Early on in my real estate days, shortly after I went full time with it, I noticed that I was getting a lot of clients who were interested in buying investment property. This was still near enough to the bottom of the housing market, when it wasn’t clear that the stock market was set on an implausible upward trajectory, so people with cash and an intent to let it grow for a while were looking at property as an option. And they’d ask all kinds of questions I didn’t have more than very theoretical, abstract answers for, because owning property as something other than a place to live wasn’t something I had any experience with. But I wanted to be a good fit for basically any client, especially one who actually had money, so I decided to become somebody who could answer those questions with real experience. I could have taken a class on property management or investment principles or something like that, but I’m cheap and broadly skeptical of people who want you to pay them money in order to teach you how to make money, so I did something else; I got myself a temporary part time job in the office of a property management company.
My official job there was “leasing agent” but I was filling in for a leasing agent who’d quit once all the commission for the year was booked, so I was basically an administrative assistant for the summer. (I’m not kidding about the bailing post-commission. They had so few vacant units that they just paid me hourly rather than on commission because there was no opportunity to make a decent wage otherwise. I’m not sure why they didn’t foresee somebody quitting on them with that arrangement…) That was fine by me. It was twelve hours a week to get paid to see how to do leases, tenant approvals, applications, manage parking and maintenance needs, do vacancy projections, marketing, the whole shebang. I knew how to show and pitch property, so not getting to practice that part of it didn’t bother me at all.
The head of the company was the guy who owned nearly all the property being managed—he’d founded the company entirely so he could get management support he could control—and this guy was, to put it mildly, a really bad boss. You know the kind of guy who has one or two very loyal people on his staff and otherwise chews through everyone because he’s never found an opportunity to be belittling, controlling, and confrontational he didn’t like? He was that guy. His accountant was the one loyal one. His property manager, my direct boss, was not.
In his defense, she was a bit scatterbrained. In her defense, it’s hard to be confident and organized when you’re constantly afraid of your boss blowing up at you over something minor. She couldn’t prioritize a to do list to save her life, but it’s impossible to know what the prioritize when anything might trigger a shouting match. It was not fun to watch, and not just because after a week I was certain I could organize the entire office into one part time job through the power of spreadsheets, but everybody was terrified of computers. Because sometimes they break.
I worked about twelve hours a week on any given week, started at the beginning of July, and was expected to stay until some point in September. Two weeks in, I had some regrets: I’d seen just about everything I was going to see, summer as a full time real estate agent was busier than I’d expected it to be, and the work environment wasn’t exactly a fun one. Still, it was a temporary job with an end date, so I figured I could suck it up and stick it out so I didn’t leave them in a lurch where they had to find a third person to fill the job in a single season.
Then comes the day, a few weeks in, when my direct boss, the property manager, mentions that the owner has complained to her about how I dress. It’s not professional enough, he says. I make the company look bad. Could I dress better?
“Are you kidding?” I ask. No, she is not kidding. “Do you know what he’s paying me?” Yes, she knows. “Do you know that I’m leaving here to go to Mt. Horeb and show a farm to clients?” No, she did not know that. “Well, I’m not dressing better than this to show a farm, and I’m not changing clothes for a job that’s missing a digit for my usual hourly rate, so he can deal with how I dress, or he can fire me.”
How I was dressing, by the way, was usually a nice blouse over cargo slacks and flats, hair pulled up, no makeup. Casual, but the dressy-nice kind of casual. Practical for traipsing across rural Wisconsin. There were days I was there in a business blazer, too. Those were different clients. I’m pretty sure what burned up the owner was that he knew I could dress better than I frequently did, and he wanted me to do that for him.
A couple weeks later she mentions, again, that he is really quite upset with how I’m dressing, and also how the previous intervention on the subject produced no discernible change. To which my response was along the lines of, “I’m sorry, was I unclear? I dress for the job that actually pays me and about which I actually care. You have no leverage here.”
She looked very unhappy. But also, her quota for confrontation was already spent. She let it drop. Then, the next day, when the owner jumped down her throat about a disassembled dishwasher in a vacant unit that she hadn’t bullied the handyman into reassembling, she grabbed her purse and, sobbing, stormed out. Never to be heard from again.
I was, at that moment, sitting behind her desk in pants that weren’t even “cargo slacks” but just straight up tatty men’s cargo pants, because I wasn’t seeing any clients that day and, no really, did not care about how I looked at that job. I’d sat down behind the desk when I saw the owner coming so he would just see the blouse, because I figured ignoring his wishes was one thing, but flaunting that when he was already in a foul mood was just needlessly piling onto the poor property manager, and now I was rather disinclined to get up from the desk because I had a long a illustrious track record of never having rage-quit, and I wanted to preserve it.
The owner tracked the sobbing property manager as she made her way around the exterior of the building to her car. Then got in. Then pulled away. Then he turns to me. “Want more hours?”
“No,” I say before I’ve consciously parsed the question.
He looked startled. “But you’re only working, what, ten hours?”
“I’m working sixty hours, only ten of them are here, and honestly, I’d rather have them back. The only reason I’m still here is it didn’t seem fair to accept a temporary job and then quit part way.”
He looked…considerably more than startled. Then he recovered. “Well, thank you for that. At least you have some sense of professionalism.”
When I say “tatty” to describe the pants I was wearing, what I mean is, “wrinkled, frayed at the cuff, and the flap on one of the pockets was torn halfway off.” But I was, in fact, the most professional person in the room. It was very gratifying to have that noticed.
This has always stuck with me, in large part because of his surprise at the idea that I wouldn’t eagerly lap up the chance to spend more time in that office for the pittance he was paying.
But the thing that has stuck with me about that job, far beyond anything I picked up about 24-hour apartment turns or the nuances of Craigslist marketing, was how much that job didn’t actually suck, for me personally, compared to many similar work situations I’d had. The owner of that place was legitimately awful, but he barely ranks in the leagues of bad bosses I’ve had. (For the record, I’ve had some really great bosses, too. I’ve worked a lot of jobs. There are many data points on my spectrum.) The reason isn’t so much that he wasn’t as awful as the really bad ones, but that he was incredibly easy to ignore. I didn’t need the job. I had nothing to lose. When he tried to assert his authority, I could shrug him off, and the fact that I did confused him so much that he’d wander away rather than escalate things.
It leaves me wondering: what if I’d had the same attitude at the previous bad jobs, at times in my life where I did need the work and would have gladly taken any number of extra hours under any circumstances just to boost my paycheck a tiny bit more? Would I have gotten away with it? I’ll never know. And if I’m ever in that situation again? I probably wouldn’t show up in cargo slacks in the first place, if that were the case.