RALL: The Indignity Of Labor

I love it when people send me things. Recently I came into possession of a memo distributed by the Marriott Corporation to employees toiling at its hotels. Titled "LEARN" (for "Listen, Empathize, Apologize, React, Notify"), the memo is a management treatise advising workers how to deal with irate customers.This model of mid-'90s corporate thinking even goes so far as to suggest subservient word-for-word responses to "guest complaints." The E-is-for-Empathize section, for instance, suggests the following possible responses to a rabid client:You have every right to be angry. I agree, this is unacceptable. No one should ever have to go through this. This is certainly not up to our standards.Admittedly, these statements might be appropriate for extreme problems. For example:Guest: "Excuse me, but a sadistic madman broke into my room while I was sleeping and disemboweled my husband. I awoke with his entrails and brain matter covering the ceiling. I am very upset about this."Employee: "I agree, this is unacceptable. No one should ever have to go through this. This is certainly not up to our standards."But what about the garden-variety hotel complaint?Guest: "Hello, front desk? Yeah, I can't get the porno-movie station to work."Employee: "You have every right to be angry."That's absurd. No one has the "right" to be angry at anyone who didn't intentionally harm them. Why should anyone absorb abuse for a problem they didn't cause?This brings us to the new British study that reveals why low-level workers are 20 percent more likely to die of stress-related heart attacks than executives: They have no control over their destinies. Other people deciding what you do, when you do it, how much you earn and whether or not you get to work at all is a prescription for an early death. Every time a boss tells a worker what to say and how to act, he or she is slowly killing that person.Now back to the Marriott memo. Here's the L-is-for-Listen part: "Listen actively and naively. Listen as if you're hearing the situation for the first time. Use body language to show that you are paying complete attention--maintain eye contact, nod, take notes. Repeat or paraphrase what the guest has said to make sure you heard it correctly.""Naively"? I wonder if Marriott pays their employees' funeral costs after the poor slobs die of coronaries. Even Hitler never got the kind of servile treatment the company expects its $10-an-hour workers to dole out to its customers. Can sexual favors be far behind?Check out the recommended response for "A-is-for-Apologize": "I take full responsibility." "Please allow me to fix this for you." I envision the following exchange:Guest: "The ice machine doesn't work."Employee: "I take full responsibility. (Drawing sword) Being unworthy of the honor of hara-kiri, I beg permission to commit seppuku as the filthy dog that I am. Here is my address: Please burn my home and sew salt over the ruins and speak my name no more."Guest: "What a great hotel! I'll definitely stay here again!"This "customer-is-always-right" mantra has gone way too far. As the veteran of numerous service jobs, I can assure you that any financial stress from a possible loss of business doesn't approach the mental anguish of apologizing to some hostile psychopath for an imagined offense.I vividly recall a few bosses who didn't enforce worker servility, and they presided over employees with amazingly good morale. Despite low salaries, turnover was low--and this model would be the norm if executives weren't so utterly clueless. Consider the following exchange:Guest: "My room is too cold."Employee: "F--- off." (Hangs up) Honest, succinct and to-the-point, this conversational style allows employees to maintain their dignity. For years, it has been used by staffers at numerous government agencies, post offices and university bursar offices to empower millions of low-wage workers. The privilege of employer-sanctioned surliness enhances worker satisfaction, thus reducing health costs and prolonging lives.As American wages continue to fall and underemployment becomes the national norm, permitting workers to diss clients may well become the social glue that saves the country from economic and social disintegration. These days, a bad attitude isn't just a good idea: It's patriotic.

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