Monday, October 23, 2023

Comprehensive Employee Manual (Short Fiction)

I stood in front of the Manager’s office in a modified Parade-Rest posture. It was a fine place to keep a finger on the pulse of the Muy Verde Grocery store. It was right beside the Convenience Center where customers could make last minute impulse purchases of booze, lottery tickets and tobacco. 

The Convenience Center was a drop-in-the-bucket in terms of square-footage but it generated as much profit for the store as the entire line of cashier stations that processed general groceries.

Immediately to my left was the rotating rack that held the individual servings of vodka, gin and rum, known as "minis" in the trade. That four-square-feet had by far the highest profit/square-foot in the entire store. It was also had the highest shrinkage rate.

Muy Verde was very progressive and was right on top of all of the scientific management practices.

The bright-white terrazo floor had a subtle "X" worked into the seemingly random pattern of aggregate. That "X" indicated where the manager should be standing when not otherwise occupied.

I was standing on the "X".

Unfortunately, one of other progressive practices that Muy Verde was proud of included the idea of The Working Manager.

It was right at the beginning of my regular working shift. My dark gray cargo slacks were still crisply creased and my button-down oxford was immaculate. Shoes shined and my belt had the ideal two-holes showing. With all due modesty, I looked like I had stepped off of a recruiting poster. More accurately, I was almost an exact replica of the illustration on the inside cover of the Company's Comprehensive Employee Manual.

Standing there, I could not help but notice the angry customer prancing toward me. Eyes blazing, he stopped three feet in front of me and demanded “Are you the manager?”

“How may I help you today?” I asked. One of the leading-edge practices that Muy Verde was proudest of was their egalitarian, universal “Associate’s Manual” that was given to every employee from CEO to the lowliest, part-time associate in Produce. “How may I help you today?” had been scientifically proven to be the least offensive and most profitable way to greet customers in every situation (Page 14, second paragraph). I lived and breathed the manual.

“My pronouns are Shey/Shem/Xir” the customer led off.

Your cashier misgendered me and then your cashier made it worse by mocking me by using a non-preferred pronoun. I am so mad that I cannot even remember WHICH pronoun he used”  the customer hyper-ventilated.

“Oh dear!” I emoted empathy. The manual advised that we emote empathy and sympathize with our customers at all times.

“Either one of those transgressions is an offense that will result in the associate being fired. It says so in our employee manual and every employee, from top-to-bottom receives 80 hours of mandatory training every year on the contents of our employee manual and we are tested afterward so there is no excuse for misgendering” I informed the customer.

“First, I need a couple of details. What is your name?” I asked. On page 53 the company manual informed us that asking for the customer's name creates a bond and fosters trust.

“Now we are getting somewhere!” the customer crowed. “My name is Kevin McCandels.”

“Thank-you Kevin. And which of our cashiers misgendered you and then failed to use your preferred pronouns?” I asked.

The customer pointed at Josh, a flamboyantly gay man in his mid-twenties. Josh shrugged at me with a “shit happens” turn of his hands.

“OK, Karen, let me get this straight. You came in here to buy some groceries and now your day will not be complete until you get Josh fired. Do I have that straight?” I asked with a neutral, information seeking tone.

The customer’s name snapped backwards. “What did you just call me? Did you call me KAREN!!!???”

“I don’t have the time or energy to keep your silly, made-up pronouns straight and I will be fired if I get them wrong. So I just go with proper names now” I informed him.

“You called me Karen!!!” he huffed.

I rolled my eyes. Page 54 of the manual informs us that mirroring body language deepens emotional trust bonds. I was a bit proud that I was dialing into the customer's middle-school level body-language so quickly.

"Mirroring body-language" did not seem to work in this case.

“I am sorry if using your first name was too familiar, Candlestick” I apologized. I pulled a stick of Wrigley’s Doublemint out of my shirt pocket unwrapped it and pushed it into my mouth. This was shaping up to be an entertaining evening.

The customer’s partner came over to see why Candlestick was getting loud and starting to strut like a randy rooster.

