Her Dream Job
Nausea gripped Maggie’s stomach as she walked across the shopping mall parking lot on the first day of her new job. She’d felt sick all weekend at the thought of starting again in retail. It might have been less stressful if she at least knew something about Lorelei, but she’d never even set foot in one of their stores. The fashion chain was brand new, and this was their first branch in her city. The job interview had taken place online. One of the interviewers, an older man called Nick with glasses and a neat beard, told her she was “the perfect candidate.”
Working in a fashion store wasn’t exactly Maggie’s dream job, but all her work experience was in retail, so retail it had to be. She’d been unemployed since she finished her psychology PhD six months earlier. None of the companies she applied to were interested in a newly minted PhD with no relevant work experience. She wouldn’t feel any qualms about moving on from Lorelei as soon as she could. She’d been laid off without warning so many times by stores in the past.
But when she arrived at the Lorelei store, nestled unobtrusively between Nike and Under Armour, she was pleasantly surprised. A smiling middle-aged woman was waiting for her by the entrance. She introduced herself as Taylor. “Think of me as your mentor,” she said, shaking Maggie’s hand. “We don’t use the word ‘boss’ at Lorelei.”
Taylor showed Maggie around the tastefully decorated store with its neat piles of sweaters, then took her into what she called “backstage”, where employees could go on their breaks. Instead of the windowless cinderblock room Maggie had expected, the area was fitted to the same high standards as the store itself, with exposed brickwork, wood floors and natural
light. A lounge section had sofas and beanbags, and there was a well-equipped kitchen area. The thick carpet yielded invitingly under Maggie’s sneakers, and the smell of freshly brewed coffee filled her nose. Taylor showed Maggie two packed fridges and a cupboard stocked with snacks. “All the food is free for staff.” She took out a plastic-clad muffin to show her. “You just need to scan each item on our corporate app so we can keep track.” She got Maggie on the wi-fi and helped her install the app, then showed her how to scan the muffin. “For later,” she said, handing it to Maggie.
Taylor introduced Maggie to the rest of the team, whom she referred to as “stakeholders”. Mostly young people like herself, they were chatty and friendly. Taylor showed her how to operate the cash register and scan merchandise. She shadowed Maggie unobtrusively during the day, and they handled the first few transactions together. At lunchtime, Maggie helped herself to a salad and a slice of cheesecake from the fridge, scanning the items as she’d been shown. They were as delicious as they looked. During a quiet spell, Taylor explained the other perks Lorelei offered, including free massages on Fridays and discounted gym membership. “It’s so hard to retain people, we have to offer our stakeholders these little extras,” Taylor explained.
At the end of her shift, Taylor showed Maggie into an office in the backstage area she hadn’t noticed before. Sitting behind an antique desk was Nick from the interview. Taylor introduced him as their “in-house coach.”
“Take a seat.” Nick indicated a gleaming leather sofa in the corner. “I’d just like to ask you some questions about your day. Part of our stakeholder experience optimization program here at Lorelei.” He worked through a short questionnaire on his tablet, asking Maggie about her stress levels and had she felt happy and productive during her shift. Maggie answered, truthfully, that she’d had a great day.
As she headed home, she couldn’t believe her luck. Maybe retail could be her dream job
Her second day was even better. The customers were friendly, the store was lively without being busy, and she enjoyed chatting with the other staff. In the generous breaks which Taylor insisted they take, Maggie and the others helped themselves to the free food. “I can’t believe they give us all these great snacks,” one woman said. “I guess companies need to treat their staff well these days.”
At the end of her shift, Maggie had another chat with Nick. She told him she’d had a fantastic day. “I’m so pleased you like it here,” Nick said.
On her third day, Maggie noticed the surveillance cameras.
She supposed the cameras in the store were a normal precaution against shoplifting. But Maggie didn’t understand why there were cameras in the backstage area. She asked one of her co-workers, who’d never noticed them before. “Frankly, I don’t care. If they want to film me hanging out, let them. By the way, have you tried the tuna sandwiches? They’re incredible.”
During a quiet moment, Maggie plucked up courage and asked Taylor about the cameras. “Oh, they’re just here to help optimize the employee experience,” she replied breezily. Maggie didn’t understand what that meant, but she didn’t want to press. She was just grateful to be working there.
Soon Maggie settled in and was loving her job. Her bank balance recovered and she left work every day feeling cheerful.
After a couple of weeks, she noticed something odd. Normally her moods were very stable, but now they were changing every few days. During the first week, she was full of energy, chatting to customers and her co-workers, joyfully folding sweaters. Then for a couple of days she felt listless. After that, her mood changed again and she felt hyper but strangely detached from her surroundings.
One weekend, some old takeout gave her a mild bout of food poisoning. On the Monday after, she took a tub of plain yogurt with her to work, but barely touched it. She didn’t have any appetite on the Tuesday either, so she ended up going two days without eating any of the free food. It was then that she noticed something. She had returned to her usual neutral state, neither manic nor lethargic.
She was scanning a container of sushi for lunch when she suddenly remembered an experiment she’d done in the psychology lab, where rats had to pull a lever to get food pellets. She put the sushi back in the fridge and washed her hands. There was something wrong with the food, she was sure of that. And Nick had something to do with it. She was angry with him, but more than that she was furious with herself for not figuring it out earlier. She wondered if she should talk to him about it. She might lose her job, and she needed the money. But then she had an idea.
She confronted Nick during their daily chat. “There’s stuff in that free food, isn’t there? You’re testing something on us. That’s why you film us and ask us all these questions.”
Nick chuckled. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“And that’s why you track everything we eat with your app. So you can see how much
drugs or medication or whatever we’ve consumed.”
Nick gave her a patronizing smile. “I don’t know why you’re complaining. You agreed to some of it in your employment contract, and the rest in the terms and conditions for the app. Assuming you even read them, which I suspect you didn’t.”
“One question: Why?”
Nick took off his glasses. “Did you really think selling pastel sweaters was our business? No, data is our real product. We test the effects of performance-enhancing drugs on workers on behalf of other companies. This information will be very valuable for the workplace of tomorrow.”
“Interesting,” said Maggie. “I’m sure the Times is going to find this fascinating.”
Nick sneered. “They’ll never believe you.”
“Except I’ve been livestreaming our conversation.” She held up her phone. The comments were scrolling up the screen faster than Nick could read them.
Nick’s face went pale, then he forced a smile. “I see. Perhaps we can come to some kind
Maggie looked around the office, taking in the antique desk and the leather sofa. She could enjoy working in an office like this, evaluating the staff’s performance. Being the observer and not the rat. Maybe even testing performance-enhancing drugs on Nick. It would certainly be better than selling sweaters. “Perhaps we can.”
Daniel Addercouth was almost fired from his first job for hiding messages in product packaging. Later, he had to pretend to understand the corporate world in order to write Business English textbooks. Now happily employed in the public sector, he hopes he will never have to face the rigors of the free market again. He can be found on Twitter at @RuralUnease