It was the first time that Adam had ever seen Jamie act the way she did. And it had to happen during the 5 P.M. rush, too, he thought, grudgingly. Jamie had just walked away from her register after finishing with her last customer and practically stormed into the backroom area, tears having begun to quickly form in her eyes. Adam was about to go back and find out what was wrong, but ended up getting stopped by an irate customer, who felt that his hot dog that was apparently one minute past the freshness time indicated on the wrapper was of national importance – at least to listen to him scream and yell about it. As Adam was trying to calm the gentleman down, he caught out of the corner of his eye his assistant manager, Lauren, step quickly into the backroom area in response to the drama that was unfolding. Dammit, Adam thought. She’ll just tear Jamie a new one. After consoling the disgruntled hot dog consumer with a placating refund of his money, Adam walked back into the backroom area and caught Lauren more or less dressing down Jamie for her “unprofessional behavior,” with the choice phrases of “acting like a big baby” and “suck it up” being thrown in at seemingly appropriate moments. This only seemed to exacerbate already free-flowing tears on Jamie’s part.
“Hey, Lauren,” Adam stated firmly, yet evenly, “go back out and help with the front. We still got a lot of people out there. I’ll take it from here.”
Adam could see in Lauren’s face that she was not happy at being stopped in mid-rant. However, as was usually the case, Lauren relented and cast one last downcast look at the sobbing, brunette young woman sitting in the cheap folding chair before walking back out to the register area – fake enthusiasm fully in place. Adam then looked at Jamie and said, “Come on. Step in here, please.” He indicated the small office that also doubled as the server room for the store.
Jamie stood up – wiping tears mixed with eyeliner away from underneath her eyes – and walked into the cramped room. She took her seat opposite from the seat that occupied space in front of the desktop computer on the shelf space that doubled as a desk. Adam shut the office door and locked it behind him before assuming his seat.
“So,” Adam said, calmly, “what’s going on?”
Jamie attempted to control her sobbing as she replied, “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I’ll try not to let it happen again.”
Adam raised his hand and gave a slightly dismissive wave as he stated, “We’ll get to that in a minute. What happened to get you this way?”
Jamie continued to look at the floor as she returned, “That guy just kept arguing about the price of a bottle of water he was getting – kept saying that I was wrong. But, that’s just it. I know I wasn’t. I knew for a fact that I was right, and I even explained to him that the price he saw was for the product on the shelf above. He called me a stupid bitch a lot and then just gave up and left his stuff on the counter and stormed out.”
“Ah,” Adam said, recalling seeing the storming man she mentioned. “That’s what that was.”
“And,” Jamie continued as she sniffled hard and continued to burn a figurative hole through the floor with her eyes, “before you say anything else, it wasn’t just him that set it off. Just seems like the last few customers, including him, just had nothing but one bad thing after another to say to me – even though I did nothing wrong. I guess I just had enough after that last one. I had to step away. I’m sorry.”
Adam made note of the fact that Jamie never looked up and met his eyes the entire time she relayed her harrowing tale. Having gone through several situations such as she described, Adam could understand the frustration. Come to think of it, Adam thought briefly, I got talked to a few times by my manager – and I never looked him in the eye much either.
“Okay,” Adam answered, finally. “I can understand why that would get to you. I’ve had that happen more than a few times myself. And, it’s good that you handled it the way you did, without letting this be seen by the customers. Unfortunately, and I hate to say this, but that’s the nature of the beast in this kind of service setting. There are just going to be some people that will want to be unhappy and will want to take out whatever is frustrating them – however petty that might be – on whoever is in front of them. In this case, that happened to be you. I know this is easier said than done, but you have to not take it personally. If you have to, just do what I used to do sometimes when that would happen – just stick to script.”
Jamie looked up with a puzzled expression and questioningly repeated, “Just stick to script?”
