What I’ve Learned From Interviewing Hourly Wage Employees: Everyone Has a Story to Tell

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We tend to look at people where they are in life, not where they’re going. We don’t care about their past, that’s their own personal stuff. What I’ve realized from interviewing hourly wage workers across America is that we can learn so much from every person we encounter. More importantly, there is a great story to be told if you look deep enough.

Have you ever silently judged the person serving you food, or even forgotten they were there. After all, you’re in the middle of a conversation why would you look up and lock eyes with the person interrupting you?

I’ll be honest, that was me. I lacked empathy. I didn’t care about people’s stories. I cared about people, but only as long as it was convenient for me. As long as I never had to step out of my comfort zone in order to talk with someone who was different than me.

I used to think that some people lived good lives and others lived bad lives. I never thought about story as being part of the same equation. I never realized that no matter what life someone someone chose to live, there is always a story to be told.

My mind started to learn more about life stories as I met Carlos at Buffalo Wild Wings, the eighteen year old in Prescott, AZ who is already promoted to manager and also attending a very expensive flight school. Then I started to believe in stories even more when I met AJ at Habitat in Utah, as he told me about his adventures on the football field and overcoming economic hardship.

I was only three jobs into Hourly America and all of a sudden I find myself being fascinated by these stories from hourly workers. I’m supposed to be just exploring hourly jobs, but now I can’t stop wondering about the life stories of the employees I’m working next to.

[stag_intro]Now that I’ve worked 11 jobs and apprenticed over 100 hourly workers, I acknowledge with ever fiber of my being the simple fact that every person has a story to be told.[/stag_intro]

Here’s how I discovered this truth.

I work a new job in a new state every week. I spend the day diving into the trenches with my new teammates, and towards the end of the day I start pulling aside my coworkers so I can ask them a few questions about their life.

It’s a 5-10 minute interview all about them. It starts off a little awkward, every time. Most of the employees I work with have never been interviewed in their life. I know because they tell me, “Heath, I’ve never been interviewed in my life.” I reassure them and tell them it’s low pressure, I make a lame joke, and then I start asking questions.

Then for the next few minutes I’m blown away by what I didn’t expect. The lives people have lived, the obstacles they’ve overcame, and all the incredible stories they have to share.

My first question is pretty standard.

“What’s your name and title here at (insert business name)?”

The following two or three questions are surface level questions. I’ll ask what they like about their job or what’s been their favorite day of work. Then once they’ve had a few minutes to get more comfortable, I’ll lay the heavy stuff on them.

“What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve overcame in your life and what did you learn from it?”
“What motivates you?”
“If your friends could describe you to me, what would they say?”
“At the end of your life, what would you say you want to be known for?”
” What is something big you’re working towards in your life? If you could dream as big as you wished, what would you be doing?”

These are the questions I ask and then sit back in anticipation. It’s the moment of truth. I laid the offer on the table and it’s now their choice whether or not they want to open up and let me in.

Sometimes the person I’m interviewing will decide to stay closed, there might be something inside of them they want to share but they’re not going to share, at least not today. But 90% of the time they give me something, they open up and they’re honest about their struggles, their passions, and what they want in life.

These interviews have radically changed the way I see people. I’ve discovered it’s impossible to recognize the true fiber of a person’s being just by where they work and what they look like. Don’t let the uniform fool you.

Because the guy working the counter behind Buffalo Wild Wings, he’s going to be a pilot.

Carlos, Manager at Buffalo Wild Wings: Future Pilot
Carlos, Manager at Buffalo Wild Wings: Future Pilot

The girl that works for the city and patrols the downtown area, well, she’s bipolar and wrote a book about it that is now literally saving people’s lives.

Laurie, hourly wage city ambassador: Author, speaker, fighter against Bipolar Disorder
Laurie, hourly wage city ambassador: Author, speaker, fighter against Bipolar Disorder

The young twenty-something year old who works for the cleaning crew at the baseball stadium, he wakes up at four am every day and walks six miles to get to work. Then he does it again at the end of the day after working in the 90 degree heat. Because he’s working towards a better future.

Tyrone, cleaning crew member at Los Angeles minor league stadium: Early riser, big plans for his future
Tyrone, cleaning crew member at Los Angeles minor league stadium: Early riser, big plans for his future

The guy with the huge shoulders who works at Habitat ReStore, he’s a semi-pro football quarterback, and last year he started a youth league for underprivileged kids so they could play basketball and baseball. He also works a second job at a restaurant and there’s a family of eight down the road who are having a new home built because he encouraged them to submit an application.

AJ, works at Habitat ReStore: Semi-pro quarterback, father, tile setter, and advocate for underprivileged athletes in St. George, Utah
AJ, works at Habitat ReStore: Semi-pro quarterback, father, tile setter, and advocate for underprivileged youth athletes in St. George, Utah

I see people differently now. I see everyone differently. When I feel like I want to start judging someone,I stop and think really hard about what I’m about to do.

Interviewing hourly wage employees across America has revealed to me that we all come from different directions and are put together in a different way. The honest truth of the matter is we can never look at a person on the surface and think we know where they are coming from, because we don’t.

If you want to judge somebody, why don’t you work a day next to them frying up wings. Then, at the end of the day you can sit down with them and ask questions about their life. They’ll respect you more because you took off your fancy shirt and got dirty with them. But the best part is when they open up to you, then you realize there is so much more than what you see. There is a person underneath that is so complex and is truly living an incredible life. The obstacles they’ve overcome is nothing compared to how easy you’ve had it.

[stag_intro]It becomes really hard to judge people when you discover how awesome they are.[/stag_intro]


My journey of Hourly America is a 50 state road trip where I’m working a different job in every state for seven months. The mission of our project is to share the life stories of real workers so that we can all gain a more broad perspective on people. And hopefully, treat people with a little more compassion and empathy. I would love to have you keep up with my journey and follow along. Our next stop is in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. You can see the rest of our map here.