Rose Marie Counts Wins “Classification Struggle” over Smile, Dental Work with HR Department of Pennsylvania Convenience Store Sheetz

As readers know, I view Let Me See Your Smile” as [an] Ugly Power Trip and Classification Struggle.” Recently, however, a non-smiler[1] won a victory, so I want to do a happy dance in this post. I’ll also reinforce the notion of “classification struggle,” which I think is an important analytical tool, and muse a bit more on this particular struggle.

Our story begins at Sheetz, a “regional gas-station chain with robust food offerings,” doing business in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. (I believe some of our Pennsylvania friends hotly debate the relative merits of Sheets and its competitor, WaWa.) Sheetz, being three-ring binder driven, like any franchise, has an employee handbook (i.e., an ugly power trip by Human Resources). It reads in relevant part:

“In the event a current employee develops a dental problem that would limit their ability to display a pleasant, full, and complete smile[2], we cannot permit this situation to go on indefinitely,” it says. “In cases such as this, the employee and store management, to include the District Manager and Employee Relations as necessary, will work to come up with a mutually agreed upon resolution.”

(In fairness to Sheetz, I should mention that Sheetz does have a dental plan, though of course that’s no guarantee of dental care[3].) Sheets fell afoul of Rose Marie Counts. As usual, the Daily Mail tells the story in the headline: “EXCLUSIVE: Domestic violence survivor is left in tears after her boss at convenience store chain Sheetz warns that missing tooth ‘knocked out by ex’ breaks staff ‘smile policy’ which forbids ‘missing, broken or partially-discolored teeth’.” Or in Counts’s own words on her Facebook page:

‘I was asked to come to the office at work. I was nervous having only been with the company for about a month. When I walked in the office the manager had the company policy pulled up to were it talks about employees appearances. I was informed that policy states all Sheetz employees must have and remain with a perfect beautiful warm welcoming smile. If you are an employee with this company and you break a tooth you have 90 days to have it fixed,’

Note that “pleasant, full, and complete” has transmogried into “perfect beautiful warm welcoming,” whether in the manager’s words or Counts’s mind I’m not sure; equally ghastly either way. More:

The conversation starts with her manager appearing to show some understanding over Counts’ position who had a new set of top front teeth and was about to embark on a new set of bottom teeth – a lengthy and painful process in and of itself.

But then:

‘If you can type out a letter – a written plan in detail including a time, duration and cost to get it fixed. I know you said you were going to get some work done,’ the manager asks.

Speaking of ugly power trips. More:

‘I had my top ones done and my appointment for my bottom ones is later this month. My insurance will not pay for me to have temporary teeth so it will be three months for the swelling to go down and then they’ll make them which can take up to six month,’ Counts explains.

I would like to thank the American system of dental care for making this lovely conversation possible:

‘So nine months total?’ the manager replies, showing signs of exasperation. ‘So if you can, and I appreciate you being understanding…’

The manager then deploys the 90-day requirement.

There is a momentary pause before Counts makes the decision before the manager can formally dismiss her.

‘Maybe this isn’t the line if work that I am supposed to be in. I’ve always done health care and wanted something different. I’ve loved it.

‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ she says, her voice breaking.

I pause here to appreciate the great job the manager did: He actually got the employee to quit, and dodged an expensive dental care bullet; clearly on the career path to Assistant To The Regional Manager!

(I focused on the employer/employee interaction here, but the Daily Mail story is well worth a read. Counts, like so many, seems like a good person caught up in the sorts of terrible situations that end up with Rule #2 being invoked. “I’ve always done health care and wanted something different. I’ve loved it.” oddly, none of the coverage characterizes our health care system as “abuse,” but there we are. I don’t want to say “tragic,” or do the “attention must be paid” schtick, because what is a tragedy that happens to millions? Something else I’m not sure we have words for, or even fits in the dramatic, cathartic frame.)

An avalanche of bad publicity for Sheetz ensues, and Sheetz reviews its policy:

Business Insider: Sheetz is reviewing its controversial ‘smile policy’ that prohibits employees from having ‘missing, broken, or badly discolored teeth’

CBS (Pittsburgh, PA): Sheetz to review ‘smile policy,’ which states employees can’t have teeth issues

WTAJ (Altoona, PA): Convenience store chain Sheetz under fire for controversial ‘smile policy’

Penn Live (Harrisburg, PA): Sheetz reviewing ‘smile policy’ which says employees can’t have visible dental issues

WJAC (Johnstown, PA): Sheetz facing scrutiny for its ‘Smile Policy’; company says the policy is ‘under review’

And of course the New York Post: Abuse victim who lost teeth says she was booted from job over Sheetz ‘smile policy’

Sheets then reverses its policy. From the Inquirer, “Sheetz is dropping its controversial ‘smile policy’ after employees spoke up“:

Stephanie Doliveira, Sheetz’s executive vice president of people and culture, said in a statement Wednesday that the policy had been discontinued effective immediately.