“Yeah,” Adam replied. “Just focus on what you need to say to finish the transaction in a calm, professional manner, like ‘will that be all for you, sir,’ and just give him the total and offer to bag up his stuff and then just wish him a good day and call the next customer up. Contrary to popular belief, the customer is NOT always right. You control the situation, not them. And, just remember, that if things look like they’re getting out of control, I’ve got your back. I’m not about to let anyone trample all over my people. Got it?”
Jamie kept her eyes focused on Adam as she sniffled slightly and said, “Got it. Thank you.”
Adam smiled a thin smile, nodded his head and said, “No problem. You’re a good cashier, and I just want to see you succeed here. Now, it seems to me that some of the product in the cooler needs to be restocked. Want to help with that? Maybe get away from the front for a little while?”
Jamie wiped away the last of her tears and said, “Thanks. That’d be good.”
“Good,” Adam returned. “Stop by the bathroom and clean up a little if you have to and just head on back. On your way, could you ask Lauren to come back here for a minute please?”
“Sure,” Jamie replied as she stood up. She then extended her hand and said, “Thanks again.”
Adam smiled and shook Jamie’s hand gently and said, “No worries. That’s what I’m here for.” Adam then turned his attention to his computer to check any business emails while he waited for his efficient, if somewhat taciturn assistant manager. A minute later, he heard a hard knocking on his office door. Sounds like she’s happy, Adam sarcastically thought. He wheeled his chair to the door and opened it to admit Lauren, who immediately walked over and sat down in the chair Jamie had just occupied earlier.
“You wanted to see me?” the red-haired woman asked, somewhat curtly.
“Yeah,” Adam said as he crossed his hands on his stomach while leaning in the office chair. “Everything okay out there?”
“Fine,” Lauren replied. “Why’d you send Jamie back to the cooler? It’s still a little busy out there.”
“I’ll cover one of the registers in a minute,” Adam returned. “You think you might have been a little harsh on Jamie there before?”
“No,” Lauren stated. “She has to know that kind of behavior is unacceptable and that she can’t be acting like that in front of customers. Also, she can’t just walk away from the register like that in the middle of a rush.”
“True,” Adam conceded, “her timing could have been better. Still, I think it’s better that she walked away from the situation before she let her emotions get the better of her and let the situation spiral out of control, don’t you?”
“Oh,” Lauren said with contempt laced in her tone. “So you think it’s okay for her to just be a baby like that?”
“What I think,” Adam said as his tone became more firm, “is that while her timing might not have been the greatest, her handling of the situation was pretty good under the circumstances. We’ve already talked, and I gave her advice on how to handle something like that next time – if there is a next time.”
“There won’t be,” Lauren replied. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
Adam shook his head, closed his eyes and let out a sigh before saying, “Lauren, you’re one hell of an efficient assistant manager, but you don’t ever seem to try and understand the people you work with. I have a fairly good idea as to why Jamie acted like she did.”
“Oh,” Lauren sarcastically replied, “this ought to be good.”
Adam maintained an even expression as he stated, “I have a feeling Jamie might have a mild form of autism, or autism spectrum disorder as they call it now.”
Lauren let out a sardonic laugh as she said, “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” Adam replied, calmly.
Lauren waved a dismissive hand and said, “C’mon – that’s BS and you know it.”
“Is it?” Adam came back, seriously. “She’s got some of the signs – problems with eye contact, especially in the face of perceived confrontation or hostility and emotional breakdown due to overstimulation caused by too much being thrown at her for her brain to process – namely from several irate customers back to back. I’m guessing when you went to talk to her, she might have been hitting herself in some way?”
Lauren’s brow furrowed at Adam’s observation as she said, “Yeah, she did. She was smacking herself on the forehead when I saw her, and I grabbed her hand and told her to stop.”
“I’m guessing that you were angry,” Adam further inquired, “and that you were just a little forceful about it?”
“So?” Lauren retorted, defensively. “Only a baby does that crap. She had to be stopped.”
