Before I start, I should preface this by saying that it was my experience - it is in no way universal, and I know a lot of people who did the same graduate scheme, and indeed who still work there, who didn't burn out or quit. I don't think that precludes the telling of it, however.
I cried a lot when I worked there. There was a point, during the section manager stage of the graduate scheme, that I cried every single day in the fresh foods chiller in Upminster for four months straight. I left in January this year after almost five years, and I wouldn't say I look back with particularly fond memories.
Retail is, I believe, one of the hardest industries to work in, combining long unsociable hours with some truly horrible customers, demeaning, backbreaking work and poor pay (for most people except the managers). The funny thing is, I never wanted to work in retail in the first place. I was the first person in my family to go to uni, and I really wanted to study fashion at Central St Martins. However, since my parents didn't think I'd get a job if I went to art school, I did English Lit at Glasgow Uni instead, graduating with a first and no better understanding of why tuition fees cost so much for people outside of Scotland (spoiler alert if you haven't been to uni yet - you get about twelve hours of contact time a week, nine hours of which will be lectures).
After uni, you graduate into the wider world where people tell you how easily you're going to get a job with your great degree and the fact that you worked in retail all through uni. Oh, no - not the case. I worked in a high street fashion retailer for the first year after I graduated, for a boss who tried to blame her assistant manager for the fact that everyone was leaving, when really it was because she spoke down to us all and had no sense of humour. I had a number of side projects, including my blog and some copywriting, but nothing that was realistically going to become a career, because no-one was hiring.
Getting the job
As you can imagine, I was delighted when I got the job. The retailer I worked for are considered the holy grail for anyone working in retail since everyone who works there gets a share of the profit-generated bonus, not just management. They had a great pension scheme (for those who were interested in such things) and they were expanding. Job prospects looked good - I figured that if I worked hard I could eventually segue into a head office role and do something more creative, like merchandising or design.
They hired 24 of us out of about 4000 that applied. In the (third) interview, I was told that creativity and being good at organising things were two very different traits, and that they would be very surprised if someone could possess both. That should really have been my cue to say, you know what, this is not for me because I don't fit into any of their tiny boxes. When I got the call, I was excited because it meant an instant pay rise of about £10,000, but then I spent the next hour crying because even though I had applied for Scotland and the North of England, they told me I was going to have to move. To the south of England. The closest place of the seven options they gave me was Birmingham, the furthest was Biggin Hill. I opted for Billericay because it was the closest place to London, the only place I knew anyone in England. A date was set, I broke up with my boyfriend and I duly moved my whole life to London in two suitcases.
The early days
My love affair with London wasn't instant, as it is for most. I spent an hour and a half commuting each way to Billericay from South Woodford, frequently being delayed due to suicides at Harold Wood (near to a former asylum, it attracted a lot of its old patients, according to locals). I survived mostly on coffee, chocolate and cheese toasties, and told myself it would get better. On my first day at the branch, everyone was crying. A young boy who worked in the branch had committed suicide and everyone was, justifiably, extremely upset. I met with the branch manager and he asked me what he was supposed to do with me. I wasn't sure. I showed him the booklet I'd been given, and the timelines for getting past each stage. I spent a few months there, and then a few at Upminster, and was as miserable as I've ever been.
I was so far away from all my friends, I was having to get up at 4am to open the shop even though I had a horrific commute, I had no idea what I was doing and no Department Manager to seek guidance from for several months. I worked with colleagues who hated me because they resented that I was doing the same job as them with a lot less experience, manipulative people who would go out of their way to trip me up when it came to scheduling and members of staff whose behaviour was beyond reason - one screamed at me on the shopfloor because I didn't authorise her to drive her friend home in the delivery van when she had a sore back. I was so relieved when I finally got the job in Stratford - I had moved to Greenwich, so had finally got my commute down to under an hour, and got another really decent pay rise. I had a lovely branch manager (BM) who taught me a lot and gave me real autonomy, and I got to hire a lot of my own team. Then my BM left and was replaced by someone who I still don't think I could face working with now.
