pause, he let me know that he appreciates my work but it isn’t going to happen. If I think I can get what I’m “asking for” from another company then I should probably go see if the grass is greener over there.
I hung up the phone with disappointment but optimism for the future.
As it turns out- I can have more. By asking the tough questions and standing my ground I found belonging with a group of smart, ambitious, people who appreciate my curiosity. My questions are the water that helps the grass absorb the nutrients from the soil and my team members are the roots that keep the grass from blowing away. My boss is the sun that infuses energy into our efforts but doesn’t interfere with our process.
It is amazing what the right combination of inquisitiveness, innovation, freedom, and philosophy can do to shape the world. I encourage everyone to ask the tough questions without fear of failure or fire because they are worth it and because you can make a difference.