NEW YORK (Reuters) – It’s not unheard of for journalists to go undercover to blow the lid off harsh conditions or wrongdoing, but freelance writer Alex Frankel had something else in mind when he infiltrated big U.S. corporations as a customer-facing employee.
The cover of Alex Frankel’s “Punching In” in an image courtesy of the publisher. It’s not unheard of for journalists to go undercover to blow the lid off harsh conditions or wrongdoing, but freelance writer Frankel had something else in mind when he infiltrated big U.S. corporations as a customer-facing employee. He wanted to know what it was like to work at these companies and how they assimilated new hires. REUTERS/Harper Collins/Handout
He wanted to know what it was like to work at these companies and how they assimilated new hires, he writes in his new book, “Punching In” (Collins Business, $24.95).
Frankel got his answers by serving coffee at Starbucks, working the men’s department at Gap, delivering packages for United Parcel Service, selling computers at an Apple Store and training to become a manager at Enterprise Rent-a-Car.
Frankel had many good things to say about UPS UPS.N, where he temped during the Christmas rush.
The work was hard, and at times he wanted to quit. But as he brought holiday gifts to families, he was thrilled to be part of something important.
“On the back end, the computer systems were as high tech as they come,” he wrote, “and on the front end you could also argue that the humans were as human as they come.”
Frankel also appreciated Apple AAPL.O, which hires people who are already fans of its products.
“Workers don’t seem to be working or selling, just hanging out and dispensing advice.”
But at Whole Foods Market Inc WFMI.O, Home Depot Inc HD.N and Best Buy Co Inc BBY.N, Frankel was subjected to extensive online personality tests and couldn’t make it past the “employees only” signs at their stores.
“The new techniques, it was clear, are able to select workers with brutal efficiency, but no doubt certain workers would find getting work much harder,” Frankel said.
Best Buy spokeswoman Dawn Bryant said the online testing helped the consumer electronics chain be consistent and objective in processing the 2 million applications it gets each year.
Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Lowery said the company had switched a few months ago to a test that is shorter, more straightforward and more focused on skills than personality.
Home Depot’s current online test has 30 questions to determine integrity, customer service orientation, math skills and reading comprehension, said spokesman Ron DeFeo.
ON THE JOB
Fortunately for Frankel’s project, he passed the online test at Enterprise and was accepted in a management trainee program that the company billed as a virtual MBA course.
“For recent college graduates, the chance to gain a firm toehold on the lower rungs of a corporate ladder is no doubt more attractive than renting out cars as hourly employees,” Frankel writes, “though that is chiefly what the job entails.”
He was impressed by his co-workers’ willingness to work 60-hour weeks, but said the company’s emphasis on upward mobility was not a realistic promise for all employees.
Enterprise spokeswoman Christine Conrad said Frankel’s 10-day stint at the company was not long enough to form a “well researched opinion” of a nearly yearlong training program that she said has worked for 50 years and launched the careers of hundreds of thousands of employees.
Conrad also said Frankel’s early departure had left his branch in a bind.
At Gap GPS.N, Frankel became disenchanted at spending most of his time folding clothes in the men’s department.
“After just three days on the job, I began to dread punching in,” he wrote. “Something about the boredom of the job made me incredibly hungry.”
Gap spokesman Greg Rossiter said the company had made substantial changes since Frankel worked there.
Boredom was not a problem at the busy Starbucks where Frankel worked as a barista. A “learning coach” never materialized and he had no time to digest the extensive training materials.
“While we were trying to be authentic and welcoming, we were also meant to work hard and deliver hundreds of steaming hot drinks each day,” he said.
He suspected that some workers had joined Starbucks SBUX.O not because they believed in the company but “just to work the 20 weekly hours and gain health insurance.”
A Starbucks spokeswoman declined to discuss the book.
Editing by Eddie Evans
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