In almost any workplace there are a small number of important employees who really make the decisions. In court, it’s the judges. In law offices, it’s the lawyers. In hospitals, it’s the doctors. Most businesses of any kind have executives that fill the role. In all of these places, there are a greater number of people who perform more or less routine tasks. I’ll call them: The Help.
I’ve had over fifty jobs in my life. I know that that sounds unbelievable, but believe me, I hardly believe it myself. They ranged from easy to hard; sedentary to physically demanding; interesting to mundane; safe to somewhat dangerous. At all of my jobs before the age of forty, I was always “the help.”
Being the help is not easy. I worked for almost ten years in warehouses, handling cardboard boxes and wooden pallets, often loading and unloading trucks. I wore out a couple of pairs of work gloves every year, but the jobs still took a toll. Upon returning home in the evening the first thing that I did was wash my hands. This was quite a ritual, it took about twenty minutes. First give them a thorough washing with the Lava soap; then half-fill the basin with warm water; soak the hands; wash with milder soap; repeat; finally check my splinters (up to half a dozen or so at all times); maybe try to expel a splinter that looked ready to come out. So yeah, being the help is not easy.
I started law school at the age of forty, graduating at forty three. I passed the California bar exam and from then on I was one of the decision makers, one of the big shots. That’s a bit too self-aggrandizing. I was small-fry, after all. But I did stand somewhere above the staff. Much like being an officer as opposed to an enlisted man. So regarding the issue at hand, I have looked at working life from both sides now (“from win and lose, and still somehow it’s [working] life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know [working] life at all.”). Who wrote that song?
Here’s something that I can tell you for sure: the help can help you.
I learned great empathy from having been the help myself, so even before law school I generally treated people well if they were in a work situation. I took that attitude with me as a lawyer. Lawyers go to hundreds of law offices and courtrooms on a regular basis, it’s really amazing to count it all up. My habit when visiting the office of opposing counsel was to write down the names of the receptionists and secretaries, I’d write them right in the case file. In court, I’d make a note of the names of the court clerks and maybe the court reporter. This came in handy many times.
If you call a law office and greet the receptionist by name, you’re already ahead. She, probably she, answers phones all day, and she is likely to be impressed if this happens:
“Hello, law office.”
“Hi Barbara. This is Fred Ceely. Is Phil available?”
“Hi Fred. No, he’s out at a depo.”
“Well, do you think I could talk to Kathy?” (Phil’s secretary.)
“Sure, I’ll check.”
Some lawyers that did a lot of filing paperwork gifted the filing room staffs at courthouses that they frequently used. I knew a guy who would buy a big box of tamales from a famous Mexican restaurant and drop them off about once a month. When he showed up with papers, everybody smiled and jumped up to help him. If he had a time problem with a filing, someone would go with him on the walk through. Other guys would bring boxes of donuts.
It’s a great technique, you should try it.
It’s not only at work that you should be nice to the help. It makes your life sweeter in hotels and restaurants, for instance. Tip the housekeepers at the hotel and you get more towels. I always try to become a regular at restaurants that I like and tip a little bit high. It’s very nice to be greeted with a smile, and maybe by name, and sometimes you might even find out that the fish you want is getting a little old in the tooth, maybe better to get something else, or that the regular chef is out, and the replacement can’t cook a steak to save his life. “What do you recommend?” If they don’t already know you and like you, the answer to this question will always be what they are desperate to get rid of.
This is especially important if you find yourself in the hospital! The nurses are everything! Here’s a technique that I used during an especially uncomfortable week in the hospital long ago. Every nurse that walked in the door, I looked at her name tag and greeted her by name. After she, probably she, left, I’d write the name in a notebook. I always said, “thank you!” Even if they had hurt me. The list gets long in a hurry. I’d frequently check the list and make sure that I remembered all the names so that I could greet them without checking the tags. I’d make notes about what their concerns were and what we had joked about. Within a couple of days I was patient number one. I got great advice without asking; I got extra gowns and pillows; I was visited before I had had a chance to put the call button down. And in the middle of the night, when it was slow, they’d check to see if I was awake and maybe sit down and talk. All of that makes a big difference in the hospital. I’d like to think that I made a difference for them too.
Thinking about all of this, it occurs to me that we should just be nice to everybody, all the time. Even if there’s no real advantage in it. That taxi driver that you’ll never see again? Be nice, and give him, probably him, a decent tip. What’s a “decent” tip? In America, it’s an extra buck. If two would be okay, give him three dollars.* Unless you take multiple cab rides every day you’ll never miss it. To the driver, though, it tells him that you value his efforts and appreciate his help. It’ll get a big smile, and a sincere “thanks!” It’ll give the driver a moment of happiness in the middle of a difficult shift. How nice is that?
Besides! It’s the Golden Rule!!!
*Ha! I drove cabs thirty-five years ago, and it shows! I guess now that all cab rides are twenty bucks anyway, tip the guy seven instead of four. Something like that. It still gets a big reaction. Where else can you buy a smile for three bucks?