Eight Words

Eight WordsI remember a lot of things about that day.  It was July in Texas, which is to say, it was unbearably hot.  For the work I ended up doing that day, I was way overdressed in my long-sleeved blue button down and khakis.  I was training a new guy – Andy – who had recently been promoted from Service Agent (car washer) to the Rental Agent (working behind the retail counter).

Space was unusually tight that day.  As a franchised car rental agency, we shared a facility with an auto dealership, and square footage was at a premium.  As a result, our entire indoor existence was confined to a space about the size of a residential bedroom.  There was nowhere to hide – if you had even a whispered conversation in that space, everybody in the office could hear it.  In the office that day was the site manager, another rental agent, Andy, and me.

And Bob.

Bob was the boss. He wasn’t always in the office; overseeing four different franchise locations called him away a lot, but on that day he found his way to us. When I say Bob was in “the office”, what I really mean was that Bob was in the middle of our small retail space.  There was no private office, no place for Bob to retire to for conducting high level business. When Bob was in town, he took over the manager’s desk, which overlooked the tiny rental area as well as the parking lot where the rental cars were prepped and stored.

Bob was a difficult man, but not intolerable. He was highly critical of mistakes, but usually had the professionalism not to scold you in front of customers.  He was polite in his own way, and when things were going very well, he could be downright nice.  I never knew him to lie, and he didn’t seem to show favoritism to anyone. Still, he was a tough nut, and anytime he was in the office the whole staff would be on edge. It was an unenviable position to be the person who screwed up Bob’s mood, as he ended up taking it out on all of the staff equally.

That day was largely unremarkable, save for eight little words that Bob said to me. And because of those eight words, I’ll remember that day – and the way Bob treated me – for a long time to come.

Those eight words

Our four rental franchises were part of a single business entity, so we shared a fleet of cars. As such, it was a daily occurrence to transfer vehicles from one location to another to accommodate advance reservations and expected walk-up business. Everyone had job titles – rental agent, service agent, site manager, driver – but as a small business, we were expected to do whatever was required.  Service agents normally washed and detailed cars, but were commonly called upon to help customers at the counter. It was not uncommon to find well-dressed rental agents scrubbing or fueling a car, and site managers had to do it all. And with the volume of cars that had to be transferred to various locations, everyone was a driver.

On that day, I had transferred a car from another site to our location, after which I linked up with Andy to help show him the ropes. To demonstrate to him how things really worked, I took him out to detail a car (in our dress clothes, of course) to reinforce that his promotion didn’t mean he’d left behind the days of stinking of sweat and Armor-All. Polishing the car in the hot Texas sun, it didn’t take long to get very hot and sweaty. Back in the cramped office, the air conditioning was a welcome relief, but only for a moment.  Bob asked for a word with me outside.

It wasn’t unusual for Bob to ask for a private conversation, but this time there was something different about his tone. It was cold and firm – more so than usual. Maybe it was always like that with Bob, but it really stands out that day.

I met Bob outside, and he led me over to a car in the to-be-detailed area – in fact, it was the same car that I had transferred from the other location just that morning. He walked me around to the passenger side of the car, and pointed out a small but noticeable scratch and dent on the rear passenger door. I immediately began thinking, “Did I do a walk-around before transferring the car?” We didn’t fixed policies around these things, but for my own peace of mind I almost always walked around and checked for any unreported damage before I drove a fleet car. That day, I couldn’t remember if I’d checked.

Bob wanted to get to the bottom of this. He was visibly upset, and was obviously choosing his words very carefully. He told me that I should confess immediately if I knew anything about the origin of this damage. Then he said the eight words for which I will always remember him:

“If you lie to me, I’ll fire you.”

Bob and I had never been friends. He was the boss, and I was the subordinate – that line was silently yet clearly drawn. Still, we were decent to one another. To my knowledge, neither of us was ever dishonest to the other before or since that day. I was young and prone to occasional foolishness, but was still a reliable and trustworthy employee. And in spite of that, I’d just been threatened with termination if I couldn’t convince my boss that I truly knew nothing about the damage to a fleet car.