“As a family-owned and operated company, nothing is more important than creating an environment that is inclusive and supportive of all of our employees,” Doliveira said. “Recently through employee feedback, we have learned that the smile policy is not aligned with these values from their perspective. We agree.”

Smart move. Smart lawsuit-avoiding move:

A Philadelphia employment lawyer, Eric Meyer, of law firm FisherBroyles, said last month that the policy was “unusual and problematic.”

“Even taking into account the carve-out for people with disabilities … it could have the impact of discriminating against certain protected classes,” Meyer said. “There may be particular protected classes that have less access to a dentist.”

Meanwhile, Counts won’t be back. From Parade:

Counts said she was offered her job back at the company with the promise of fully paid dental work, but she politely turned it down.

Here, however, was the context one employee placed the whole episode in:

“I hate the policy,” a former employee in North Carolina said. This person, who worked for Sheetz for several years before leaving last year, declined to speak on the record for fear of professional consequences.

“It’s really disgusting and kind of classist, especially when the majority of people you’re employing are going to be lower-income,” the former employee said.

Interesting! We have the notion of class introduced (“classist”), but immediately identified with income: “lower income” as opposed to “working class” (i.e., working for a wage). I don’t know why the connection isn’t made; however, we have “racist,” and “sexist,” so perhaps “classist” is a back-formation.

Indeed, teeth are a famous class marker. That said, in my previous post, I didn’t take into account that something I saw as a new and grotesque imposition is something (most) women undergo routinely:

Yech. I really hate the idea that the world is divided into big tippers and compliant waitresses. Yech. Fifty lashes with a wet noodle for lambert on that one.

* * *

The beauty of this episode — besides Counts’s victory for Sheetz workers and workers everywhere — is that it is, just as Bourdieu described it, a “classfication struggle”:

Classifications are a site of conflict…. Our starting point is the simple realization that people are engaged in a constant struggle to insult or classify each other — no need to give further examples — and that the daily struggles over classification are struggles to impose the dominant criterion…. The fact of knowing that the social world is an area of conflict allows us to question the work dof the classifier….

We see above that a demand for the modern, tooth-revealing smile allows classification by (social) class; bad teeth are a mark of being working (low) class. That’s a generalization, but the demand also takes a particular and personal form: To be classified as submissive. I would speculate that these two social functions of the modern smile are essential to ruling class elites, and that’s why they deprecate masks. (We know from Ron Klain’s interview of — really “by” — Caryle’s David Rubenstein that elites care about only two things, with Covid: Vax, and no masks.)

Here, the struggle is even more pointed: The Sheetz employee handbook classified Counts as an unacceptable employee, Counts resisted, Sheetz lost, and the employ handbook was revised to eliminate the offensive classification.

Worth a happy dance!


[1] I don’t hate smiles or smilers! However, the relentless power-tripping of those who use “let me see your smile” as a club to get maskers to risk infection has convinced me that smiling is an intimate matter, best practiced in the privacy of one’s own home. Perhaps, when those of us still taking precautions form our own religion, we can make that one of the tenets. Then we could become a protected class!

[2] Any sociologists in the readership might wish to unpack “pleasant, full, and complete.” What, for example, is the difference between “full” and “complete”? There does seem to be no requirement for sincerity (showing some humanity from HR). If the smile doesn’t reach the eyes, is it “pleasant”? I’d argue no, but many might disagree. A media analyst might begin with this scene from Office Space:

“What do you think of a person who only does the bare minimum?”

[3] The filling my last major corporation’s dental chain put in cracked and fell out in two years, though to be fair, if I’d allowed them to upsell me to having all my wisdom teeth pulled they might have done a better job.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Societal Illusions

    I am left wondering “what if” the policy remained but Sheetz had a pledge to help fund beautiful smiles? Putting money where their mouth is, so to speak.

    Surely dental work is more available to those higher class or income/wealth folks but is also a harbinger of good health. Beauty and health seem to go hand in hand.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        I think about this a lot, and I think there are two aspects to a smile. Sociologists please correct:

        1) Exposure of the teeth: This is a generalized class marker;

        2) Performance of the expression: This a particularized classification showing dominance or submission, the variety of the dominance (or submission) to be determined by the context (except where the context is private, “sincere”).

        Free dental would fix #1 (single payer, anyone?)

        Free dental would not fix #2, which I would urge is the more important. I am 100% certain that even using a health-only frame, could show harms, beyond the spiritual or moral harms. (How is it that separation of powers is a principle for the State, but not Civil Society?)