Usually, in these kinds of situations, one of the couple is markedly more masculine than the other. It always struck me as odd that non-traditional couples who were bravely striking off to find their own, personal reality worked so hard to jam their pentagonal prisms through round and square holes. Never-the-less, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that every customer feels they have a home at Muy Verde (Page 5, 15, 25,…,135). But I digress.

I could not tell which of the two was the masc and which was the fem. Both had patchy facial hair. Candlestick was wearing yoga pants, a tutu and sparkly slippers while partner had on a cowboy hat, pronounced mammary development, a spangly sash with a tin-plated rodeo buckle, "Where's Waldo" striped socks and wing-tips.

They both smelled strongly of cannabis.

“So, Karen, policy dictates that I tell you to fill out the on-line complaint form and it will be processed in eight-to-ten business days.”

“You called me Karen!!!” he said with eyes snapping. He was really stuck on that.

“Yeah, well. I would get fired if I used the wrong pronoun but there is nothing in the manual mandating discipline if I don’t use your preferred first and/or last name. I know because I looked” I said with a tired sigh.

“So Candlestick, why don’t you and your buddy take your bags of munchies and toddle on out of here so good, hard-working people like Josh can go about their jobs and ensure that the citizens of this fair city have food to eat and a libation to unwind with after dealing with difficult people?”

Page 78 of the employee manual suggested that re-framing roles in terms of overarching objectives and reiterating how everybody must cooperate collective to meet the needs of society is the most productive method to defusing conflict. Also pursuant to defusing conflict, I maintained eye-contact with him while explaining the overarching reasons for Muy Verde reason for existence.

Candlestick was spitting mad and was starting to stamp his feet. His buddy was close behind. Empathy and all that.

“If you need help filling out the on-line form, I am sure you can find a 13 year-old somewhere who is familiar with the internet” I added. “On second thought, maybe you should find a 19 year-old. Yeah, in your case, a 19 year-old would be a much safer choice.” 

The manual points out that while creating empathy bonds are the first step, the issues brought by customers must be resolved. Clearing my throat "You know, in recognition of the fact that your self-esteem is so bruised by a gay dude refusing to play your childish, Simon-Says pronoun game, maybe you should consider using the self-checkout lane in the future..."

Fifty-two seconds later, I pulled out my smartphone and tapped in 9-1-1.

“You again, Jerry?” Anthony sighed from the other end.

“Yeah. Sorry. We have two customers destroying the Convenience Center and assaulting our cashier. Can you send Law Enforcement?” I asked.

“On the way” Anthony said.

“Do you want me to stay on the phone?” I asked. The company manual is very firm on staying cool and maintaining command-and-control during crisis situations.

“No, we got this” Anthony said, the quintessential professional he always was.

Maggie was giving as good as she got. She was a farm girl from the valley. The company manual mandated a 30 day suspension “for investigative purposes” when there was an employee-customer altercation. Seeing how Maggie had an uncle who was an attorney I had no doubt that in Maggie’s case it would be 30 days PAID leave and that she would be reinstated. The security video would show that the customers had instigated the altercation...totally unprovoked by Maggie.

And then Big Mike waded into the fray. Big Mike used to be a bouncer, back in the day and he still lifted. He had been in back mopping up a huge spill of orange-juice. Muy Verde was deeply committed to the environment and used glass packaging as much as possible to save the oceans and because glass was recycleable (Page 83). Unfortunately, dropping a case of orange juice made for a sticky mess that would get tracked all over the store if it was not dealt with immediately.

Boy! Big Mike certainly knew how to throw a straight-arm. This was not Big Mike’s first rodeo by a long shot. He knew how to game the security cameras and it LOOKED LIKE he was simply throwing up a fore-arm to defend against the aggressor’s swings. You had to be watching to notice that the arm continued to accelerate after it had batted away the ineffectual swing. The straight-arm clothes-lined Candlestick’s anorexic buddy and in Candlestick’s rage he was unaware that it was now two-against-one.

The kerfuffle ended seconds afterward.