Before responding to Bob, my mind went a thousand directions at once. I was afraid. I’d left a stable job of six years just months before to take this position. I had an apartment, a car payment, and other obligations that are incompatible with unemployment. I was confused. Did I transport a damaged car? Did I check it? Could the damage have occurred after I got here? Or even worse, did I unknowingly hit something that caused the damage? I was angry. I’d never demonstrated any sort of dishonesty, and couldn’t imagine why I would be treated as a liar.

In the end, my response to him was one of reserved anger. I clearly communicated to Bob that I had no knowledge of the damage, and that I was offended that he’d treat me with such disrespect given our history together. Bob seemed to be surprised at my frustration with him, but it must have been enough to convince him that I really was telling the truth. Neither of us ever spoke of that conversation to each other ever again.

And on down the road

Bob and I had an unremarkable relationship after that – neither good nor bad. Not long after that encounter, I left the rental agency to take another job. I haven’t spoken to Bob since my last day there; it’s not that I’ve avoided him, just that our paths have never crossed.

Bob was probably a good man. I met his wife and kids on a couple of occasions, and they seemed great. He had two long-timers who had been with him for a while, and although he treated them badly at times, they stuck with him. He had a good head for business, and was a very hard worker. And yet, the one thing that stands out in my mind about my time working for Bob was that one conversation and those eight words. “If you lie to me, I’ll fire you.”

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all bitter about this experience. In retrospect, though the rental car agency wasn’t a great job, I truly learned a lot from the job – and from Bob. Though I doubt he intended it, he taught me more about business than I’d learned in six years working in a big box retail store. It was in my time there that I found my entrepreneurial spark. I’m glad I worked there, glad I worked directly for him, and glad we had that conversation. I learned a great lesson from that conversation.

The takeaway

That experience emblazoned in my mind, I carry to this day several lessons from that conversation.

1) In tense situations, words are weapons. Choose your arsenal carefully. Most workplace conversations don’t qualify as being life-altering, but it’s important to recognize when the things you say can affect the trajectory of a career.

2) Little things you say can have a lasting impact. I’m willing to bet that Bob never gave this conversation a second thought after it was over. He likely passed it off as just another conversation with a subordinate. However, my young and impressionable mind remembers everything about it – I was scared as hell that everything I had worked for could be taken away due to no fault of my own. If he was to read this post, I’d bet he would be shocked that such a trivial conversation would create such an impression that it would still ring clearly after almost two decades.

3) Don’t treat everyone the same. This is a tough one, especially for me, because my traditionalist upbringing pounded into me that everyone ought to be treated equally. However, we need to be careful with how this is interpreted. People should be treated with equal fairness, but this doesn’t mean that the way you interface should be identical from one person to the next. The approach you take with a hard-nosed veteran will likely be different than the way you handle a fresher just out of college. Similarly, an eager-to-please performer shouldn’t be handled in the same way as a slacker who barely makes it to work completely clothed. Bottom line: everyone will be treated differently based on where and who they are, but everyone has the right to be treated fairly.

About the Author

Tim Mitchell
Tim Mitchell is a data architect and consultant who specializes in getting rid of data pain points. Need help with data warehousing, ETL, reporting, or training? If so, contact Tim for a no-obligation 30-minute chat.

7 Comments on "Eight Words"

  1. Tim, that’s a great post, lots of lessons wrapped up in it. What’s intimidating – perhaps appropriately so – is how often something that we say can have that kind of impact. There are times when you know to choose words carefully, but the scary thing is that often it happens in a context where you are comfortable, or perhaps just not expecting the turn a conversation takes, and you say what you think…formed by previous experiences. It’s interesting to think on why he approached the situation the way he did. In my experience it’s often that people dread confrontation of any sort and when forced into it they assume a super sized persona to get them through it. From reading your post it seems more like he expected a lie, and that probably had nothing to do with you. What would you do if that same situation happened today? Does growing and knowing change what you can/will do as a response, or is it one of those siutations where once you’re in it the path is set?

