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I got fired from Best Buy; do not weep for me
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Here I sit in my blue Best Buy shirt, coming down from the decision of a manager to send me home with a "voluntary separation" form. This is the first job that I have been fired from in my whole life, and the decision is not totally unjustified. Although it feels bad to have someone categorically state that I did not do my given job, I cannot help from regarding this incident from afar and with an askance eye, finding the humor in all of it.

There was little humor in me seeking the job, although since age nineteen I had joked to my future wife that my only career goal was to "work at Best Buy." Well, I accomplished my other career goal -- that of "scooping hog shit" -- and now this chapter has come to a close as well.

I'd sought the job while desperately trying to get work after graduating from the University of Arizona in Tucson with a Master's degree in English literature. Moved into the upstairs bedroom of my mother-in-law in Richfield, Minnesota, and living with my wife, I suddenly had no means of employment. First I called around to area GNC stores, eventually getting about 25 hours a week. Since this was not full-time, I filled out online job applications to other retail stores.

For the Best Buy application, I assiduously answered their personality exam as if I were a bubbly 17-year-old girl. "Do you enjoy striking up conversations with strangers?" it asked. My reply was not fully true: "Strongly agree." In a group interview, I was hired by the Richfield Best Buy general manager Brad.

After being hired to teach full-time in the position of Assistant Professor of English by Brown College, I stayed on at Best Buy. This was out of habit, mostly, because since February of 2004 I have held two jobs at one time with only a one-year respite my first year of grad school (in order): an office job in Omaha, Nebraska, coupled with labor at a Harlan, Iowa, hog-farrowing facility; teaching assistant at the UofA and pizza delivery boy at a Tucson restaurant; from the delivery job I changed to working retail at GNC, where I worked until graduation.

Continuing to work at Best Buy was unnecessary, but I did it, and during the Christmas 2007 season I nearly quit: needing warm bodies, the schedulers had me listed for 20 hours or more; I had the hassle of sometimes going in and working while I had grading to do; other times I'd call and say I couldn't make it, which is its own hassle. "Okay, no big deal," my department (lower-level) manager would say if I told him I couldn't come in. But I got through that first quarter of teaching, and managed to limit my Best Buy hours to only two days a week, and then one day a week.

My paychecks were pretty paltry: $40 to $80 for two-week periods. I joked that I worked there "to pay taxes." The employment did have a side-benefit: Best Buy has a generous employee-discount program, whereby I bought "gifts" of purchases for friends and family: an LCD TV and dryer for my mother-in-law, a 46-inch TV for my brother, a refrigerator for my wife's sibling, and other smaller purchases I've forgotten.

Now, before my termination becomes official, I'll have to buy deeply-discounted household items my wife and I are not exactly in need of, but to buy them without saving 30-60% wouldn't make sense.

A friend and coworker of my brother's, Keith, worked at Best Buy long ago, and he denounced their workplace policies upon hearing that I worked there. "They're assholes and they'll screw you," he said. With this I agreed, but then, as now, regarded my employment as tongue-in-cheek, given that I had no dependence on the income.

My perception of me working there was that I gave 75%. I was 15+ minutes late one afternoon and got a written warning from a manager who has since left Best Buy, Geoff. He was also from Iowa, and in high school baseball he competed with Harlan in a state championship game. In that game in Carroll, I remember him hitting a long long drive to right-center, which my classmate and future Division I baseball player Matt Daeges tracked down at the wall with a great catch.

Geoff and I talked about this, and he joked with me about my athletic physique. Giving me the warning, he said, "You're a good guy, it's not about you, but we need more out of you." Still, I can't recall ever being truly on time to work -- not once -- although I wouldn't be more than ten minutes late because that would generate an automatic e-mail to a manager.

Later, uninterested with a slow night with few customers, I got caught watching TV. Again, although my heart beat quickly when being sent home, I didn't take this seriously. I'd been watching NFL football, discussing the game with a customer. The manager confronting me, with a particular intensity, was Nate.

See, there is a management position at Best Buy stores where a manager simply walks around the store observing whether employees are doing anything productive -- this has been Nate's position since I was hired in August 2007. Best Buy's turnover rate is one of the worst in the retail industry, and most of the other managers have either been promoted or have moved to other jobs after not being promoted.

So Nate seemed to have his eye on me; definitely my laid-back personality didn't resemble at all his intensity. I started saying "hi" to him; no big deal, whatever. In him I saw an old piece of myself -- a big, athletic-looking man, who, in not being able to track how people would interpret intensity, would actually intimidate others. So that was the only conflict that made working at Best Buy anything less than a job of chatting with coworkers and enjoying teaching technology to middle-aged Minnesotans. I didn't, and I don't, understand Nate, and I did see it coming that he might fire me.

And he fired me for the most insignificant "infraction." A middle-aged customer came into the store with his adolescent daughter and son. He told me, "I just came from the Best Buy kiosk in the Mall of America, and they told me this store would have Wiis." The planned store in the MoA hasn't opened yet, but I guess they have a few employees in front of the future store greeting people. The Nintendo Wii is a sought-after gaming console whose shipments come in scarcely, and I've had to point out to many a customer, "Sorry, we don't have any Wiis."

