Vindication

I’ve been working since I was 14, but at 20 years old, I found myself without a job for the first time in a long time. I needed to work so that I could move away from home, so I began applying to places in the area as well as asking my social group if they knew of any openings. After a few weeks of shaking hands and dropping off applications, my friend Joel offered to ask his captain at Trader Joe’s if they were hiring, and even offered to drop off the application for me. I was ecstatic because everyone likes Trader Joes! I knew that I needed to make the most of this opportunity, so I thanked him for the offer but assured him that I would drop the application off I person. After he confirmed with me that they were hiring, I handed my application to the manager with a handshake and a smile. Even though Joel didn’t drop the application off for me, he must have put in a good word because the captain asked if I was free to interview the next day. That interview went well, and a second interview was scheduled with the other two mates.

The mates wanted to know what my interests were, how I knew Joel, what kind of hours I was available to work, and what drew me to Trader Joes. The entire process was the most casual interview I’d participated in. After a few days, I got a call inviting me to become a part of the Trader Joes crew.

I’d walked through Trader Joe’s before and seen its workers in action. The mostly young employees were always in motion, whether it was their hands flying above the register or wheeling groceries out to the floor. My observations and assumptions lined up accurately with my first few weeks there. I shadowed multiple people throughout the day, and touched on all crew member aspects of the store, including working the register, re-stocking frozen foods, and breaking down grocery pallets. When I got home after my training days I was exhausted. However, I was also happy because I was working in a community. My co-workers were proactive in introducing themselves, asking about what drew me here, and offering help throughout my training. Similar to the interview with the mates, the conversations felt genuine and natural.

After a few weeks of training, I began to feel more comfortable and confident around the store. I was finally trusted to work the register. It quickly became apparent that most people really like shopping at Trader Joes. They didn’t just like the food we sold, even though it is delicious. They liked the entire experience; the art, the bells, and the eclectic employees that I was now a part of. Their positive reaction always seemed to culminate at the cash register, and I found myself having hundreds of small conversations throughout the day. These short talks went beyond the usual, “How is your day,” or “Did you find everything alright.” We shared opinions and made jokes, and we smiled at each other. I’ve always been an extravert but also someone who despises small talk, and I found myself sliding comfortably into these register conversations, talking with people from all ages and backgrounds.

Another aspect that quickly became apparent was there was always something to work on in the store. This was why I shadowed so many different duties during my weeks of training, so that I could have a basic understanding of the different parts of the operation and could freely help with any of them. I was thrilled with this development, and attacked everything with zeal. You see, all of my retail jobs prior preferred that I stick to my role for the sake of organization. I would become uncomfortable when I finished the jobs assigned to my role and had nothing to do. I’d ask to help with something else, but they’d reply, “I’m sorry, but we haven’t trained you for that.” At Trader Joe’s, I was always in motion. Even though I had a basic understanding of the different stations within the store, an additional level of insight was required if I wanted to operate the station efficiently. That insight was only obtainable by working it myself. I had learn by working through the motions myself with a light supervision from my mates. For the first time in my career, I was learning by doing, and I found that I could retain information about the work much better after practicing the work. I was moving freely from station to station, working with efficiency and enthusiasm.

Or at least I thought I was. Joel told me that they have performance reviews twice a year, and you were pretty much guaranteed the 25 cent raise, with the chance for an even higher raise if you were exceptional. When my review arrived, I was ready. I was ready to hear how happy they were that I was on board, how impressed they were by my energy, and how they loved my interpersonal skills with the customers. What I was not ready to hear was, ”Kyle, we are not going to give you the raise.”

“What… why?”

“Well, we don’t think you deserve it.”

“I’m sorry but I don’t understand. Why not?”

There were three major areas of improvement, and after he said them out loud I understood why they would be important to him. But it still shook me up. I walked into that review under the guise that everything was going really well and I was quickly adjusting to the Trader Joe’s way of work. Now reality told me something completely different. Also, I knew for certain that I wasn’t the only crew member failing to meet these bars of measurement. Were my co-workers going to be denied a raise as well?

I walked outside for my break and sat on the bench, with my chin in my hands. For a moment I considered quitting right away. I could avoid losing face with everyone who trained me, maybe teach my captain a lesson on what he could have had in an employee if he hadn’t been so harsh. However, I soon realized that would be pointless, and my selfish exit would be forgotten within a week, and my position would be filled shortly after that.

In retrospect, my decision to stay was a decision to take the path of growth. For the next six months I kept the same energy and enthusiasm that I started with, but I added the element of discipline into my workday. I left home early so I wouldn’t risk being late to work, I started the timer on my phone when I went on break, I rearranged the frozen back stock fridge so that its layout matched the store’s layout. I still made time to laugh and joke with my co-workers and favorite customers because the interpersonal aspect of working there was what I treasured most, but I kept one eye on the end-of-year review the entire time.

By the time the end of year review came, I hadn’t called in sick for 3 months, I’d been independently writing the daily cereal orders for two months, and I trained a new hire on the register. However, a new captain had arrived 2 months ago and I was apprehensive when it was time for my review. This captain hadn’t seen the entirety of my change since my last review. Perhaps, like the last captain, he valued things that I wasn’t aware of, and I would have to spend the next 6 months changing everything again. So I was relieved when he praised my initiative around the store and efficiency in writing the cereal order. He felt that proactive improvement and efficiency were traits he looked for in his crew, and he was happy to give me the raise.

“Now, Kyle,” he said as he closed his binder, “I noticed that you didn’t get a raise last review.”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“I’m curious, what made you stay and work as hard as you did? I know I just got here, but I’ve spoken with the mates and they’ve all noticed a change in your work.”

I thought about the last six months for a moment. I remembered how pleased I was when I realized I was working in a community. I remembered how much more personal the customer service was at Trader Joe’s, and how I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with customers throughout the day. I remembered the freedom of the work at Trader Joe’s, and how there were always opportunities to keep moving and keep learning. However, one reason stuck out to me as the most significant.

“Well, I knew that I was capable of more than what they saw in me, and I had a burning desire to prove that to them.”

“Good,” he said as he looked me in the eye, “I hope you hold on to that.”

I stayed at Trader Joes for another 3 years, often working part time and going to school at the same time. After my second year, my captain wrote a recommendation so that I could transfer stores to the East Bay. The East Bay welcomed a Kyle with a little more season and a lot less apprehension about the work. They were lucky to have someone already up to speed on the etiquette and work ethic of crew members, and I made sure they knew that. However, I will always be thankful for the challenge my first store put in front of me after my first review. I experienced the satisfaction that comes from overcoming an obstacle, and I put myself on the difficult path of growth in order to achieve my second review. That first taste of challenge, growth, and vindication was an experience I still recall whenever I’m faced with something difficult or uncomfortable.