HR Management & Compliance

Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee

Resources for Humans Managing Editor Celeste Blackburn reviews Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee by Alex Frankel. Review recounts examples from the book that show how companies both win over and lose employee buy in.

Punching in book coverIn his “Author’s Note” for Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee, Frankel writes “the seminal narrative of the business world is the case study. . . . Though some in my shoes might have been inspired to lead a company and shape the case studies of the future, I grew interested in living inside one.” So begins his tale of working for six of the country’s most recognizable companies: United Parcel Service (UPS), Home Depot, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Gap, and the Apple Store. At each stop, he learned more about what makes employees loyal and buy into a company’s brand and culture.

Although physically the most taxing, Frankel seemed to enjoy his time as a member of the “Brown” team at UPS most. Coming onboard as a package deliverer during the Christmas rush, he quickly saw how the employees at UPS are overwhelmingly loyal to the company and “much of this came directly from the company’s culture.”

A culture like this propagates by using an overarching set of guidelines for proper behavior and then having one person imitate another person and pass along certain traits, some of them prescribed from the top, some not. UPS was a place with a palpable spirit, a place where we wanted to be working, where we were made to feel like the chosen few.

Frankel is quick to point out that the drivers are not all clones of each other. In fact, even though UPS was very specific in regulating many of it’s employee’s actions (for example, drivers are taught to buckle their seat belts while they are putting the key in the ignition to save time), it also gave its workers a “fair amount of autonomy,” which was “apparent in the flexibility that permitted people to match uniforms to personal style and in the way each driver had a fair amount of latitude in making minute-to-minute decisions.” Despite their differences, all the UPS employees he encountered very much appreciated that the company was a place where they were rewarded for doing good work. It was repeatedly pointed out to him that most of the higher-level managers had worked their way up through the ranks.

After finishing his stint at UPS, Frankel visits the national hub in Kentucky and is impressed with the automated system that sorts packages. He notes that UPS’s commitment to up-to-date technology is essential for supporting the human element of the Brown team.

In stark contrast, at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, employees are forced to use a computer system that “was a relic of the 1970s.” He writes, “the biggest stumbling block on the job was figuring out just how to operate a computer system launched before the bulk of the company’s employees were born.” Enterprise’s lack of concern for accommodating employees didn’t end there. Frankel notes that the managerial employees (and it seems everyone in the rental office is some sort of manager or manager-in-training) are expected to work 60-hour workweeks, including most Saturdays.

Trainees are told that there are great opportunities for advancement within the company and that there is the opportunity to earn “six figures in six years.” However, Frankel says that the reality is that there are only about 7,500 positions in the entire company where that’s possible, and each year, the company hires about 7,000 people to train to be managers. That creates a culture where 10 people apply for every available promotion, leading to disillusionment and burnout.

Another contradiction Frankel observed during his time at Enterprise had to do with rental insurance. The “company line” was that selling add-on insurance wasn’t a big deal and that employees were instead to focus on customer service. He noted, however, that “the customer-service section of the training binder was just 10 pages, while the section on selling insurance was 73 pages — the longest in the book.” Once he goes to work in the rental office, Frankel says the trend of pushing insurance as a main component of the job continued.
After leaving Enterprise, Frankel finds “,” a message board started by a disgruntled ex-employee, where both current and past employees posted. He writes:

Much of what I read in the postings echoed thoughts I’d had while I was still locked into the job, that this was a company whose corporate culture constantly emphasized upward mobility even though such mobility was not necessarily a realistic promise for all employees. If I were to post by own [Enterprise] story, it would be a short one, though it would resemble the others: I was hired and trained. I rented cars. But I never believed; I never bled the all-powerful green.

That’s a quick rundown of what seemed to be Frankel’s favorite and least-favorite places to work. Through all six of his jobs, one theme emerges: front-line employees know when a “company line” isn’t sincere. The best, most-engaged employees worked for companies that backed up their training and mission statements in everyday practices. The companies that gave lip service to customer service, authenticity, or employee support but didn’t follow through were plagued with unhappy workers (and therefore, more unhappy customers) and high turnover.

Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee is a quick, easy, entertaining read with a good reminder to employers that your employees are watching you and will react well and be great employees if they believe that you believe in what you are doing. If they sense insincerity, they will respond with their own bad attitudes.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Celeste Blackburn is managing editor of HR Insight and Diversity Insight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *