the real vs the purported purpose of write-ups
December 24, 2017 4:40 PM   Subscribe

What is the purpose of write-ups, specifically in regards to retail employees?

I have a seasonal job cashiering at Hugely Popular Tchotchke Shop. (Yes, just seasonal, but yes, I do want to know the answer to this, since I have an incessant "why" itch.) Essentially it is a tchotchke shop though they do sell stuff that serves a purpose beyond gathering dust on a shelf. Anyway, I have worked lots of retail, for different corporations, but in none of those did being "written up" ever occur. In this store, employees get written up for every little thing. Most of the time I am unaware of a particular rule until asked to sign a form saying I committed the error. Nobody told me the exact rule, for example, about which receipts get signed by customers and which do not. In my ignorance I had customers sign all of them. So I was written up, not once, but six times, for the same mistake, namely, having customers sign when the company rule is actually that they are not required to sign under such and such circumstances. All of these occurred during one or two shifts. This makes no sense to me. Why six times? Why not just once, with a warning not to repeat it, since I am not exactly seasoned in the ways of this particular corporation? My exact question is, what purpose do write-ups serve? I am asking in a more or less general way, since I did not name the exact company, but honestly, I don't get why some companies don't seem to bother with write-ups and others, like this one, make you sign a book admitting to errors you cannot realistically contest. What (real) purpose does this serve? Does an employee get stacked with so many black marks that they become ineligible for promotions? Are giving people a certain number of write-ups justification for a company to fire an employee and not have to pay unemployment? That sort of thing.

The Head Cashier shook her head and told me, with a kind of weary look in her eye, not to worry, that it was just "technicalities" and I was doing "a great job." An hour later the assistant manager (who from everything I have seen should be written up for making sloppy mistakes herself) appeared in front of my till and reamed me for doing something else nobody ever told me not to do, that is, leaving the building during paid breaks. (To those of you who might think this is obvious, bear in mind that I have worked in quite a lot of similar settings, for different companies, and not once was this ever a no-no.) I have no desire to be a pita, and no issue doing what is required, so long as it is reasonable (not being asked to do dangerous things, work while off the clock, and such as that.) I like knowing what is expected. Having to guess, and then being censured when I get it wrong, irritates me.

Now, no, there is no reference for me to know such and such rules via handbook, or anywhere else, store website, etc. The existing handbook is vague, to say the least, and certainly doesn't go into more than not to steal (extensively covered) and the dress code. The easiest way for me to know what the rules are are is for someone, like the Head Cashier or some other supervisor, to tell me. But nobody has the time, so all the new people make the same mistakes, and all of us get long lists of write-ups to initial, and I cannot see what the purpose of that is, since nobody trained any of us, certainly nobody has any patience to answer questions (and yes, I can ask succinctly when neccessary, unlike in this waterfall here.) Being somewhat pessimistic and over-analytical by nature, I start to think write-ups are done to filter and weed people into certain niches without most of them ever being aware (or caring) that this is happening. Or set them up to be eventually let go. Am I right? Or missing the point entirely? Is it really just to educate? But, to me, "to educate," makes no sense, since another thing everyone gets written up for is being over or under the count in a drawer, even though multiple people jump on and off drawers during a shift.

posted by Crystal Fox to Work & Money (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
they don't mean a thing.
posted by elle.jeezy at 5:09 PM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sounds like a toxic workplace run by petty tyrants.
posted by matildaben at 5:11 PM on December 24, 2017 [46 favorites]

The "purpose" is to make low wage employees so afraid of losing their job that they will never, ever, even consider standing up for their own rights or the rights of their co-workers. If you or anyone else tries, they have a convenient paper trail so that they can claim they fired you for cause rather then in retaliation.
posted by katyggls at 5:27 PM on December 24, 2017 [93 favorites]

The purpose of a write-up, in any job situation, is to protect the employer from a wrongful termination lawsuit. Specifically, a written record allows the employer to prove that you had previous transgressions and therefore were fired for cause.

This part is speculation, but I suspect the reason why some employers do it and some don't is because the ones who don't are more confident in their lawyers' ability to defend themselves against such a lawsuit.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:31 PM on December 24, 2017 [15 favorites]

It's also a paper trail for being "fired for cause," which can make it harder to collect unemployment. (And, of course you're a great employee, you've worked there so long, and they'd promote you, but... your record, tsk tsk.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:36 PM on December 24, 2017 [22 favorites]

Not that you asked, and thank God I no longer have a retail job, but what would happen if you refused to sign it on account of no one ever explained said rule?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:39 PM on December 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

That sounds kind of awful and dysfunctional.

I've only seen "write-ups" used for serious errors that don't merit firing but require a bit more than a verbal reminder. And in roughly 20 years of working in a variety of settings, I've only seen them used twice.

