Joey's Viral Video: The Broader Scale

By now you’ve probably seen the viral YouTube video that depicts a young man named Joey DeFrancesco giving notice to his employer, the Providence Renaissance hotel. Joey brings a few bandmates along to provide a musical fanfare for his “I quit” declaration while a videographer records the action. My son Mac showed me Joey’s video and the next day I got a call from Canadian TV, asking me to comment on it. After that, my phone went crazy. Everyone wants to talk about Joey—and what his YouTube resignation video means for employees and employers.

The “quit your job creatively” meme is in full swing. Joey’s video is only the most recent, most viral of a slew of “take this job and shove it” pronouncements. I can’t wait to see what’s next. Will we see job resignations conveyed via banners trailing airplanes, like marriage proposals? Or broadcast on the Jumbotron at Yankee Stadium? How far will the distinctive job-quitting craze go?

The Canadian interviewer wanted to know if I think Joey’s act of defiance will hurt his career. “Look, this young man worked in the hotel for over three years,” I said. “It’s not like he’s a flake who worked there for six weeks and decided to bail in a dramatic way.” In his few minutes on screen, the kid is professional and polite, and who wouldn’t give him points for creativity? I’ll bet Joey has job offers right now.

His grand act of independence relies a lot on the existence and influence of Youtube, of course. Without the video-sharing site, who would get to see Joey make his stand? The performance aspect of the recent spate of “watch me quit” videos is part of the fun. These folks planned their exits in detail and in advance. The TV host wanted to know if I approve of this method for departing a job. “As long as people are well-behaved and nonviolent, I do,” I said. “I think we’re in an era where people are balancing the relationship between employers and employees. The employers have always had access to airtime. Why not give employees a bit, as well?”

Who’s Got More to Lose?

Joey’s on-air, accompanied resignation branded him. Employers who like his spunk and bravura will sign him up in a jiffy. Others won’t be calling him—but isn’t that the purpose of branding, to separate the people who “get” us from those who don’t? The hotel chain that got on Joey’s bad side (and vice-versa) has a brand, too. What effect will Joey’s video have on that hotel’s ability to recruit people? In the video, Joey says: “They treat us like s— here.” I like the interviewer’s question (”will Joey’s bold move hurt him?”) because it falls into our standard frame for employer-employee relations. We tend to think: “Oh, the person that’s taking a risk here is Joey. Will he tarnish his reputation with employers?”

Wait a second. The hotel has a lot more invested in its brand than young Joey does. Most hotel chains spend millions on their branding. They have travelers to worry about, as well as prospective hotel staffers. Those groups aren’t separate. Lots of baby boomers could watch Joey’s Harold Hill impression and think, “I wouldn’t want my kid to be treated badly in his first job,” and then tell their children to avoid that hotel chain. They might think: “All other things being equal, there are lots of places to stay in that city. I think I’ll pass on the hotel chain that mistreated the creative kid with the musical friends. I can always stay at the Hyatt down the block.”

We asked the Providence Renaissance spokesperson to comment for this story and got an e-mail message in reply. Here’s an excerpt from that message: “We can confirm that the employee in question did work at the Renaissance Providence Hotel as a room-service server from July 13, 2008 to Aug. 26, 2011, when he resigned. We take the health and satisfaction of our employees very seriously, and creating a sense of community and pride within the hotel is a top priority for us. Most recently, we introduced an employee-driven Health and Wellness Program, which encourages team unity and a happy work environment. Our recent ‘Iron Chef’ healthy meal competition featured a number of employees preparing dishes that will be promoted in our employee dining room and recognized in our company cookbook.”

The world is a porous place these days. Forums such as YouTube are democratizing information flow. Now we can learn about employers and organizational cultures through a host of sources and channels. We get to decide which sources to put our faith in. We might watch the video and side with the hotel. I’ll bet there’s an executive (or two) who dearly hopes that’s what we’ll do. It’s branding. We get to watch the video and integrate it with everything we know and have heard about this hotel, hotels in general, this young man, young men in general, brass brands, and any other categories we choose. Then we decide for ourselves.

Why Didn’t They Use Joey’s Talents?

What’s interesting to me is that a hotel chain with the usual long list of problems to solve and opportunities to explore couldn’t find a way to engage and make use of the talents of what looks to be a twentysomething with brains and pluck. That’s a tragedy right there. Instead of getting his musical friends organized to stage a mini quitting concert, Joey might have been using his creative energies to come up with good ideas for the hotel and its patrons. One of my chief complaints about work in most big companies is that they make tasks and assignments so compartmentalized that bright people get squeezed into tiny boxes that waste their brainpower.

It’s bad enough to have to take a low-paying job at all, but to do so and suffer ill treatment makes for a predicament most self-respecting people won’t tolerate. The reporter asked me, “isn’t it dangerous to quit a job in a bad economy?” I said: “Not really—look how low the stakes are. If you’re going to be working a survival job one way or the other, wouldn’t you at least demand to work for people who respect you?” We’ve got Occupy Wall Street (and associated Occupy movements everywhere) going on to remind us that people are ticked off. Isn’t Joey’s musical resignation a variation on the theme?

Enough is Enough might as well be the name of the tune Joey’s bandmates play: “If you can’t pay me, at least treat me like a person.” Joey is making a stand. I hope and expect that he won’t go through his career quitting jobs with panache. Right now, coming out of what he experienced as an abusive situation, I’d give him major credit for finding his mojo and proclaiming it. We cheer when people remove themselves from abusive romantic relationships. Shouldn’t we celebrate just as wholeheartedly when people get out of soul-crushing career assignments?

If I had Joey as a son, I’d buy him dinner. I’d say, “Joey, now you know how to extricate yourself from a bad situation. The next time around, I hope you’ll decide what you need from an employer in advance. You’ll be very forthright with your next boss about what you and he or she expect of one another.” While I’m thinking about it, here’s a tip for Joey’s parents: If you happen to have access to Joey’s cell phone, check his call history to make sure he hasn’t been scheming with folks at the New York Philharmonic. That could get pricey – and loud.