What kind of people work at UPS, Starbucks, Gap, or the Apple Store? Alex Frankel finds out for sure as he joins these brand name retail environments in a one year period and chronicles his experiences in Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee. Barbara Ehrenreich did this kind of undercover writing in Nickel and Dimed. While Ehrenreichs aim was to expose the hardships of low wage jobs that fail to provide living wages, Frankel examines corporate culture and how it shapes the employees who sell the product directly to the customer.
Frankels jobs take place in the San Francisco Bay Area, though he flies to New York City to interview for Whole Foods. While more locations nationwide would have made for an interesting read, the ubiquitous nature of the corporations featured in the book is enough.
The companies that did not hire Frankel provide some insight about these employers and their hiring practices. Home Depot and Whole Foods, among many, use a computerized personality tests in their online applications. Unicru is one of those wonderful combinations of psychology, statistics, and programming that help employers find that perfect applicant. He tries to game it on several applications, but are his efforts foolproof?
As he works at the various jobs, Frankel finds that the companies hire different types of people, but there are some common denominators. The employees are joiners on some level and the companies work to create a culture of employee loyalty. Of all the places he works for, Frankel feels the most affinity for UPS. We get to learn what makes the brown so sexy along with the workplace subculture. He speaks very well of them, but the same cant be said for Enterprise Car Rentals (spookily cult-like, bait and switch) or the Gap (mind-numbingly boring). Starbucks (inauthentic) and the Apple Store (true believers) provide the climax and denouement to the McJob narrative. While hes never really a joiner to begin with, Frankel gains insight to these employees and roles they play in the theatre of retail.
Punching In is a fascinating read, hard to put down, and makes a excellent companion to Nickel and Dimed. I’m strongly considering using it in the classroom this coming semester.
Video trailer courtesy Alex Frankel’s website. Hear him talk about Punching In.