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The Making of a Front-Line Winner

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Sunday, December 2, 2007

Alex Frankel spent two years applying for front-line jobs at some of America's biggest companies. A self-described "resolute nonjoiner," he wanted to know how those employers transformed job applicants into loyal workers, making them into successful messengers for their brands. And he wanted to know whether any of them could win him over.

During that time, he had his "coffee passport" stamped at Starbucks, peddled iPods for Apple, stacked T-shirts for Gap and pushed car insurance for Enterprise. He even delivered holiday packages as a temp for UPS.

The product of that experiment, "Punching In," is a book that takes readers behind the scenes at some of the country's best-known companies, showing them how life can look from the other side of the sales counter.

While Frankel's book isn't intended as career advice, I found it a useful exploration on corporate culture and how workers are selected and trained to embody it. It's a good read for anyone struggling to find a workplace where they feel as if they belong.

"Though I did not understand it at the outset of the project, it made sense by the end that one person could not excel at all of the jobs equally, that someone might self-select another workplace entirely," Frankel writes. "Many front-line jobs are ones that job applicants choose by matching themselves up with the company's culture, and those companies that promote this self-selection process are often able to better serve customers."

This is something that "knowledge workers" would also do well to keep in mind. Cubicles have culture just as much as retail storefronts, and the better you match your employer's overall character, the happier you're likely to be.

"Punching In" is also a reminder of how important the people who fill these front-line jobs are to a company's success, even though they are usually the lowest paid. "When you buy a latte at Starbucks, your view of the company -- its brand -- is largely shaped by the person who serves you," Frankel writes. "You may have a vague sense of the founder's story, but by and large it's these front-line employees who connect you to the larger corporation."

Even as a customer, Frankel admits, he had misunderstood the nature of these jobs. "I went into this project pretty much unaware that these companies were looking for different types of people," he said in a recent interview. "I had lumped all these jobs" into the same category, he said, "thinking these people were transient." (It's not that Frankel, a freelance business journalist, hadn't held down his share of "random jobs," but they had been at construction sites and non-chain restaurants.)

His experience changed his perspective, though, including his opinion about the online "personality" tests that large employers increasingly use to sort out applicants. "I had imagined that the employer was mostly seeking to weed out bad apples, but it's not just 'good worker' versus 'bad worker' that they look for. They're searching for a select menu of traits they have identified and can change as needed," he writes. In interviewing the people who create such tests, he learned that these systems help decrease employee turnover as much as 30 percent. "The hope is that the system will allow employers to clone their best, most reliable people."

He also admits that maybe it's not a bad thing that he was rejected at some places -- Home Depot, Whole Foods and the Container Store -- because clearly he wasn't their type. He just never could get the answers to the questions "right," a failing even in-person requests for interviews couldn't overcome.

His favorite employer during the experiment? UPS, despite the long hours, hard physical labor and bad weather. "With no great perceived effort on its part, UPS had inculcated me," he writes, with a touch of shock. He even hung on to a few pieces of the uniform. "A year later, I'd pull on the warm brown quilted vest and feel a sense of power and place."

Next Year in the Office

Are you thinking about career-related resolutions for 2008? If so, and you're willing to share them for a column on the subject, e-mail me at slayterme@washpost.com. Please include your full name and a daytime phone number. No attachments.

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