I was fired once.
I was seventeen years old, working for a gift store in my hometown. My job was to be a “jack of all trades,” from running errands to wrapping gifts to encouraging customers to make a purchase. I was speedy at errands, terrible at gift-wrapping, and mediocre at sales.
Meanwhile, my employer was running out of money, dodging creditors, and avoiding invoices. My job began to include answering angry calls while she hid. Looking back, I can see that my boss had no time to be kind to a teenager—her professional life was falling apart.
The one bright spot that summer? My daily walk to buy a sandwich at the deli across the street. The owners were unfailingly kind to me, with a friendly hello or a warm word.
When the busiest day of the summer arrived—the annual “sidewalk sale” where retailers unloaded their old inventory for low prices—my boss had me running for 12 hours straight. My high point was selling a pair of very expensive cubic zirconia earrings during the rush—my biggest sale ever.
But when the hordes cleared, she pulled me into her office and fired me on the spot. I was devastated.
After taking the weekend to lick my wounds, I realized I wanted to say goodbye to the deli owners. Somehow, they had become my friends. I just couldn’t disappear without a word, even though I was ashamed to tell them what had happened. I knew I wasn’t blameless; there are always two people involved.
I walked in to the deli, admitted what had happened—and they offered me a job on the spot with a higher salary for a shorter workday. They told me they’d always liked me, and they knew I wouldn’t let them down. I was stunned.
I worked at the deli for two summers and loved every minute. I probably let them down sometimes, but I’m also sure they didn’t regret the job offer. They taught me a little lesson on how to be a good employer virtually every day, including:
Set fair boundaries and stick to them.
How about the week that I strolled in 15 minutes late for four days in a row? They simply smiled and docked my pay for an hour. I was never late again.
Pay attention to individual needs.
The deli wasn’t exactly a hot bed of creativity. It was my job to draw up the “daily sandwich specials” sheet. Every day, I got more elaborate with it—more doodles, more colors, etc. They weren’t annoyed. Instead, they were patient and only drew the line when my masterpieces started to consume more than 20 minutes of time.
You need to understand who an employee is, while they figure out who they will be.
One young male customer became increasingly interested in me. After one date, I knew he wasn’t for me. But he kept coming into the deli, and I didn’t know how to handle the aggressive attention. Instead of being irritated with me, they let me hide in the back of the store one day, even though it left them short-handed up front. Maturity takes time, and people don’t “grow up” all at once, even in a terrific work environment.
Helped me begin to understand responsibility for others.
The deli had a number of refrigerated cases to hold all of the cold cuts, cheese, and salads. During my second summer, I was promoted to “manager” of the other summer employees. One of my responsibilities was to make sure all of the doors to the cases stayed firmly shut, so the cold air stayed inside and the food stayed fresh. Well, the doors were sticky and didn’t slide shut easily. After warning me to keep an eye on it several times, my boss calmly started docking me (and only me) a quarter every time he found the door open. Simply put, I earned a higher wage than the others and therefore more was expected of me. End of story.
Now that I’m a boss, I try to remember the lessons that all three of those folks taught me that summer. Perhaps, in the end, it boils down to each of us understanding that the employer-employee relationship is a two-way street.
What about you? What have you learned from a boss or an employee in the past?
Elizabeth Sosnow is managing editor at BlissPR. Follow her on Twitter at @elizabethsosnow. A version of this story first appeared on Bliss PR’s blog.