I remember a lot of things about that day. It was July in Texas, which is to say, it was unbearably hot. For the work I ended up doing that day, I was way overdressed in my long-sleeved blue button down and khakis. I was training a new guy – Andy – who had recently been promoted from Service Agent (car washer) to the Rental Agent (working behind the retail counter).
Space was unusually tight that day. As a franchised car rental agency, we shared a location with an auto dealership, and square footage was at a premium. As a result, our entire indoor existence was confined to a space about the size of a decent sized bedroom. There was nowhere to hide – if you had even a whispered conversation in that space, everybody in the office could hear it. In the office that day was the site manager, another rental agent, Andy, and me.
Bob was the boss. He wasn’t always in the office; overseeing four different franchise locations called him away a lot, but on that day he found his way to us. When I say Bob was in “the office”, what I really mean was that Bob was in the middle of our small retail space. There was no private office, no place for Bob to retire to for conducting high level business. When Bob was in town, he took over the manager’s desk, which overlooked the tiny rental area as well as the parking lot where the rental cars were prepped and stored.
Bob was a difficult man, but not intolerable. He was highly critical of mistakes, but usually had the professionalism not to scold you in front of customers. He was polite in his own way, and when things were going very well, he could be downright nice. I never knew him to lie, and he didn’t seem to show favoritism to anyone. Still, he was a tough nut, and anytime he was in the office the whole staff would be on edge. It was an unenviable position to be the person who screwed up Bob’s mood, as he ended up taking it out on all of the staff equally.
That day was largely unremarkable, save for eight little words that Bob said to me. And because of those eight words, I’ll remember that day – and the way Bob treated me – for a long time to come.
Those eight words
Our four rental franchises were part of a single business entity, so we shared a fleet of cars. As such, it was a daily occurrence to transfer vehicles from one location to another to accommodate advance reservations and expected walk-up business. Everyone had job titles – rental agent, service agent, site manager, driver – but as a small business, we were expected to do whatever was required. Service agents normally washed and detailed cars, but were commonly called upon to help customers at the counter. It was not uncommon to find well-dressed rental agents scrubbing or fueling a car, and site managers had to do it all. And with the volume of cars that had to be transferred to various locations, everyone was a driver.
On that day, I had transferred a car from another site to our location, after which I linked up with Andy to help show him the ropes. To demonstrate to him how things really worked, I took him out to detail a car (in our dress clothes, of course) to reinforce that his promotion didn’t mean he’d left behind the days of stinking of sweat and Armor-All. Polishing the car in the hot Texas sun, it didn’t take long to get hot and sweaty. Back in the cramped office, the air conditioning was a welcome relief, but only for a moment. Bob asked for a word with me outside.
It wasn’t unusual for Bob to ask for a private conversation, but this time there was something different about his tone. It was cold and firm – more so than usual. Maybe it was always like that with Bob, but it really stands out that day.
I met Bob outside, and he led me over to a car in the to-be-detailed area – in fact, it was the same car that I had transferred from the other location just that morning. He walked me around to the passenger side of the car, and pointed out a small but noticeable scratch and dent on the rear passenger door. I immediately began thinking, “Did I do a walk-around before transferring the car?” We didn’t have a lot of fixed policies around these things, but for my own peace of mind I almost always walked around and checked for any unreported damage before I drove a fleet car. That day, I couldn’t remember if I’d checked.
Bob wanted to get to the bottom of this. He was very upset, and was obviously choosing his words very carefully. He told me that I should confess immediately if I knew anything about the origin of this damage. Then he said the eight words for which I will always remember him:
“If you lie to me, I’ll fire you.”
Bob and I had never been friends. He was the boss, and I was the subordinate – that line was silently yet clearly drawn. Still, we were decent to one another. To my knowledge, neither of us was ever dishonest to the other before or since that day. I was young and prone to occasional foolishness, but was still a reliable and trustworthy employee. And in spite of that, I’d just been threatened with termination if I couldn’t convince my boss that I truly knew nothing about the damage to a fleet car.
Before responding to Bob, my mind went a thousand directions at once. I was afraid. I’d left a stable job of six years just months before to take this position. I had an apartment, a car payment, and other obligations that are unfriendly to an unemployment check. I was confused. Did I transport a damaged car? Did I check it? Could the damage have occurred after I got here? Or even worse, did I unknowingly hit something that caused the damage? I was angry. I’d never demonstrated any sort of dishonesty, and couldn’t imagine why I would be treated as a liar.
In the end, my response to him was one of reserved anger. I clearly communicated to Bob that I had no knowledge of the damage, and that I was offended that he’d treat me with such disrespect given our history together. Bob seemed to be surprised at my frustration with him, but it must have been enough to convince him that I really was telling the truth. Neither of us ever spoke of that conversation to each other ever again.
And on down the road
Bob and I had an unremarkable relationship after that – neither good nor bad. Not long after that encounter, I left the rental agency to take another job. I haven’t spoken to Bob since my last day there; it’s not that I’ve avoided him, just that our paths have never crossed.
Bob was probably a good man. I met his wife and kids on a couple of occasions, and they seemed great. He had two long-timers who had been with him for a while, and although he treated them badly at times, they stuck with him. He had a good head for business, and was a very hard worker. And yet, the one thing that stands out in my mind about my time working for Bob was that one conversation and those eight words. “If you lie to me, I’ll fire you.”
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all bitter about this experience. In retrospect, though the rental car agency wasn’t a great job, I truly learned a lot from the job – and from Bob. Though I doubt he intended it, he taught me more about business than I’d learned in six years working in a big box retail store. It was in my time there that I found my entrepreneurial spark. I’m glad I worked there, glad I worked directly for him, and glad we had that conversation. I learned a great lesson from that conversation.
That experience emblazoned in my mind, I carry to this day several lessons from that conversation.
1) In tense situations, words are weapons. Choose your arsenal carefully. Most workplace conversations don’t qualify as being life-altering, but it’s important to recognize when the things you say can affect the trajectory of a career.
2) Little things you say can have a lasting impact. I’m willing to bet that Bob never gave this conversation a second thought after it was over. He likely passed it off as just another conversation with a subordinate. However, my young and impressionable mind remembers everything about it – I was scared as hell that everything I had worked for could be taken away due to no fault of my own. If he was to read this post, I’d bet he would be shocked that such a trivial conversation would create such an impression that it would still ring clearly after almost two decades.
3) Don’t treat everyone the same. This is a tough one, especially for me, because my traditionalist upbringing pounded into me that everyone ought to be treated equally. However, we need to be careful with how this is interpreted. People should be treated with equal fairness, but this doesn’t mean that the way you interface should be identical from one person to the next. The approach you take with a hard-nosed veteran will likely be different than the way you handle a fresher just out of college. Similarly, an eager-to-please performer shouldn’t be handled in the same way as a slacker who barely makes it to work completely clothed. Bottom line: everyone will be treated differently based on where and who they are, but everyone has the right to be treated fairly.