What about Annie?

November 16, 2010 by Wally Bock

Annie worked for the same company for forty years and for all of that time she was what her company calls a “customer service clerk.” Her job was processing orders that came in the mail and answering the phone. The caller might be a customer or one of her company’s salespeople with an order or a question or a problem.

Annie mastered the basics of her job in the first few weeks. Within a year she was a star in the office. She did twice as much work as any other clerk. And she was always willing to help out if someone needed help. She usually trained the new clerks.

When she retired, HR called her in for an exit interview and to explain how the pension program worked. Then Annie went back to the office for her retirement party.

One of the other clerks had make a coconut cake, Annie’s favorite. There were “Happy Retirement” balloons. Her co-workers gave her a replica Oakland Raiders jersey with “Stabler” and the number 12 on the back. Annie loved the Raiders and had a crush on Stabler.

When the party was over, her co-workers returned to work. Annie put her personal belongings in a file box. She gave her little mirror with the message “Smile, they can feel it!” to her friend Marilyn. Then she left the building.

I interviewed Annie more than twenty years ago as part of a research project. I came upon my notes while I was doing some cleaning this weekend.

I had interviewed her co-workers so I knew that Annie was smart and full of good ideas, even though she didn’t have much formal education. When I asked her, “What could the company have done differently?” I expected the usual answers about policies.

Instead she sat silently for a long time. When she finally began speaking, it was like a dam had burst. She probably talked for ten minutes straight. She was angry.

She was angry that after she mastered her job there was nothing else to learn. She was angry that in forty years no “boss” had ever asked for her opinion on anything that mattered.” They treated me like I was a desk,” is the way she described it.

I left that interview emotionally drained. I felt the same way on Sunday afternoon after re-reading my notes. I asked myself the same questions I asked twenty years ago.

“How many more are there out there like Annie?”

“What are we wasting when we don’t treat them like people?”

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

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