Since this customer said that he had been told our location had the product, I looked for another employee who would know if we had any. Seeing Nate, I went up to him and asked, "Do we have any Wiis?" He replied, "No, we haven't had a shipment for a long time."

I returned to the customer and said, "Sorry, we don't have any Wiis. What did the other store tell you?" The customer asked for a manager, and I returned to Nate, saying, "He's asking for a manager."

During this time, I admit that I was not moving with much spirit, dreading an occurrence that happens way too often at Best Buy stores. One store will be out of a product, and without calling the other store, the employees will send trusting customers on a trip to another store miles away, where they find that the product is out as well. As a customer, the wasted trip would infuriate me, and this is how the customer reacted. (Whenever the "we don't have it; the computer shows another store does" thing happens, I always -- tediously -- call the other store for them to check if the "RSS" or product inventory is right.)

According to Nate, the customer said I "just stared at him" when he asked for a Wii, and that he'd "never come back to this Best Buy (location) because the service is better in Eagan."

I may have hesitated with the customer, thinking, "Could we really have Wiis? I'll have to find another employee who knows." But I don't recollect being excessively slow at all. I did have a very blank look on my face.

When Nate finished with the understandably angry customer, he must have immediately walked to get the "voluntary termination" form. Returning to me, he said, "You can put that down," referring to the cleaning fluid and rag I had in my hands (I was cleaning some product of dust, something few other employees ever do). "I'm sending you home," Nate said, "and I want you to look at this form. If you want, you can send a letter to the general manager Jeff appealing my decision."

"Can we talk about this?" I said.

"Okay," he said, leading me to an open area behind the checkout area.

"What happened with that customer?" I asked.

"He said he wasn't happy with your service," Nate said.

"Well, can I tell you my version of what happened?" I asked.

"Okay," he said.

This is very close to my exact words: "Well, the customer came in and said that the Mall of America store told him that we had Wiis, and I didn't know if we did, so I looked for them, and then I looked for another employee who would know, which is when I came and asked you if we had any. Then I went back to the customer and told him that we didn't have any, and he asked for a manager, so I went back to you. I don't see what I did wrong."

"Well, you didn't serve the customer," Nate said.

"What did I not do right?" I asked.

"He said he asked for a Wii and you just stared at him," he responded.

"So did I not move quick enough or hesitate? Was it my demeanor?" I asked.

"Well, you seemed kind of dead when you came up to me and Caleb," Nate said, referring to the manner in which I'd asked Nate if we'd had any Wiis, and then how I told him the customer asked for a manager.

"Okay," I responded, "maybe I didn't have much spirit, but I did good work today. I spent 20 or 25 minutes with a customer explaining from start to finish how to make MP3s and use MP3 players. I feel like I did good work today."

"This isn't my first run-in with you," Nate said. "A year and a half ago I caught you watching TV and sent you home." He had misspoke -- that was half a year ago.

"That was a long time ago, and I've gotten a lot better since," I said. Here I asked Nate directly, "Do you not want me to work here?"

This surprised Nate, and he said, "It's not me, it's the customer. We have to serve the customer, and he said he'd never come back to our store and would only go to [the] Eagan [store] because they have better service. We can't have that."

"Okay," I said, and walked off slowly with composure and good posture. I walked directly out of the store and got in my car. When I got to the intersection of 77th Street and Lyndale, I realized I hadn't clocked out. I made a U-turn at the next intersection to the north, got back to the store, and found a computer with which to clock out.

A coworker, Mike, said, "Are you heading home?"

"Nate fired me," I said.

"What? What happened?" he said.

"This customer said he went to the Mall of America and they told him we had Wiis, so I checked to see and we didn't, so I told the customer, and then he asked for a manager," I said.

"The store at the Mall of American isn't even open," Mike said.

"That's what he said," I explained, and clocked out and left, feeling a bit like a pariah.

Mike was the only person I told, and I did it because I thought it would be a good piece of gossip around the store for today. Leaving, I said "hi" to Bea, another floor manager, and "How ya doing" to Juan, a TV specialist returning from lunch.

All told, I worked from 11:09 a.m. to 2:14 p.m., and I'd been scheduled to work until four. I'll have to take the appointment to work next week on Friday out of my phone. I won't be working at Best Buy again. I am considering using part of this entry for a private letter to the general manager Jeff, but not out of anger or vengeance, just to formally "resign" and let the employees know that I liked working beside them.

I don't hold anything against Nate, but I would argue that my termination for this particular event was unjustified, although previous infractions probably should have gotten me fired already. I know how it works: the manager is eminently more believable than a regular employee, especially one who only works for four hours a week on Fridays. When students attempt grade appeals, very, very few are successful.

However, I take some solace in realizing that firing people reflects poorly on the person doing the firing, because it shows that the manager could not find a solution to the problem. Also, seeing coworkers get fired lowers morale and makes people worried that they could be next, and I thought I was pretty well-liked in the store.

Another lesson is to walk away from a place where one is not wanted, and let the past be past. "It's in the past, man" is what my friend Tyler used to say. And take your lessons seriously, because "the past is prologue," as they say -- the past predicts the future.

So, in conclusion, I'll have to buy some discount-price stuff from Best Buy and focus on my "real" career more. Maybe I will set up camping trips. Funny, all the employees at my college job just got a raise in yesterday's check. O, events in one's life.
 
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