Walking up to the managers office and kicking away through the 50ml minis from the stand the couple had up-ended, Big Mike asked “What are you doing here?”

“The company manual states that terminated employees are to present themselves to the manager one week after termination to receive a box containing the personal contents from the employee locker they had been assigned” I said. Then I helpfully added “Says so on Page 137 of the manual.” 

Sniffing the air, I said "You might want to run through the shower and put on some fresh clothes. They must have broken some whiskey bottles in the scuffle." Muy Verde graciously supplied a small, uni-sex locker-room that almost nobody used.

“Jesus, Jerry” Big Mike said with a tired shake of his head. “I wish I could have kept you because you are a hard worker but you just seem to rub people the wrong way.”

“The manual says on pages 23 and 69 that customers are very empathic and can pick up on associate’s emotional state. I guess I am just soured on humans. They are all bastards and cannot be trusted.”

Big Mike nodded in agreement. “That they are. Indeed, that they are.”


---Author's note: Written in the first person because this is how I feel many days. This piece was also an exercise in using "tags".---


  1. Its funny.. I can empathize.
    There seems to be this 'thing' going on in our world that you capture.
    I recognize it every time I go shopping. Between the parkinglot and cash register, I find I am annoyed, angry, pissed even. A few moments with a pleasant cashier, and I see we're all in the same boat.
    The system is broken, not people. We are all still the same human beings we have always been, but the system is so f*cked up beyond all recognition, it causes the problems.
    See grocery stores
    See the medical field
    See schools
    See... everything! The people involved are good, the system is bad. We need to do something different with our systems (aka employee manual). The people take the wear and tear, the system only gets bigger.
    ... I take solace in the fact that none of these complex webs will survive much longer.

    1. We are normal human beings trying to cope with an abnormal reality (construct).

  2. This is brilliant, ERJ (also, I like the brief mention of the part-time product clerk). Also helpful for me in that I now understand what the "tags" were you were referring to.

    I will say - if any consolation - that the people I deal with on Produce (A)Isle are almost invariably polite and kind. Then again, asking directions to the bell peppers or onions is hardly the sort of thing that creates a scene.

    1. Or maybe you work in an area that is a tad SANER than some AND freaks generally Don't really COOK, just eat fast food and frozen pizza bites.

      Even in my quiet backwater we have areas and Walmart's you don't shop in right on EBT days.

      As Uncle Remus said, "Don't be around stupid people doing stupid things" as well as "Stay away from crowds".

    2. Michael, I am actually in a larger urban area with all of its foibles. Even with that, people are unfailingly polite. I have only ever had complaints about things I cannot control - in that case they were inconvenient to me as well, so I really could sympathize.

    3. "People are unfailing polite", like I said a tad more SANE.

      Now if you're working in a California Whole Foods store with a homeless encampment surrounding it, well then, I have nothing to say.

  3. Before I retired I was Director of Customer Support. When I read this I laughed so hard I woke up my wife.
    Your in big trouble now Mister!

  4. As someone who used to manage a convenience store in the inner city of MPLs I totally agree with this! Well done Sir, well done!

  5. This is a great short story, Joe. Pithy, engaging, and the unexpected twist at the end is pretty zesty. Reminds of an up-to-date O. Henry piece.

  6. Love all the fiction, I look forward every day to another chapter

  7. Very entertaining and funny story. Thank you for brightening my day.

  8. Malicious compliance, codified conduct, right there in the Associate's Manual. love it.

  9. .....wait, this is fiction?

  10. "The customer pointed at Josh, a flamboyantly gay man in his mid-twenties. Jake shrugged ..." Is "Jake" intended to be Josh?
    "Immediately to my left was the rotating rack that held the individual servings of vodka, gin and rum; known as "minis" in the trade." Your semicolon should be a comma.
    I always enjoy your fiction, Joe.

    1. Joe writing: At least I didn't misgender Josh/Jake! You would have fired me.

      Thanks for the catches.


Readers who are willing to comment make this a better blog. Civil dialog is a valuable thing.