Adam shook his head and let out another heavy sigh as he replied, “That was probably a mistake. All you did was make her feel worse about everything. While it’s not the best thing to do, people with autism sometimes hurt themselves because they are so frustrated with a situation because their brain doesn’t know how to process it, and that’s the only way they know how to deal with it in that moment. Now, you were right in that she needed to stop, but you can’t just be forceful like that. You have to talk them down – calmly!”
“Oh, please,” Lauren said as she rolled her eyes and looked away from Adam with a shaking head.
“I know you probably think that autism,” Adam continued, in spite of Lauren’s reaction, “is like what you see in characters like Rain Man or The Good Doctor, or that it’s just an excuse to not deal with the real world like you think everyone else should, but it’s a social development problem that makes it difficult for people with autism to interact with people in general. Their brains just process social situations differently than most people. I’m actually surprised it took me this long to notice that about her.”
“I can’t believe you’re actually buying into that crap,” Lauren said, bitterly. “Her mom and dad just didn’t teach her to suck it up, buck up and get over it – plain and simple. Besides, when did you become such an expert on autism?”
“Because,” Adam replied, calmly, “you’re talking to a guy who has autism spectrum disorder.”
Lauren’s eyebrows furrowed tight as she reeled her head back and said, “Yeah, right.”
Adam maintained an even expression, not blinking once in response to Lauren’s disbelief. Lauren then incredulously asked, “Seriously?”
“Deadly,” Adam responded with a slight nod.
Lauren just shook her head and said, “You’re just saying that to take her side.”
“I wish I could say I was joking about that,” Adam replied, “but I’m not. That’s the reason I know so much about it – because I’ve had to live with it. Believe you me – it’s not a subject I wanted to have any expertise in, but it kind of comes with the territory when you live with it.”
“But,” Lauren said as she shook her head slightly, “you don’t do any of those things you just talked about, what with the eye contact and all.”
“Not as much as I used to,” Adam conceded slightly, “but have you noticed that I don’t exactly look you in the eye all the time when you come to me angry about something?”
Lauren shrugged and said, “I just thought you were being an a-hole and wasn’t paying attention. No offense.”
“None taken,” Adam returned with a shrug of his own. “The point is that I’ve worked on a lot of my problems that come with ASD, and I’ve managed to overcome them to an extent – although they never really go away. The same is probably the case with Jamie. She had probably just had a moment where her brain yelled ‘ENOUGH,’ and then broke down emotionally.”
Lauren continued to shake her head as she pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and index finger. She then looked up and asked, “So, what am I supposed to do with her if she acts like that again? Give her a hug and a lollipop and tell her it’s okay?”
“Well, first,” Adam replied, “you can drop the attitude and accept that this is an actual problem that people have.” Adam watched as Lauren sat up straighter in her chair with an indignant look on her face, then continued, “Second, hopefully, there won’t be a next time. If there is, then we deal with it calmly and rationally. If it ends up causing a major problem in the store, then we pull her aside and we deal with it by the book. I get the feeling, however, that if we try to work with Jamie and give her the tools to deal with situations like what she went through today, then she’ll come out on top and she’ll continue to do a good job just like she’s been doing. I mean, you have to admit that she’s doing a pretty damn good job around here, right?”
Lauren let out sigh and reluctantly replied, “Yeah, there is that.”
“Good,” Adam stated with a smile. He then leaned in and said, “Third, if I find out that you’ve put your hands on any of the employees like that around here again, then you and I are going to have a long talk and re-evaluate the position of Assistant Manager, and who needs to fill it. Understood?”
Lauren stiffened at the politely worded ultimatum and replied, “Yes, sir.”
“Good,” Adam said with a slight cock of his head. “Now, let’s go thin out the rush, shall we?”
Lauren simply nodded her head as she rose from her seat and walked to the office door – Adam walking one step behind her with a satisfied grin.