My first boss ruled a restaurant on a seaside boardwalk. She was a plump, big-haired woman whose cheeks were rouged to a fiery red – a clue to her true nature that I, at fifteen, missed. Mrs. S hired me one day and fired me the next, but not before cutting me down to such tiny bits that a seagull could easily have swallowed me whole – and I wished one would.
I had never waitressed before, never actually worked before (besides babysitting), so some silverware got dropped, some checks may have been added incorrectly, tables no doubt were slowly served and poorly wiped. The small dining room had an even smaller kitchen with swinging doors. Carrying a full tray through them required a skill I hadn’t yet even practiced. At the end of the night, after she had me on my knees dustpanning up spilled salt shakers, Mrs. S informed me that I was pathetic, a loser who would never be any good at anything. She added that she was doing me a favor by telling me so. No one had ever spoken to me like that before, and all I could do was cry. My tears only inspired more abuse: I was weak, a baby, a disgrace to my poor parents, unfit for the “real” world. Finally, she held out her hand for the frilly black tea apron I’d worn, scolding me at the top of her lungs for soiling it.
Of course, I lived to tell this tale, but along the way I suffered many deaths when encountering new bosses, no matter how they treated me. Years later, after a long absence from the work world, I — a terrified adult — interviewed for a job as public relations manager for a small community hospital. I had done some local newspaper writing, but didn’t know how to use a Mac, write a press release, or produce a publication. Mrs. B, twenty years my senior, saw my slight resume (and her small budget) and hired me, increasing my fear a thousandfold. She then took the time to teach me everything. “You can do this,” she said over and over again. And lo and behold, eventually I could. When I made a mistake — and there were many — she corrected me and moved on with a simple “Try again.” She gave me her trust and faith, her knowledge and experience. I paid her back by doing my best, and when it wasn’t good enough, I tried harder. “Why don’t you know how good you are?” was her common question. Nobody had ever asked me that before, and =- as I had at 15 =- I took those words to heart.
Since these unforgettable bosses, there have been others. Some were fair, some incomprehensible. One was just plain nuts. Another seemed to have no work ethic. In one job my desk was moved behind a screen, the last stop before I was shown the door. In another I was sent off to a pricey conference that had nothing to do with my work, because I thought it would be fun and my boss wanted to make me happy. I have learned what I could from each of them, whether I wanted to or not. Above all, I have come to understand the importance of simply being kind.
Jobs today are hard to come by and harder still to keep; bosses hold that upper hand more securely — and frighteningly — than ever. They too are under pressure to produce and perform. But if kindness could only matter more in the workplace, it is easy enough to believe that everyone would benefit. This is a lesson that all my bosses have taught me well, and I intend to forever pass it on.