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Defining Deviancy Down

January 9, 2000
Related Topics: Policies and Procedures, Featured Article
I was about to walk into the local bagel shop when I noticed a bedraggled figure lounging outside. Late teens/early twenties, scruffy and shaveless, barren expression, a cigarette hanging from his lips. I figured he was going to come up and panhandle me for spare change, but he just stood there, leaning on the wall, lost in his private world. The sight was significantly unappetizing.

As I finished paying for the bagels and coffee, I turned around and saw him again, this time inside the shop. But he wasn t a customer, in the shop to buy (or beg) a bagel he was an employee. The cigarette was gone but the vacant expression remained as he slowly moved from table to table cleaning up.

I suppose it was none of my business, but the manager was nearby and I was curious whether she was aware of the impression one of her employees was making on her customers. I told her that I when I saw the young man out front a few minutes before, I had reconsidered whether I wanted to come in. "He's not a good advertisement for your place," I told her.

She looked at me like I had two heads. "Well I can't do anything," she said. "How he wants to dress is his business."

Her response reminded me of Senator Pat Moynihan's phrase, "defining deviancy down." Lowering our standards and expectations so that what once was objectionable now becomes acceptable. Moynihan's thesis is that there is only so much deviancy that a society can tolerate, and when the limit is approached we cope by tolerating what before would have been censured.

Moynihan was talking about major issues, like crime and welfare dependency and illegitimacy. But today deviancy is being redefined downward in our workplaces. Too many employers seem to have abandoned the notion that they can expect people who draw a paycheck to come to work looking and acting like they're proud to be members of the enterprise.

With unemployment down and jobs now plentiful, shopkeepers and store owners seem to feel that as long as some minimal effort is put forth, there's not much more that we can ask these days.

Sorry, not true. The way to get better results is to demand them ... to insist that people meet the highest expectations, not the lowest. If Louie's attitude isn't all you'd like it to be, take out his job description and rewrite it.

Put in a sentence that says, "The employee will maintain a courteous, cheerful and cooperative attitude at all times, in spite of any personal problems or unpleasant customer behavior."

Some employees won't like you if you do this. They'll complain that you're discriminating, that they've got a right to be individuals. Sorry, bub, but not on my nickel. If you want to work here there are standards, high standards, that have to be met.

Every one of your employees is a walking advertisement for your company. What's the message your employees are sending about your bagel joint?

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