I wonder if the corporate rule is that employees should be given a write-up after certain types of errors, and someone in middle management is a bully who doesn't provide appropriate training so they can create the abusive power play described above. Or, it could be batshit all the way down.

You say you're a seasonal employee there. Good.
posted by bunderful at 5:42 PM on December 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

In general I think the purpose of having a bunch of fiddly rules that seem to make no sense, and yet enforcing those rules rigorously, is to get employees into the habit of doing what they're told without thinking about it -- very possibly because if you did think about it, you might see something they preferred to keep to themselves.

For example, how did they know you'd left the building? If it so happens they are tracking employees electronically, they might not want to tell you that, and if the tracking tag is not just in an ID, enforcing a uniformed dress code would allow them to conceal the tag in the uniform.
posted by jamjam at 5:50 PM on December 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

Others have more or less covered it, but I will pile on: if you’re getting a half-dozen write-ups at once for an infraction that wasn’t covered in your employee handbook, it’s a sign of a toxic workplace culture. If the assistant manager is issuing these, it’s because she is incentivized to do so by policies that reward tattling/bullying over leadership by example — or by upper management gullible enough to fall for that kind of deflection.

I’m sorry you’re going through this, and glad to hear it’s not a permanent gig. I know how daunting it is to report a toxic workplace culture even when it’s a temporary side-hustle, but if circumstances allow, please consider documenting your experiences in writing after you get your last paycheck.

If HR/upper management doesn’t care, consider leaving feedback someplace like GlassDoor. As others have mentioned, workplaces do this kind of thing to beat workers into submission, and prospective employees have a right to know about it.
posted by armeowda at 6:13 PM on December 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

like others here, I expect it’s so that if you ever become an annoyance (say, by standing up for your rights) they have a ready-made paper trail to fire you for cause.

and because I’m the kind of annoying employee who does that, when initialing these write ups to acknowledge I’d breached some rule, I’d put a handwritten “not covered in employee induction/training” annotation by each acknowledgement.

of course doing that would make it far more likely they’ll make your life suck, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a course of action.
posted by russm at 6:28 PM on December 24, 2017 [7 favorites]

I spent some time working in HR for a major retailer. Many of the policies like that were in effect designed to keep employees feeling unstable and like they had to constantly be working harder or risk being fired. They did other things like order that people's shift schedule be changed up for no good reason. Guards would demand to inspect floor staff on exit.

The executives that mandated these policies were lofty and arrogant as well as isolated from the staff in a way I've not seen anywhere else. Even the moderately high up back office staff had to go to their supervisor to get a key to the bathroom.

The major effect was that micromanagers and manipulators excelled as lower management and could use writeups to get rid of people they didn't like. And most people with any other option got the hell out of there while the management expressed surprise over their high turnover rate.

That retailer did go under but I have no doubt many of the senior management ended up terrorizing staff at other companies.
posted by Candleman at 6:32 PM on December 24, 2017 [16 favorites]

Agreed they are bullshit to keep you in line and scared to lose your job in these retail situations. Also a way to not pay you more for sure. I had one in an at-will state so they can fire you for any reason anyway. I got written up for fat-fingering the wrong button, which started an unending loop for a "gift certificate" which we didn't have, couldn't exit out of, and had to shut down the system for. As if it was my fault that they had a shitty register program where an esc key didn't work.
posted by Crystalinne at 8:01 PM on December 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

What is the purpose of write-ups, specifically in regards to retail employees?

The most valuable purpose they serve is as an early warning mechanism, like the oil pressure lamp lighting up on your car's dashboard. You could choose to ignore them, but that will almost inevitably result in misery and expense later on.

Employers worth selling your time to will not behave this way. Sack them and move on at your earliest convenience.
posted by flabdablet at 10:33 PM on December 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

Plenty of people are telling you what they are in effect, but I'll defend them in theory as an employer at a large place.

We have, just in my division, some 50 or 60 first-line supervisors spread across various worksites and projects. The supervisor generally stays with the particular worksite, the employees get distributed between them as often as weekly. Though we try to minimize moving people, relative workload fluctuates and projects begin and end throughout the year. The technicians need to maintain proficiency at different types of projects and also expand their comfort zones, so staying at one thing forever is not good either.

This causes a side-effect problem where a supervisor probably doesn't know the technician's performance history. 95% of everybody can be given the benefit of the doubt when the supervisor sees marginal behavior or not-great performance that doesn't actually rise to the discipline level. 5% take advantage to keep starting from scratch each time they move, and it can take years for their reputation to be widely-known, and by then there's a natural tendency to think maybe they've changed since the last time they worked together.

