It was the summer of 1997, and I was looking for a job. I must confess that I did not particularly want to get a job, but I had been told that I needed to get one, so that was that.
My plan was to go to the local strip mall (because they have jobs there, right?), and move systematically from business to business: I’d start with the first establishment—McDonalds—then move on to the second one—Burger King—then on to the third, and so on, filling out a job application at each one, and later if anyone called me back I could maybe go in for an interview. It was a pretty logical strategy.
Except here’s what happened:
I went into McDonalds, asked for a job application, filled it out, and gave it to the guy behind the counter, who took it and said thanks. Then I went next door to Burger King, asked for a job application, filled it out, and gave it to the guy behind the counter. This time, however, the guy behind the counter happened to be the manager. He sort of glanced at my application and asked, “Can you start tomorrow?”
In other words, things got REAL. In that instant, I suddenly realized something that had not yet occurred to me, namely, that there were a lot of places I would prefer to work at over Burger King. Unfortunately, the fact that I had just filled out a job application had (understandably) suggested to the manager that I really wanted to work at Burger King, and I figured I would look pretty stupid if I handed in an application and then immediately said “No thank you”. It was a quandary. I did not want to work at Burger King, but I also did not want to seem stupid. So I said, “Okay.”
Working at Burger King was honestly not a bad first job. I was assigned to work at the front, taking people’s orders, ringing them up, and “expediting” them—which, for the non-fast food workers among you, means putting the actual food on the actual trays. This meant I got to talk to people, and also that I didn’t have to actually flip burgers over the hot burners in the back. Honestly the most unpleasant part of the job was the uniform: dark blue pleated pants that were a little too tight, a polo shirt that was way too big, and a fabric visor that messed up my hair. But those small discomforts aside, it was a decent and pretty valuable experience. I learned what it was like to punch a time clock, what it was like to work hard for somebody else, and what it was like to get a paycheck. And in retrospect, I feel fortunate to have gotten a glimpse into what it’s like to work in the fast food industry.
Fast-forward nineteen years or so. As you may know, I’m once again looking for a job, and, oddly, I find myself thinking about the Burger King experience quite a bit. There are already a couple of super important lessons here that didn’t occur to teenage Sarah, but that adult Sarah should definitely keep in mind. These are fairly basic concepts, but also critical ones:
- Do not take a job that you don’t want. Unless, of course, you’re desperate for cash and are worried that you may not have other options, which is a totally different story. But if you feel you have more time to keep looking, keep looking. More importantly, think actively about what job you DO want, and apply for that job, rather than spending your time applying for jobs you’re ambivalent about or definitely don’t want.
- Ask questions during the job interview. Hello, teenage Sarah? Did you have any questions about the Burger King job that you wanted to ask the manager before you accepted it? Like about what your duties would be while working at Burger King? Or your hours? Or how much you would get paid?
Which brings me to Part Two of this post. I talked about this next story briefly during my recent interview on Financially Alert (which, by the way, you should check out if you want to learn more about my financial philosophy and preferred snack foods). But I want to bring it up again here.
I of course was not the only expeditor at Burger King; there were many others, and one of them was a boy about my age who had been hired the same week as me. I think his name might have been Chris, so let’s call him Chris. At some point I mentioned to Chris that I made $6.00 per hour, and Chris told me that he made $6.25 per hour. (Or maybe it was $5.00 and $5.25? I’m honestly not sure.)
I don’t know if Chris was telling the truth or not. Perhaps he was, and if so, perhaps there was some legitimate reason why he was making more than I was. Maybe he’d negotiated for more, or maybe he’d worked there the previous summer and had more experience. I definitely remember thinking that it was weird, but I basically accepted it and didn’t ask any more questions.
So, a couple of thoughts on this.
The first is, I want to take a moment to acknowledge how deeply strange it is that different people frequently get paid different amounts of money for doing the exact same job. Depending on the situation, there can be many reasons for this—it could be due to conscious or subconscious prejudice of a variety of types (this is obviously an extremely complicated issue; part of it is explored in a bit more detail here), it could be because one person has been doing the job longer than the other person or has a better performance record, and/or it can be because one person negotiated differently than the other person. I’m not saying I think it’s necessarily bad in all cases, since clearly prejudice is a separate issue from factors like job performance or seniority. But I just want to say, for the record, that I think the existence of these kinds of person-to-person differences in salary is inherently a very odd and curious phenomenon. (If you’re interested, here’s a good Planet Money episode about a company that decided to make all its salaries public, and here is a very interesting post by Penny at She Picks Up Pennies about salary transparency in public education.)
Second, I can’t claim to be a master negotiator, but I do know that it’s important to talk openly about salary, and to ask questions, and to advocate for oneself. I’m happy to say that I advocated for myself and my salary twice this past year, and it was very much worth it both times. Whatever type of work we do, it is of value to our employer and/or our clients, and that is an important point to keep in mind whenever discussing compensation.
That’s all for now. I’m off to find a job I’m excited about, and to ask good questions while doing so.
What was YOUR first job? What did you learn from it?