Imagine a relentlessly cheerful, damn-near manic employee of your favorite hipster grocery store begging you with his eyes for it all to come to an end while chirping about a great deal on peanut butter this week please oh please let him take you straight to it.
You don’t have to imagine, though—just visit a busy Trader Joes and there’s a good chance you’ll meet that worker:
According to an unfair labor practices charge filed on Thursday with a National Labor Relations Board regional office, Thomas Nagle, a longtime employee of the Trader Joe’s store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was repeatedly reprimanded because managers judged his smile and demeanor to be insufficiently “genuine.” He was fired in September for what the managers described as an overly negative attitude.
The morale issues appear concentrated at some of the company’s largest and busiest stores, including one where a union is trying to organize. Tensions have been heightened, according to several employees, by the pressure to remain upbeat and create a “Wow customer experience,” which is defined in the company handbook as “the feelings a customer gets about our delight that they are shopping with us.”
The entire piece is worth reading. I’m sure anyone who’s worked in the service industry (retail and food especially) would recognize many of the practices and managerial attitudes described here. While it’s often in the context of something along the lines of Chotchkie’s from Office Space, an increasingly competitive low-end service sector will inevitably differentiate itself through harder-to-maintain unique experiences. And like all business since the dawn of modernity they will present themselves as authentic and legitimate experiences. The problem for Trader Joe’s, and others, is that when that distinguishing factor is the cheerful disposition of your workforce it becomes a brand asset worth protecting and, well, management will do what they do.
Managers were determined to have employees remain cheery with colleagues as well their customers. Mr. Nagle’s girlfriend, Vanessa Erbe, also worked in the store and said she once gently complained to a manager about being stranded at a demonstration stand for 20 minutes after her eight-hour shift ended. The next day, a second manager asked her to write the first manager a letter of apology. “It was demoralizing,” she said.
This is not the type of publicity any business wants but it must be particularly so for Trader Joe’s. This is, after all, their schtick. We’re not like the other guys, we actually care.
Yet it’s still a hierarchal organization with all the usual workplace power inequalities. They way this is supposed to work (by liberal standards, at least) is that you provide the kind of healthy, well-compensated, well-respected work environment for your employees and then the result is a pleasurable experience for customers.
All service labor in a capitalist economy is affective labor, but you can’t actually force it with openly exploitive and punitive practices…at least not very well, and not without the eventual backlash by workers and a press establishment that likes to expose dirty laundry.