  2. This article brings back some memories for me. I too worked for a rental car agency many years ago as a service agent/trainer/lead, etc. I have a number of memories from that job that I believe shaped me as well. The most profound comment that stuck with me however was a comment that I found to be idiotic and very telling. I had just started college and was working full time as a service agent and needed a schedule change due to my course schedule. I put in my request with the day manager and he said, "College? Why do you need to go to school? You already have a job!" There was no hint of sarcasm in his voice. He truly thought that my job as a service agent should have been good enough and that there was no need to move beyond that. Needless to say, this opened my eyes to how he viewed our staff. My relationship with him changed immediately. I had looked up to him as one of the more competent and fair managers. But after that point, I was a little bitter towards him. I stepped back and reevaluated my position with the company and realized that for all my hard work, I was still lumped in with a bunch of underachievers. It put a fire under me to work even harder at school so I could disassociate myself from that place. I moved on to a more professional position shortly thereafter. While I am sure I would have moved on from that job before finishing college anyways, in a way I have to thank him for being short sighted. Just like with your manager, Bob, I am sure this manager didn’t think twice about the comment. He actually quit the company before I did so I never did get the pleasure of resigning to him.

  3. This is a great post. It is interesting how an event like that early in your career can have such a lasting impact. I had something similar happen to me at my first ‘real’ job in college. I worked swing shift and our supervisor had taken a temporary position working the day shift. That temporary position had taken on a permanent feel, but he had not relinquished his position as supervisor. This caused some definite unrest amongst the crew, unbeknownst to me and the other new hire. They decided to show the consequences of not having an on-site supervisor by not providing any training to us. They were friendly enough, just didn’t give us any direction. After about 2 weeks they told on us to the big boss who stayed late one evening to observe our progress. The next thing we know, our supervisor shows up, calls us into his office and threatens to fire us. We were able to keep our jobs and the supervisor had to make a choice which opened up the Supervisor position to someone who actually worked swing shift. On that one day I learned 3 lessons that I have carried with me to every job I’ve had since: 1. Know by sight who everyone is in your chain of command 2. You are responsible for your own training 3. No matter how nice people are, everyone has their own agenda

  4. Tim, it’s been a while since I’ve read such a well written blog post. It can apply to any person of any age and any occupation. It is timeless. THANK YOU for sharing it.

  5. Thanks everyone for the comments. @Andy, I’m not sure if I would do anything different even when looking back through the lens of experience. As timid as I was at that point in my life, the fact that I was able to stand up to him and let him know that this approach was inappropriate was a significant transition for me.

  6. What a great post! I especially like the way that you’ve taken some positive elements from a negative experience. I know that I’ve always felt that I’ve learned more from adversity than I have from success. Years ago, I made an honest mistake that caused a financial services firm to lose some money (probably ranging anywhere from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars) as the result of a flaw in a database conversion script that I had written. Although my boss initially handled the situation in a very professional manner, I felt so bad about the impact of my mistake that I ended up finding another job. When I informed my boss of my intentions to resign my position, I could see that he was visibly very disappointed. We had a constructive conversation regarding the reasons surrounding my departure. I’ll never forget him saying that although it was a critical mistake, he should have had someone thoroughly review my code and that mistakes are going to happen and that we have just have to accept them as part of risk of doing business and move on. He even ended up offering me a 10% pay increase and an extra week of vacation if I would reconsider. Although I still ended up leaving, I’ve always had great respect for the way that he handled that situation. He actually handled better than I did. In retrospect to the post, I must respectfully disagree with your statement that Bob was “probably a good man”. In my humble opinion, a good man would never threaten to fire someone without first finding out the all of the facts. Of course, with my Irish Ancestry, and my zodiac sign of Taurus (the bull), I may be a little overly sensitive to issues such as this.

  7. Hi Tim – great account. Heard and felt your words. When staff go to work for a company they are assigned a place in the corporate hierarchy and the manager they get is a roll of the dice. Beyond that there is manager management. In a career of over 45 years I have encountered good and bad managers – some really bad. Bullies, vindictive, ignorant and career-wrecking managers. I learned to spot them early on in an employ and moved immediately before they canned my references and my spirit. I have a valuable ICT skill set and didn’t have to put up with this s**t. Becoming a contractor was the best thing I ever did and from then on have never looked back. I always insist my own staff hone their technical skills and ensure they are well trained and qualified. Yes that presents my company with the risk that as valuable property they will move but in a quiet moment in a sun lit park walking the grandkids, I think their futures and those of their families are more important to me than my corp. (Not sure how that will go down at the next stockholder AGM – LOL). /BW/Mike/

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