The write-up is the corporate knowledge that any supervisor can reference when they think they might have a problem person, and also takes away the "I didn't know, nobody told me" excuse the second time. It's also the documentation if disciplinary action is taken and the employee wants to contest the conclusion or process.

Writing six incidents for a thing you thought was right until they told you seems... counter-productive, though. That's one thing in my book, no discipline required, just documentation you were told in case it comes up again. I hope in that case your supervisor was written up FIVE times for not catching your mistake and allowing it to happen again.
posted by ctmf at 11:02 PM on December 24, 2017 [12 favorites]

If you've worked lots of retail, for lots of different corporations, then it is extremely unlikely that 'in none of those did being "written up" ever occur.' It's virtually a certainty that it was a policy, at least at many of them, but the frequency with which it happened was much more typical, which means rare, and for serious infractions, and the management treated it as a confidential disciplinary matter. All it means is that YOU never got written up.

Many larger companies use write-ups to document ongoing unresolved issues for a variety of reasons. When I used to work as an assistant manager at a unionized grocery store, write-ups served as part of the mechanism to terminate an employee for cause. I had an unwinnable situation develop one day, leaving a customer who complained to corporate management, and a district manager wanted me written up and fired. I got written up, but when the union rep looked at it, he said it wasn't worth as much as used toilet paper, because there was no credible claim I had done anything wrong, and the company failed to indicate a better way I could have handled the problem. Which meant the union wouldn't idly sit by if they tried to fire me. So that didn't happen. More sanely, if a clerk's till failed to balance and was off by more than a fairly significant threshold amount, that would lead to a write-up, and a pattern of write-ups for that kind of thing would lead to termination.

I always wondered about the shared tills that seem to be more prevalent these days. How can companies hold a clerk accountable for a till if multiple people have used it? That was something that was always super-taboo for us. Head cashier sets the till with a standard amount at start of shift, clerk counts and verifies it, puts it in a register drawer, and has to be signed on to open the drawer. Every transaction is calculated and recorded by the register, and the clerk is responsible for the correct ins and outs to the till. At the end of shift, clerk pulls the till from the drawer, counts the till, head cashier verifies, and this is compared to what the register says it should be. All of this would seem to be necessary to guarantee the clerk's responsibility for the contents of the till. How do you hold Bob accountable for a till where Jim was in there for an hour and was actually the one who pocketed a tenner?
posted by jgreco at 5:09 AM on December 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

How can companies hold a clerk accountable for a till if multiple people have used it?

Oh, that one is easy. See, what you do is, you use writing up as a way to establish a pattern of losses while arbitrarily jerking everybody's shifts around to mix them up on the tills. So if it's always the till that Chloe is sharing with other people that's fifty bucks out at the end of the day, Chloe ends up with more write-ups than anybody else and can then be justifiably sacked.

It's scrupulous corporate monitoring like this that empowers Bob and Jim, giving them the exact tools they need in order to translate their discomfort at being held accountable for their own casual sexism into Chloe's inability to hold down a job and a nice litter earner on the side as well.
posted by flabdablet at 5:53 AM on December 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

That's pretty offensive, flabdablet. At a minimum, you've introduced some weird sexist stuff into a straightforward and very real issue, and the hopefully-ironic or possibly-something-else misuse of the word "scrupulous" in this context offends those of us who have actually spent time and effort trying to make the world a fair and equitable place for the employees working in our store.

The real reason for shared tills probably has more to do with the fact that balancing tills properly requires several minutes at each end of a clerk's shift to sum the drawer, and then a similar amount of time for the head cashier, and additional time to reset the till to the standard amount. In a union shop, or at least the ones I saw, the union was effective at making sure the employer did not treat employees unfairly, and this definitely came down at least as far as mandating that tills had to be issued to specific clerks at the start of their shifts. It is definitely more expensive in terms of hours to maintain separate tills than shared tills.

However, for an employee at a non-union shop, there usually isn't a need to go through nefarious machinations if an employer wishes to fire an employee. The United States is predominantly at-will employment, with certain exceptions, so that's pretty straightforward, with write-ups really only serving as a defense against certain types of discrimination, unemployment benefit, etc., issues. And if Bob and Jim had something against Chloe and wanted her fired, they could just separately accuse her of various misdeeds.
posted by jgreco at 8:17 AM on December 25, 2017

That's pretty offensive, flabdablet.

Yeah, I was pretty offended when it happened to a friend of mine working at one of Melbourne's larger retailers.

