Long Ago Lessons on Work Ethics

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Passion to the Third Degree .

Once upon a time, when I was almost but not quite fresh out of college and not even 22, I learned a shocking lesson or two about work and real life. I say “almost but not quite fresh out of college” because I’d completed all my courses but because I’d finished my college year out of cycle, I had to wait another two months to receive my diploma, which made finding a “real job” quite a chore. Plus, I wanted to be near my boyfriend. The job market was also horrendous in the early 1980’s, so I took a substitute job at a medical center near where my boyfriend lived and tried to feed myself by filling in a couple times a week for a sick or vacationing receptionist in Pediatrics, Obstetrics, the ER, Internal Medicine, etc.

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In general, I wasn’t that fond of the administrators, I liked the nurses, and the receptionists and back-office staff were a real grab bag. Most of the doctors were great—especially the ones who sent me to get their to-go lunches at the hospital cafeteria because they’d tell me to bring back lunch for their nurse and for me, too. That was worth at least an hour’s pay to me and I was always impressed by how generous a few of them were. Come to think of it, there wasn’t a single physician there that I didn’t like—and I guess it was another decade before I developed a disdain for doctors because of a few bad apples.

I always liked working in the Pediatrics. It was always super busy and interesting, but the other receptionists didn’t like me. I didn’t understand until much later, when I was a mom myself. The pediatricians had strict orders for the receptionists not to give out medical advice. We were to direct calls to the nurse, if available, or take a message. The other receptionists were all mothers and constantly gave out advice to worried mommies calling about a child’s fever or earache and should they bring the child in. We weren’t issued thresholds for telling people to come in or stay home and the other receptionists who were experienced moms just did it on their own, and I was clueless about whether Baby Brittany’s spots were probably chicken pox or the best way to administer Tylenol to a newborn or how much. All I could do was hand the phone to some other receptionist, who was exasperated that the administrators had sent someone without children to answer the phones and make appointments.

I eventually had to leave the job because, well, it was temporary until my diploma came through but I couldn’t pay my rent on 16 hours a week and they wouldn’t give me full-time work, which came with benefits. The deciding factor to leave was quite a blow to my work ethic and basic beliefs.

One of the internal medicine doctors had a receptionist who always seemed so overworked. Everything took so long and was so difficult. I had trained to fill in for her while she was to be out of the office for a day or two and for later when she took vacation. Her job didn’t seem so hard, and both the doctor and nurse were absolutely great. All I heard while I trained for her job was how tough it was. Between patients, if she ran out of things to do, she would sit and crochet.

I worked in her slot for two days—the only days I was to work that week, so I knew I had only 16 hours of pay coming and I was feeling the financial pinch. But the job was… easy. I chatted with patients, took care of their records, made appointments, handled payments, balanced the accounts, and loved the interaction with the people there. It was the least stressful job I’d worked in the medical center and one of the more fun ones!

About five hours into my eight-hour day, I was done. I’d finished everything. And then some. The doctor and nurse seemed confused as to how I’d finished so quickly. The nurse looked over my work and told me that yes, it was all just fine and they’d see me the next day.

The next day, the work buzzed along happily and again—surprisingly—I finished up in about five hours. The nurse told me that the regular receptionist spent the last three hours of the day balancing the accounts and preparing the deposit, but I’d already done that between patients, keeping up with things as I went. The nurse seemed surprised that I was done. She wasn’t used to that. So after five hours, she told me I could go home and they hoped to see me again next time they needed someone to fill in.

That was the last time I filled in there. The next week, two things happened that gave me a real-world lesson. The first was that my good work had not gone unnoticed by all the people the regular receptionist worked with…and the receptionist, whenever she saw me, shot little daggers at me with her glare. Another receptionist took me aside and explained that if I made a full-time employee look bad, even without meaning to, that no one would want me working with them or substituting for them for fear of losing their jobs.

The other thing was that I was paid for 10 hours, not 16. Although I’d done what the regular receptionist accomplished in 8 hours, I wasn’t paid for 8 hours of work. I was paid for the actual time on the job. In effect, I felt punished for doing a good job. As someone who’d been taught to work hard and you’ll be rewarded for it, that was the first major conflict I had with the way I’d been raised to think about work ethics. Not that it made me work less hard, but that hard work wasn’t always rewarded and sometimes was rewarded with a few financial steps backward.