The new BM was a maverick. I mean that in the sense that he thought everything in the shop was wrong, and it was my job to fix it. All of it. I got bollockings daily for the most insignificant things. Like someone's top button not being done up on their uniform. Once I was told that if I didn't get baguettes on sale I would be put on a written warning (literally not even possible in policy terms, but he loved an empty threat). Another time, he violently threw a phone across a tiny office we were both in, because the person he was calling wouldn't pick up. I got such a fright that I spilled the glass of water I was holding. I was scared to go to work every single day because I never knew what mood he would be in. I started having panic attacks, even on my days off, once because an escalator in a tube station reminded me of the one at Stratford station and I felt like I was back there. Everyone said" why don't you just give him feedback?", and I had tried, previously - all of my managers wanted to hear directly from him, when he started, about his vision for the branch instead of hearing snippets through me. When I told him, he shouted at me, but later produced a presentation and delivered it anyway.
He made me change the appraisal grade of one of my best managers after I had already agreed it, which almost destroyed our relationship. He had his favourites, of course - people who for him could do no wrong, and who would progress no matter what. I certainly wasn't one of them. A lot of us weren't, though - he regularly referred to people as retards, or idiots. I took a week off sick, after arriving at work one morning and not being able to read my emails because I was shaking and crying so much. I was later faced with the indignity of calling him to tell him why I was off. I spoke to HR. They encouraged me to stay off. While I was home, my senior management colleague called to ask when I would be back. In her last phone call, she told me that the BM was being moved to another branch. I was pleased, but still apprehensive - who knew what would be next? Luckily the new BM was a really lovely man. I'm writing all this now and I've just turned to my husband and said, it was honestly so, so bad - I don't know why I stayed for so long. I met some lovely people, but I wish I had taken notice of how the role was starting to affect my mental health and how it really wasn't leading anywhere that I wanted to go. It's amazing how blind money can make you - I was earning almost £40k and after a bad break-up, was still managing to pay the rent and bills on a one-bedroom flat by myself. I felt pretty stuck. I suppose I could always have moved home, but I didn't want to quit. I interviewed for a job as a furniture buyer with a start-up which would mean frequent travel to China and India, but they couldn't match my salary and in London, I just couldn't afford that.
Who wants to be a manager anyway? Social problems and managing staff who just. don't.care.
In the midst of all this, there was of course work to be done. I remember what it is like to work in the lower echelons of retail, and it's illogical to expect someone to care that much when you are paying them just above minimum wage. On the flipside, your job as a manager is to make sure all of your staff are happy, engaged and productive, because they too get a share of the bonus. Even if they are alcoholics, drug addicts, taking time off because they have kids their girlfriend is unaware of and have to hide, prostitutes, thieves... you get the picture. It wasn't a cakewalk. In fact, I think I still would have struggled even if I'd done a full-time degree in social work. It's one thing managing the ones who work hard and want to do a good job, but even then, you can completely alienate someone with just one misstep. I really don't think that I was a very good manager, and I was constantly made to feel like I must be at fault somehow, that it must be because of my personality. I guess it just brought out the worst in me. I didn't want to manage people any more than they wanted to be managed. I'd completely had enough. I decided to move home, and stick it out for as long as I could. Maybe it would be better up north, where people understood my accent and my sense of humour. Maybe.