Point is that the OP needs to realize that this kind of thing is a signal about the way the employer sees the employees.
posted by flabdablet at 9:46 AM on December 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: In line with all of the above, now that I think more about it, it's pretty obvious that this company is using write-ups as a paper trail towards eventual termination. Another thing they do is expect the employee to keep track of the amount of money in the drawer by standing there and counting it regularly during a shift. (Try doing this with a line of customers going out the door.) If it goes over a certain amount and the manager counts the till after the employee's shift ends, they get written up. This one I happened to learn about in passing (a manager tossed it over his shoulder at me while he counted someone else's drawer.) I don't see this as a means to avoid shortages or surpluses, since the purpose of this is simply to make sure the employee doesn't let the cash in the drawer exceed a set amount. Now, this company uses a brand-new, modern system that they apparently installed two weeks before I began work there. In other places, I worked with older register programs, from the early 00's probably, in which the programs would automatically notify the cashier that the cash in the till exceeded a certain amount and it was time for a pick up. Big, flashing notice. With this modern system, there is no flashing notice, no warning, nothing. I was standing there literally counting the drawer to avoid exceeding the no-no amount until the same Head Cashier showed me a kind of backdoor, not obvious way to leave the "register" setting, find out how much cash is listed as being in the drawer, add 100, and then figure out the amount of cash in the till. Faster than counting, but still. I can only see this as another excuse to give people black marks. This is in a right-to-work state, but its HQ's are based in a state that is not. Don't know if that has anything to do with it.
posted by Crystal Fox at 11:48 AM on December 25, 2017

They want to avoid unemployment eligibility if they fire someone. You can alter the document before signing; Training on this issue was not provided. Some individuals need to exercise control over a lot of details, it's not usually effective, but it's their business. I'd be job-hunting.
posted by theora55 at 1:59 PM on December 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

The hilarious thing is that it serves zero purpose towards denying someone unemployment in most states unless they are documenting a pattern of criminal behavior or deliberate sabotage. Merely being bad at your job is enough to get you fired for cause, but is not enough to deny a UI claim.

Of course, if nobody ever tells you that so you never file or don't dispute it when the company tries to appeal your claim it doesn't matter whether you are actually eligible or not.
posted by wierdo at 1:00 PM on December 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

I still want to defend the practice as a good thing. As many people have noted, there's nothing stopping most places from firing you without any of that at all. That they bother to go through the effort says to me that they're trying to be thoughtful about who's working out and who's not over a longer time frame. If one of my supervisors recommends letting someone go, how do I tell the difference between someone who's making minor mistakes like everyone else and not reapeating them, and someone who just plain sucks and doesn't care? It shows up in the pattern of write-ups. It becomes very obvious when I have a petty tyrant on my hands and I can do something about it. And I can definitely intervene in the stupid cases - she parked in my parking spot (ok, not MY parking spot, but everyone knows I park there every day) on purpose and I want to fire her. Um, how about no. It's also the only way I can build a low-level harassment case or put pressure on "abrasive personalities" who won't understand that it's not ok. I can SHOW (or my supervisors can show me) that it isn't a case of a mistake or a bad day.

Being written up very occasionally is nothing to worry about. If the system is working right, it happens to everyone, nobody's perfect every day. (This is mistaken as me being interested in getting dirt on everyone and "keeping people scared" - that's not what it is.) I certainly have my share over the years. It's the pattern, repetition, and seriousness of the offenses that matter, not the existence of a small number of pieces of paper in your file.

Can it be abused for evil? Sure. But evil people gonna evil regardless, and it would be much easier to evil if I didn't have to write any documentation.
posted by ctmf at 3:52 PM on December 26, 2017

ctmf isn't at all wrong, but in the case at hand it's clearly a form of abuse and not being used in the manner it ought to. Even in orgs that have relatively strong policies to protect workers (either out of a fear of a union vote or a lawsuit) there are always some business units that are rife with abuse. Thing is, it's never just the arbitrary discipline policy that is being abused.

If you're high up in the org and think that none of your underlings are systematically abusing workers in their hierarchy and favoring a few allies you are sadly deluded. You may have it under control in most of your business, but if it's large enough sufficient oversight is simply impossible at any expense that the market will accept unless and until it starts hitting the bottom line.
posted by wierdo at 10:30 PM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: In light of similar bullshit and gaslighting that has occurred at Tchotchke Shop since this post,
batshit all the way down sums this thread up nicely. Time to job-hunt.
posted by Crystal Fox at 2:55 PM on December 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

While you're still waiting at the Tchotchke Shop stop for the new job bus, you might care to amuse yourself by annotating all your writeups with "Training on this issue was not provided" before initialling them, as suggested by theora55.

If there is any shred of integrity in Tchotchke Shop's writeup process, this will help both you and them.

Given the atmosphere you have so lucidly evoked, though, I would expect that any sign of resistance to petty tyranny would cause it to escalate fairly rapidly. So do this only if you're already seeing your relationship with them mainly as a temporary mind game you're playing for lulz and war-story collection purposes.
posted by flabdablet at 9:25 PM on December 28, 2017

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