Playing Favorites

No one likes it when authority figures play favorites. Unless, of course, you’re the favorite. Imagine everyone on the interstate speeding & here you are just keeping up. You get pulled over. “Hey, I was just following the crowd,” you say. And the cop says, “Yeah, but YOU’RE the one I pulled over.” You can fill in your own anecdote here, because my example may not be the best sample. Suffice it to say that I’ve been on both sides of the paradigm. And the feeling of being on the wrong side of the coin when it comes to favorites never goes away. I still feel the sting from events that occurred more than a decade ago. Recently, I’ve come into a work place role that involves enforcing rules.

I’ve been working at a high end health club all summer. Yes, it’s a part-time, modestly waged position. Nonetheless, I’ve agreed to do it & I want to do it well. Part of my job description involves enforcing age minimums to use the equipment. For safety reasons, children under a certain age can’t use any of the equipment, especially free weights, regardless of whether or not a parent is present. Seems sensible, right? Young kids often fail to make the safest choicest for themselves. Age restrictions make sense. You can probably imagine where I’m going with this already. Parents don’t agree on what the age minimum should be & often violate our stipulations.

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Although this aspect has become the most stressful part of an otherwise enjoyable part-time job, it’s a responsibility I verbally agreed to do during the interview so it’s a role I intend to perform in practice. I had a father tell me that in his year of membership, he’s never had anyone approach him about an “age restriction” before me. As such, he felt I was singling him out & he spoke to management about it. However, he did comply with my wishes. A week later, a mother was setting up a stationary bike for her extremely young-looking son. I approached them about the age policy. The mother knew the policy but stated she had always disregarded it since she was responsible parent (rules are for irresponsible people who can’t make proper choices independently). The woman acted so sweetly in her replies she almost buttered me up into making an exception for her—until I remembered how horrible I felt about the man who accused me of singling him out. I remember responding that, although I couldn’t account for what previous staffers had done, this was my first time encountering him & that I would enforce the policy consistently. If I made an exception for this sweet-talking woman, I would have rendered myself a liar. I told her I needed her compliance & she obliged.

“We can’t play favorites with the policy,” a manager later said, applauding my handling of the sweet-speaking woman.

Earlier this week, my direct supervisor, someone higher-up than the aforementioned manager, pulled me into her office. She told me upper management decided to “ease up” on enforcing the age restrictions. Our new standard involved informing the parent of our policy & then  respecting their decision, provided they remained present with their child throughout the exercise. Apparently, I had been too full-blown “rent-a-cop,” mall security guy within my modestly-waged part-time job. I had only been keeping the promise I made during the interview. I didn’t enjoy behaving like a hard-ass. I just didn’t want to become the only member of the fitness staff too weak to stand behind the rules. As it turned out, I may have been the only member of the staff standing behind them.

Last night, I witnessed a large African American man with his youthful looking son. “Oh no,” I thought. Please don’t let that kid lift those weights.” Just then, the father tells his son, “I’ll do ten & you do five.” “Damn!” I thought. I didn’t want to approach this big strong man who looked like a retired NFL player about our age restriction. Everyone I’d ever approached about this, even young kids, had received the news aggressively except for that one woman with the sugary speech. I may seriously get my ass kicked this time! But, true to my word about consistency, I approach this immense, masculine force. To preempt his protest, I brought a copy of our age compliance guidelines with me, key passages highlighted. I held my breathe, then made my polite introduction: “Excuse me sir, may I speak with you a moment?”

“Excuse me, Sir?”

I was blown away by how politely this giant of a man behaved. When I handed him the form & directed him to the highlighted area, I saw the sadness in his eyes. To lighten the mood, I told the man he was big enough to have played college football. He laughed & told me he had served in the Marine Corp instead. “Oh damn,” I thought. I veteran too. “Thank yo for your service, Sir.” Just then, I realized the man was an amputee. He admitted that his son wasn’t even ten years old, way below our club’s established age restriction. But then, rather weakly, I explained that so long as he remained with the boy, I would trust his discretion.

We shook hands & I walked away. But the rest of the shift, I performed my duties in silence while I wrestled with the questions in my head. This night had been my first encounter with a member since I been had given the talk about easing things up. I had followed my new standards to the “T,” but it still felt wrong. The new standards probably saved me this time.  This Marine was the first member I may have caved in on, even without having been ordered to do so earlier. Because the new standard was now in effect, we will never know. But all night, I wrestled with the image of the gentle one-armed giant, sad look in his eyes as he read my highlighted form. I felt sympathy for the man, but had I broken the rule, new policy aside, of playing favorites?

Did my sympathy for him make me soft-hearted? Or simply . . .





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