Essay: Dealing with ‘Karens’ while working at IKEA

During a typical day working at IKEA, my co-worker and friend called me over and asked if I could help out at her register. I briskly walked over to find her in a tense situation with an older, white male customer who demanded my friend lift a heavy box right side up to scan the item. Despite being able to take it off the shelf, place the heavy box into the cart and push it through the entire warehouse, he refused to touch it at checkout. So I ended up doing it myself — with my scrawny, 19-year-old arms. My co-worker was able to scan the box with no help from him – then he scoffed and demanded to speak to a manager. 

When another associate went to go get the manager on duty, she muttered under her breath, “someone needs to tell that guy slavery ain’t no more.” 

Both my associate and co-worker were Black women, and this powerful comment from my associate in retaliation to the white entitlement cut the tension so hard that being in the presence of it left me verklempt but surprisingly a bit vindicated on their behalf. This clever, timely verbal pushback to mitigate such abrasive, tone-deaf behavior is far from an isolated instance when you work in the service industry. I won’t forget how impactful her statement felt as I stood there, supporting my friend as we collectively got stared down with disgust from this gentleman until my leader arrived. As the verse goes in Taylor Swift’s song “The Story of  Us,” I had never heard silence this loud.

In 2020, that person is what I’ve called the “Sir Karen” – a customer who does not get what they want then finds a scapegoat. Instead of letting it go and going on with their days, they demand to speak to a manager to feel validated by going over our heads to exercise an abuse of power. They don’t even give a “thank you,” let alone an apology for their behavior. They don’t take responsibility and to them, you shouldn’t expect they’ll treat you like you’re human because all they see is a yellow striped shirt that says “IKEA” in big, bold lettering. There’s an ongoing joke between co-workers that IKEA is the “Swedish furniture circus gone global” and we as co-workers are the main spectacle while the products are the objects to perform tricks with. 

Common sense and humanity is nonexistent inside the store. People treat you like an idiot and then expect you to know their specific piece of furniture along with their specific combination – one of 10,000 items within IKEA’s catalog. And if they’re not having a good day, it’s time to play verbal beat down with you’re “useless” or “incapable” while you defend your character on the spot. 

After an experience like that, the store manager sometimes pops onto the sales floor, expecting us to help the next one hundred customers like everything is fine, ignoring the physical throbbing leg and foot pain while also remedying the psychological verbal abuse from strangers. Instead of addressing the issues or discussing our experiences, we get pulled into meetings and are told to “smile more.”

Then the day ends and you clock out, you feel tired but you do it all over again because you love connecting with co-workers and customers who tell you that those “Karens” are not worth worrying about because they’ll be gone by tomorrow. You have a unique bond with your peers because they know your exact pain and will slip you a jolly rancher or cover you when you need to catch your breath in private. Sometimes, a hug makes all the difference in turning the day around and a good laugh with your unconditional working family. 

People who work in retail have an unspoken understanding of our collective experiences. On one of my days off, I was at a Panera Bread and ended up having a conversation with the cashier taking my order. I shared some of these experiences with her, and we had a good laugh about some of the experiences we had as cashiers. I asked how she dealt with the stress, and she said it was a good way to build her character as well as to stand her ground respectfully. After my order was ready, she walked over with my brown paper bag, sealed up with a handwritten smile and two free cookies. I thanked her and left with a bit of hope while I ate that freshly baked M&M’s cookie. 

It costs nothing to be kind and to see the people like me who work in retail as human beings. People forget that co-workers in these stores are also human and are consumers once we take off the badge and the uniform. As the idiom goes and one I live by: Treat others the way you want to be treated. 

Liam Studer, a junior majoring in political science and sociology, is a columnist. 

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