    1. Tristan

      Beauty and health do not go hand in hand. There are plenty of beautiful poor people and plenty of ugly rich people. Beauty in fact is one of the quickest ways for women to gain social status and how many women have gone from low to high income lifestyles.

      This needs mentioning bc the money = health = beauty fallacy should be disrupted

  2. Mark Gisleson

    This is not new, it’s just not usually done to bottom rung employees. If you work around ‘important’ people you’re subject to all kinds of dress codes and appearance standards but we take those for granted.

    Glad she walked and stayed walked. Manipulative HR speeches leave a bad taste. You know where they’re going long before they get there and the temptation to cut the conversation short is overwhelming. I hope she used the same words I did everytime I “quit” a job : )

  3. JBird4049

    Age, as well as class, affects the appearance of one’s teeth. Maybe this would be an underhanded way of getting rid of the olds?

    1. Ana B.

      Also a convenient excuse to dispose of disabled employees with expensive autoimmune conditions like Sjogren’s Syndrome. Putting it in the employee handbook means they can skirt the ADA more easily (not that the ADA hasn’t always been mostly worthless when it comes to protecting workers).

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Putting it in the employee handbook means they can skirt the ADA more easily

        Interesting. Why is that? Seems like that’s a real source of power for HR (and HR has a lot of power, especially in an anti-democratic society like our own).

        1. Mark Gisleson

          Old stories but taught to me by dozens of clients. As far back as the ’90s, many HR depts had absolutely no problem with deleting favorable reports from employee files or adding negative reviews long after the fact. HR files were typically not shown to employees except as evidence in disciplinary meetings.

          HR, like a good lawyer, doesn’t care about guilt or innocence, productivity or slacking. They’re there to document (by deletion or addition) why the company was entitled to fire/lay someone off.

  4. Bazarov

    I wonder when they implemented the “smile” policy.

    I worked at Sheetz in college, and at that time there must not have been such a policy (or perhaps it wasn’t enforced). One woman who worked night-shift had totally rotten teeth, so rotten that all these years later I remember them distinctly.

    Quite a character, that one. She would drive up to the store in her van about 45 minutes before her shift started. The vehicle would be practically rocking back-and-forth with the tumult of dogs within—at least 3 big ones. They’d go especially crazy as her time to depart neared. Her husband, I think, was also in there with her, though I never got a good look at him.

    She had a mumbling accent you sometimes hear among the mountain people. Occasionally, a troupe of mountain folk would stop by the store on their way back from a hunt. I distinctly remember two burly types stinking of blood. They purchased giant cans of Monster Energy drink and several soft packs of filterless Jacks, a brand of extremely cheap cigarettes that may not be sold anymore. Their money was sweaty as hell.

    That’s but one of the “Talez from the Sheetz” I collected over that hot, Central Pennsylvanian summer.

    1. Rolf

      @Bazarov you should write a book, or at least some short stories, maybe a screenplay. Your visceral descriptions are wonderful.

      1. Bazarov

        The sweatiest money I’ve ever handled was from an Amish businessman with a hook hand and a limp who periodically approached us tellers with several money bags cradled in his arms. He was usually accompanied by six or so children clambering around his legs, with their mothers bringing up the rear.

        The money was too limp with human moisture to run through the tabulating machines, so we tellers had to count manually many thousands of dollars in small bills. From what I remember, this gentleman ran a discount grocery business that specialized in slightly expired food. The area was poor-bordering-on-desperate and locals would line up before his store opened to get first dibs.

        Like many of his Amish brothers, he almost certainly acquired his injuries while farming, forcing him to seek a less labor-intensive livelihood. Farming must rank among the most dangerous professions, as while a resident of farming areas I’ve never seen so many mauled individuals.

  5. BeliTsari

    So, did any her coworkers die from acute COVID, or delayed complications, or undiagnosed PASC organ system damage? Did they take the disease HOME, or to her parents’ (along with their FORMERLY great, yoga mat & pink slime meatball hoagie & sodium flavored Glyphosate fries & Somatotropin Shake?)

    On the way back from Birmingham, the Sheetz line is now before Bristol! Ril jagoff yunzer stuff like Kielbasa chili-cheese dogs on Mancini bread with horseradish mayo; Parliament Funkadelics, Bobby Vinton & LaVern Baker blasting folks out the door. REAL individually ground Arabica coffee & don’t NOBODY show their 3 James Dickey character teeth?

      1. BeliTsari

        Wytheville, I think? My, former music industry partner, once had Bootsie Collins on this very (delapidated) sofa, so to speak. You used to be able to get horsie sauce & actual basil pesto on food you’d order on a touch-screen. Mitt Romney thought this was the heppist thing! Too good for the likes of us untermenschen! I’d heard Johnny Otis’ on vibes, with Ollie Marie Givens at one along I-80, north of their home base. To go from REALLY BAD biscuits & “gravy” with instant grits, to Pixboig (Primanti Bros) type YANKEE grub & REAL coffee! I’m crying…

  6. Joe Well

    Curious if anyone from New England or even NY, NJ, PA has encountered this. In NY they always seemed a little bit more cheerful but I assumed it was genuine. When I leave the northeast, the pleasantness of some of the cashiers can seem creepy in a Stepford Wives way.

