As a follow-up to my recent post on the lessons I learned from the best jobs I've had, I've been thinking about some of the worst—or least enjoyable—positions that I've held in my two-plus decades in the workforce. While there have certainly been plenty of periods in my career where I haven't enjoyed the work I've done, or taken much more from it than the paycheck at the end of the day, there are a handful of positions that stand out as having been particularly dispiriting and difficult to put up with.
Bearing in mind the old saw that "if it was fun, it wouldn't be called work", what is it that makes a position unbearable? In my case, so far, it's been a number of different factors. First: finding work that I'm just not suited for, and where there are no opportunities for learning or advancement. Second: no likeable colleagues—a factor that has worked as a redeeming feature in jobs that I otherwise would have given up on sooner. And, finally, the worst job I ever had was for a company that I felt was acting immorally, if not illegally, and definitely without having its customers' best interests at heart. Being made complicit in that, even for a short while, ranks as the single worst career experience I can imagine.
Here, then, are the worst jobs I've held to date, and some of the lessons I've taken from them:
3. Gas station attendant
Your first job is supposed to be a completely lousy experience, right? Mine certainly was: 4-hour shifts in a gas station that took me an hour to get to. Apart from the mind-numbing tedium of minding the register during the slow evening period, duties included keeping the rarely perused shelves and fridges stocked and…not much else. The obvious solution to a complete lack of anything to do—my high school homework—was expressly forbidden by the owner, who would show up at random times to check on the place and offer occasional wisdom on how to deal with eventualities like shoplifters ("prevent them from leaving, if you can") and stick-ups ("give them the money in the register, but don't mention the safe"). He would then disappear again until closing time, leaving me, at 15, in sole charge and convinced that I was in imminent danger of having to put that advice into practice.
The worst part: While work-life balance isn't a term that teenagers throw around too often, I got an early induction into one of the realities of the working world—that you can't do everything you want and everything you need to. So as soon as I'd banked enough money to buy the sneakers that had prompted my job search in the first place, I quit to free up my evenings and weekends for pursuing my true passion: Championship Manager.
2. Fast food worker
Don't get me wrong here: I'm not denigrating the entire world of fast food employees. Just the specific job that I held, with a British burger chain that was stationed within the same bowling alley—and had the same managers—that I listed as one of my favorite jobs. So what was so different about it? For one: the smell. No amount of laundering could get my uniform fresh. For another: isolation. I was often the only employee manning the place, meaning that I did everything from taking the orders and handling the cash to cooking the food, and cleaning the restaurant at close. Without the experience to realize that asking for help was not a sign of weakness, it often became overwhelming.
The worst part: The state of my hands. When you have to alternate register duties with spells at the griddle, you're going to wind up washing your hands a LOT (at least if you care about hygiene—some of my colleagues were less punctilious). Add in the regular burns from said griddle and the fryers, and it was sometimes tough to tell where the hamburger meat ended and my flesh began.
1. Credit card call center employee
Hands-down my worst career experience to date is the period I spent working for a major British bank, as a customer service representative in its credit card division during the height of the credit bubble. In retrospect, many of the signs that led to the end of the bubble were in evidence every day: people who couldn't pay their existing bills being offered ever more credit; bonuses dependent on the quantity of loan leads we generated; dealing with customers who clearly hadn't understood—or had explained to them—the terms of their contracts. Not to mention the call center staples, like being verbally abused over anything from a forgotten password or account servicing fees, all the way up to threats of legal action on a delinquent account.
As employees, meanwhile, we were treated as little more than numbers: software tracked and recorded every call and click, and call volume and efficiency were included in our monthly targets—a couple of complex (i.e. long) calls could mean the difference between taking a bathroom break or being able to meet your quota.
The worst part: Working somewhere that I knew was—at best—relying on its customers to not read the fine print when signing deals (indeed, subsequent to the financial collapse, UK law changed to outlaw some of the practices I had seen while working there). Worse than that, though, was that I dealt with so many complaints about the practices that I became immune to the outrage, and came to view them as a hindrance (angry customers make for longer calls; longer calls make for missed bonus targets), instead of treating them as genuine—and valid—complaints.
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