Don’t Make Life Harder for Service Industry Workers

My friends, we need to have a little conversation today about some things you do that you seem to believe are oh-so-witty, but are actually super not cool. We are speaking, today, about retail pranks, restaurant hijinks, and other behaviours that you may find amusing, but actually create a lot of needless work for people making low wages to wait on people like you with a patient smile and a polite tone. And yes, I’m including you ‘activist’ types who think that you’re striking some kind of great blow for the movement by disrupting service environments.

I used to work in a bookstore, where I sort of needed to be able to find the stock. Not just on the mornings when it was my job to go through the restock report and make sure certain books were where they were supposed to be (‘did we bring out another copy of Ulysses after the previous one sold?’), but when customers asked for a book (‘I Am A Cat? That’s in fiction, let me go get it for you’). Knowing where our stock was: kind of critical to doing our job well, and woe betide the bookseller who couldn’t immediately summon a book when requested.

The problem was that stock moved. Sometimes it was accidental; someone picked up a book while browsing and set it down, started reading and forgot to put it back or bring it to us at the front counter, or any number of other things. These things happen, which is why we roved the floor constantly to keep stock in order, restock things, and make sure the store was constantly looking tidy, clean, and fun to browse. We wanted people to pick up books and be tempted by them, and we wanted to make sure that when they went to, say, the science section, they found science books there, since presumably they went there because they were interested in that subject.

And sometimes it was deliberate. We had a few ‘witty’ customers who would deliberately shelve things in the wrong place. A biography of Hillary Clinton would end up in True Crime. Various things that belonged in Biography would migrate over to fiction (people really liked messing with that section). Children’s books would end up in the adult area and vice versa. These acts were sometimes done out of spite directed at the subject or author, or because the browser thought it would be funny.

For us, it was a constant headache. Who would think to look in the Pets section for a book about Galileo? I certainly didn’t, until it happened to me three times and I started just making a beeline for that section every time I came to work to find the book and reshelve it in the correct section. What these people didn’t seem to understand was that their acts of protest, commentary, or mischief were actually harming the clerks paid to help them, and on a larger scale, also harming the business, because having our time wasted on this kind of nonsense meant the bookstore had to spend more money on staff, and in turn pass more costs on to customers.

Almost anyone who’s worked in retail can narrate stories like this, of items migrating as a result of willful customers thinking they’re doing something clever. It’s not clever. It’s annoying. And it’s especially annoying when people do it because they think they’re engaging in ‘activism’ and all they’re really doing is hurting the very workers they claim to be fighting for or supporting; moving stock around doesn’t benefit retail workers, sabotaging stores doesn’t help people get raises, and being a dick, in general, isn’t really very activisty.

And don’t even get me started on the things people do to waitstaff. Writing with condiments on the table? Really, people? Leaving nasty notes or trick tips for waiters because you think it’s funny? Filing false reports of bad service? Sending dishes back repeatedly just because you can, and enjoy exerting your authority? You do realise all of these things just make you look like a giant jerk, right? And if you think you’re sending some kind of message to the management in solidarity with a waiter? Think again.

Your waiter cleans up your disgusting mess long before management and owners ever see it. Just like the people who work for chains clean up your protest ‘mess’ long before it has any kind of meaningful impact. There absolutely are ways to protest things like the intrusion of chains into small communities, or their labour practices, or any number of other things, but don’t do it at the cost of the workers. Because the workers are just there to make a living, often hating what they do, struggling to survive, and you coming in and being a jerk is the last thing they need.

Don’t make the lives of service workers harder with ridiculous little ‘jokes’ and fake protests. Focus on being a good customer, and focus on directing your energies elsewhere, where they’ll actually matter. Don’t tell service workers to ‘smile!’ when they don’t perform to your satisfaction. Don’t verbally abuse service workers for not being able to read your mind or instantly deliver what you want.

If you’re not satisfied with the service or options on offer at a given establishment, use appropriate channels to register your unhappiness. Management welcome communications about these issues, as do most staff, who are more than happy to work with you to resolve an issue like a book not being in stock or a menu item being missing. But if you’re going to be a dick about it, or you’re known among the staff for being a problem customer…