Skipping the Solution

There is something inherently appealing about problem-solving. Consider MacGyver. Star Trek. The A-Team. Leverage. Any other dramatic entertainment that satisfies its audience by showing that new and seemingly unsolvable problems can be conquered with knowledge, creativity, and determination -- a combination we might even consider unique to, and signature of, our humanity, a point of particular pride.

But in the real world my fellow humans, please, can we stop glossing over wonderful, elegant solutions to problems simply because they require granting others some dignity? This NYTimes story tells us that most retailers are being ripped off not by shoplifters, but by their own employees.

In response, the stores are monitoring their employees worse than if they were prison trustees:

Many retailers have embraced technology to fight employee theft. Data mining programs can now detect whether a particular cashier is refunding far more items than other cashiers, a strategy often used to fill fraudulent gift cards. When such trends are detected, store officials often review video, taken by overhead cameras, to see whether a cashier repeatedly did refunds with the same friend or relative.

One company, StopLift, based in Cambridge, Mass., has even developed software that, when used with overhead cameras, can detect when cashiers engage in sweethearting, by not running merchandise over the scanner or by letting acquaintances take merchandise without paying. The software then alerts managers.

I once worked in retail -- for about an hour: I got hired at a mall-based Williams-Sonoma store when I was in my early 20s. They spent my first and only hour there not teaching me how to sell things, but shaking me down like I were a captured shoplifter. They told me that they would be going through my purse and patting me down every time I walked out of the store, even for a 15 minute break.

After an hour of this humiliation, my smiling supervisor searched my purse and sent me out for my 15 minutes. I never went back. And truth be told, I felt then (and still do to a small extent) nothing but hatred towards those people who (as I saw it) pretended to hire me just so they could demean me for that hour.

If I had been a different kind of person, or just one who for financial reasons could not let go of a job once it's in hand, I might've stayed, and the whole time I worked there I would have been angry at them. I might even have wanted to rip them off in the biggest way possible, out of spite. I mean, if you're already being treated like a criminal, why not be one?

So here we have a problem: some employees steal. So what is the industry solution? Treat all the employees like scum. But all that will do is make the problem worse. Where is our elegant solution? The same NYTimes article mentions that

...the rate of theft is greatest among retailers with high turnover rates and many part-time workers, who may be less loyal and under more financial pressure than full-time workers.

[Richard C. Hollinger, UF professor of criminology] also found higher theft among younger workers. “Older workers know they have a lot more to lose — promotional opportunities, health insurance, 401(k)’s and pensions,” Professor Hollinger said.

So here's your elegant solution: hire mature people, make employees full time, give them benefits they don't want to lose, treat them with respect. If you do that, they won't steal from you. But wait: doing that would require we treat employees humanely -- and you don't get an MBA to learn to do that!

It's the same failure to seize the solution that we see in education: we know that you can turn any teacher into an excellent teacher by decreasing class size. Which is why the current trend in education is to make classes as large as possible, and then hire a small number of rare and uniquely talented "super-teachers" who get paid 6-figure salaries.

Those super-teachers are a big investment -- kind of like the computer systems the retailers are embracing to catch their employees in the act. But in both cases the solutions are awkward and expensive, and treat the majority of working people like worthless trash.

It's almost as though the idea of a whole segment of society, teachers, being employed humanely -- being paid decently to teach manageably-sized classes really well -- is abhorrent for some unstated reason. Perhaps because we prefer our teachers overwhelmed, overworked, and out-numbered. Perhaps we prefer to be served in stores by people demoralized and demeaned. Perhaps we delight in the idea of inequality: that some people are just losers who deserve what they get. (And I guess that includes the students of the over-worked teachers -- who can then expect little better than a job in retail -- are we trying to breed a "loser class"?)

We need to stop rejecting the humane solutions. We should even consider the humanity of a solution to be one of the greatest reasons for pursuing it. Working people, whether they work in retail stores or in eduction or in any other line, are human beings first and employees second.

The management types need to watch some cheesy TV and get a clue: MacGyver wouldn't treat people like this. So why do you?

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