I Got Fired For Stealing A Beer

The Strong Issue contributor and campaigner Lucy Vincent takes us back to her burger flipping' youth, and shares some lessons hard learned. 

I got fired for stealing a beer. It’s been almost four years, and saying this sentence has gone from being traumatic to utterly hilarious - you can thank hindsight for that. I was 21, just graduated, and spending my days as a “burgerette” in a hip London burger joint. My ten hour shifts mainly involved the following: throwing red paper wrapped burgers on metal trays, filling up the alcoholic milkshake machine, stamping paper cups, flirting with colleagues, eating chips, drinking pina colada slushies and getting gobby with customers. It was, frankly, the best job ever. Despite graduating with a first class honours, I had no immediate desire to make use of my degree in Fashion Journalism and was far happier in my (greasy) fast food bubble.

Until I got caught. On CCTV, to be precise. All good things must come to end and mine came crashing down in a (Mc)flurry of official paperwork, hearings and suspensions. I’d recently been given supervisor responsibilities, which for a lowly burgerette like me meant a set of keys to the gaff and the official go-ahead to boss people around. I’d made it! Within a few days of my promotion (if you can call it that) I was celebrating with a lock-in on the premises. This wasn’t a rare occurrence - the company in question actively encouraged the odd after-hours piss up and on-shift drinking was also something of the norm.

But this night was different. Without really knowing it, I was effectively “in charge” of a small gaggle of staff who when I last looked were drinking vodka from the off licence and dancing to The Killers. Eek! One of the Polish chefs just lit up a cigarette INSIDE the restaurant. Bollocks. After using my newfound managerial qualities to inflict an official smoking ban, me and a colleague did the deed that would eventually get me fired. We skipped into the walk-in fridge and retrieved two small cans of beer - 350ml to be precise - and thought nothing of necking them and enjoying the rest of the party.

What followed involved a lengthy disciplinary process that resulted in my suspension from the job for a week. I was told I was under “investigation”. I spent the week mainly in bed, happy that I was getting paid to snooze and watch telly and constantly seeking reassurance from my four flatmates that I wouldn’t be getting the boot. “Lucy, they love you, you’ve been there ages, they canNOT fire you”. We found it utterly hilarious when a courier turned up at the front door with a load of paperwork (to study before my hearing) and a USB stick containing the CCTV footage of my theft. A completely unnecessary formality for a petty mistake, I thought.

If you hadn’t of gathered by now, I got fired. Brutally. I was able to take a colleague with me and there was someone making notes as I fought my case. It didn’t work. It was gross misconduct, I “wilfully and knowingly took part in theft” and my dazzling career as a burger flipper was over before I could say “Can I take your order please?”

There are many people who have gone through plenty of trauma and upset by the age of 21, but until this point, I wasn’t one of them. In about 8 months, I was about to endure my first horrible break-up, which managed to well and truly top the burger-firing and simultaneously make me realise what real heartbreak was. But at that exact moment, when I was being done for gross misconduct, it felt like my heart had broken.

It was all so unfair, I remember thinking. I knew that the rest of the staff had often made their one “after shift drink” into two, or three before - but the difference was that I got caught doing it and consequently made an example of. I spent the evening of my firing at a house party getting very, very drunk and managing to also get my un-insured phone nicked out of my bag, making a bad day into officially The Worst Day Ever.

I wasted weeks agonising over my unfair dismissal. I toyed with sueing them. I tried not to come across too bitter or upset when I told people, instead making the beer theft sound as humorous as possible (it wasn’t hard). I sat on my balcony and sobbed, pouring my heart out to my sympathetic dad for the first time since I was a child. “I thought (gasp) they were (snivvle) my friends!” before crying some more.

After I had picked myself up and brushed off the melodrama, it became clear to me that this was my first true test of the workplace. Four years on, and it still remains the biggest lesson I have learnt about working life. It taught me that however well you get on with your boss, they are still your boss. They still have the power to turn on you and you should never underestimate this. At the same time, never underestimate the power they have to build you up, promote and support you.

You’re allowed to open your heart to your colleagues. Just because you work with them, doesn’t mean you can’t be close to them. Working in a restaurant in my early 20’s involved plenty of mornings dishing the dirty details of what I got up to the night before. I told my colleagues absolutely everything about my life. People used to turn up for trial shifts and within half an hour I’d filled them in on all the sex, boy and money issues that characterised my 21-year old self.

After getting fired, they proved the most comforting part of the whole ordeal. They told me how much they missed me, how sad it was that it ended that way, that things weren’t the same without me. I clung onto every word and I’m still close with them to this day. Let yourself lean on your workmates. Be there for them when they lean on you.

It taught me a very tough lesson on bad behaviour. I never pushed the boundaries as a teenager but I made up for it in my early 20’s, and the beer theft was just one of many times during this period where I Took Things Too Far. The whole distress of it all was like a huge, unannounced wake-up call. It shook me quickly and sharply, making me realise that in the workplace, rules are there for a reason. I broke them, got caught and (touch wood) have never made a professional fuck-up on that scale since. In fact, the burger firing has made me over-consciously well behaved in all my jobs since then and, for that, I am truly thankful.

Finally (and most importantly) it taught me what I had always believed - that some things simply just happen for a reason. My abrupt dismissal forced me to re-evaluate just what it was I had been doing stuffing chilli cheese fries into paper bags for the last year and a half. Post-firing, some of the most important doors of my working life almost instantly opened up to me, offering opportunities in the industry I had actually trained in and paving the way for upcoming career successes. It was a sign. It happened for a reason.

So, next time you screw up at work or find yourself formally suspended with some dodgy CCTV footage on your record, take comfort in the fact that this might not be the end of your working life as you know it. In fact, it might just make you a better person (and employee) in the long-run. Plus, you never know, you might even get a stupidly hilarious story out of it (I did) and who can put a price on that?

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