The branch I worked in in Scotland was actually worse than any of the English ones I'd been in. Nobody had a clue what they were doing, and consequently there was out-of-date food on the shelves, all the paperwork was either lost or incomplete, and there were two rival factions constantly at war with one another. There were rumours that a previous branch manager had been inappropriate towards several female members of staff. It had the bitchiest atmosphere of any branch I'd worked in, and plenty of ostriches content to bury their heads in the sand of the significant problems they had caused, or try to talk their way around them. Nonetheless, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, once spending an entire weekend refiling all the branch's paperwork to make sure we were audit-proof (we passed) and re-training the managers on pay to get our expenditure back into line. Things were going well, even though the workload was intense, because James and I had decided to take three and half weeks off for our wedding and honeymoon in the summer. That meant I had to get the branch really well prepared for anything that might arise while I was away, and plan our whole wedding and interrailing honeymoon at the same time. I also had one direct report for most of the time that I was there, when I should have had three, which meant my workload and that of the other manager in my department were double what they should have been for most of the year. I did a lot of work in the evenings, and on my weekends off, frequently only stopping to make dinner. My BM and fellow DM were close buddies from working together in a previous branch and I did feel like I worked in a bit of a boy's club - there was plenty of laddish banter, and a few inappropriate comments, particularly regarding my new direct report
Being edged out
When I came back from getting married, I noticed that of about ten emails I had sent the BM, I had two replies jumping down my throat, assuming I was trying to undermine my colleague and just generally being very short with me. We'd had a pretty good relationship up until that point, and I told him that I had found his tone and his assumptions unwarranted, and could he account for why he has made those assumptions in the first place? He didn't apologise, but said he would think about it, then didn't speak to me for about three days. It was probably at this point that he turned on me. I made the mistake of telling my colleague that being a DM really wasn't my dream job, and that I might at some point go back to uni. He told the BM, and so began his campaign to get rid of me. He took me out for breakfast to discuss a potential move to another part of the business, on less money. I said I'd consider it, if it was the right role, and that I actually wanted to get away from management. Again, weeks passed, without much contact. Then came the point where he decided to zero in on every single one of my results. Admittedly, a lot of them were poor, but that's what happens when 25% of your department is off sick and you have one manager out of three. Every time I tried to meet with my new direct report, he would invent a reason to call us away from it (including tidying the disgusting yard, which gave me a sore back for weeks afterward). I could never properly delegate anything because I wasn't given the time to train my staff. Then came Christmas. I set pay budgets, and hiring budgets, for all of the sections. They all understood what they had to do, and then all of them over-recruited. Massively. I felt sick. This would wreck the budget for the whole year, eradicating any profit the branch had made. I started asking questions. Why have you all done this? Did you not understand? Can we cancel any of their contracts? I had a Snickers and a cigarette for dinner (I don't even smoke), and went home to James and his mum who was down staying. I lay on the sofa, barely speaking and fretting about just how bad things would be in two days' time when the BM got back.
As predicted, the meeting was horrible. My colleague suggested we put up a united front and say we had done what we could. I was lambasted for suggesting that we cut the contracts of new people who hadn't started yet. It was a real rock-and-hard place situation. That weekend I was running the branch, and asked a few of the managers about their understanding. Had I really explained it all so confusingly? Why did they go so far over? The answer came - the BM had told them to spend what they needed. All weekend I was receiving terse emails about my results, and in the end, I replied explaining what I had heard, and stating that I didn't think it was particularly fair to hold me to account for managers following his instructions. I got the most horrific phone call in which I was told I had completely overstepped the mark, that I was acting like a petulant little child, and that we would be discussing it the next day. I was told not to ever email him at home on HIS day off when he was spending time with his FAMILY (this was an entirely new rule, especially since I was actually at work when I sent the email, and he was under no obligation to read it). It was the most disrespectful way that anyone has ever spoken to me. To continue running the branch, responding to rude customers, finding keys for people, managing queues, congratulating people on a job well done, was really hard for the next three hours. As soon as I got in the car, I burst into tears, and cried all the way home. I called my mum and told her I was going to resign. I couldn't stop crying every time I talked about work for about the next month.
The next day the doctor signed me off with adjustment disorder, a stress-related condition in which you react more strongly than someone might expect to a difficult life event or stressful situation. I was given a four-week fit note, then two more. I was off over Christmas, and I knew I could never go back. The isolation was the worst part - I have since heard that the staff members were all told not to contact me and to respect my privacy. It was probably easier at the time, since the BM kept insisting that I should meet him for a coffee somewhere outside the branch to discuss things. True to egomaniac form, he never apologised. I sat it out, and resigned in December, requesting to end my notice before the expected thirteen weeks but in time to still get the bonus I had worked all year for. Thankfully they agreed. My mum thought I should speak to HR again, but honestly, I knew that I just needed to leave. It was hard, and scary, and sometimes I felt like I had no idea what I was going to do. I wish I had known at the time that what Maxi Jazz wrote in Reverence was true:
It's a fact you'll attract all the things that you lack,
So just chill
And get off the race track
And take a pace back, face facts,
It's your decision,
You don't need eyes to see,
You need vision.
I'll write more about what happened next later this month, but for now, I'm intending to do what I had planned and finish my posts about our wedding and honeymoon. Until next time...