    The one place that consistently has the artificially chatty cashiers is Trader Joe’s, part of whose shtick is being originally from Southern California. Then they dropped it totally during 2020, and now it seems like it has been brought back just partially. It was a little jarring but kind of a relief to see how brusque the cashiers were during that time. Once my cashier spent the whole time talking with another employee, and even double-charged me because he wasn’t paying attention.

    1. Arizona Slim

      New York? Cheerful? Really?

      I’ll admit that I’m a born-and-raised Pennsylvanian and we’re hardly known for our cheerful demeanor, but New York? Oh, my goodness, they were about as pugnacious as people from New Jersey. (Ya gotta problem with that?)

      Now that I live in the Southwest, I still find myself amazed at how upbeat the people are here. Must have something to do with the sunny weather.

  7. Altoid

    I grew up where sheetz originated. We used to go almost every day after school for a snack before whatever sport was in season. Under 18s would hang around and try to get older kids to buy them cans of dip – usually Copenhagen Wintergreen of course (Mint, far superior, wasn’t yet sold up north).

    When I’m home it’s still a go-to, now for late night fried garbage after drinking with the friends who never left (and there are many). I’m sad they had this stupid policy on the books but I’ve definitely seen bad teeth behind the counter so it must not be strictly enforced at many locations.

    Also, for the record, Wawa has better deli sandwiches but Sheetz has better drunk food.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > I’ve definitely seen bad teeth behind the counter so it must not be strictly enforced at many locations.

      This observation is screaming to be aggregated into a GIS map….

    2. earthling

      Garbage is an apt name for these places. Spectalarly large places, expensive to build, with aisles full of goods and snacks, deliberately left unpriced. Assuming people in a hurry will buy at any price. Despicable merchant ‘strategy’. Couldn’t walk out fast enough.

  8. DJG, Reality Czar

    Let’s assume that smiling is submissive behavior, which is why it is being enforced. Required smiling makes it doubly submissive.

    I noted this title, which can only be described as a testimonial to where white upper-middle class feminism went to die:
    Stephanie Doliveira, Sheetz’s executive vice president of people and culture

    Yes, da, and I am the czar of all the Russias.

    I wonder if WaWa, where the clerks aren’t as smiley, is all goofy about company culture. Or if it is just WaWa, national institution, with coffee.

    1. BeliTsari

      Sheetz is nearly as old as me, from hillbilly heaven of Altoona, where PRR’s locomotives were built. These kids smile, alright… like James Dickey at the end of Deliverance! Subservient smiles & western Alleghenies proletarian females are incompatible (since Nonhelema Hokolesqua, Alliquipa & Degonwadonti) and if anybody’s smile seems forced or artificial, I’d make a u-turn at the next cross-over & hightail it back to the big city (they’ll be a chopped Dodge Power Wagon or Unimog fulla cranked-up guys named Skeeter, out looking for you, an’at?

  9. Lexx

    Close your eyes and conjure up a photo of Charles and David Koch. What’s the first thing you notice? Yeah, me too, those enormous whiter than white smiles, gleaming symbols of their obscene wealth. David died of cancer with those in his mouth, every tooth lying for him that he was doing fine right up until he stopped breathing. If that don’t say ‘I’m a billionaire and you can suck it through your gap-toothed grins’, I don’t know what does. A continuous lie just beyond their lips. It’s part of their public armor, that constant projection of health, virility, and lies. It’s like the old joke ‘How do you know when a lawyer is lying? Their lips and moving’… and that hard white chorus line is backing the lies.

    It’s the first thing I noticed when we moved to Colorado and I subscribed to the Denver Post and took in the photos on the Society Pages. All that teased blonde hair, too bright blue eyes, tan skin, and enormous white smiles. None of those smiles reached their eyes; they looked predatory, like they’d all happily devour their children were it not a power marriage and they were in need of heirs. I said something about how predatory they looked to my dentist at the time and he said they probably all had gum disease, teeth weren’t usually that long unless gums were pulled back or receded. There are costs to go with all those falsehoods on so many levels, the least of which is dragon breath.

    Something about that pleases me. If we survive as a species, maybe some future archeologist will dig up their bones, take one look at their skulls and say. ‘Overlord Class’ and send it off for precious metal extraction and composting same as the rest, clearing away all the graves to make room for a new layer of civilization atop the old.

    1. BeliTsari

      We used to get incredible eyetalian hog-maw, pickled artichoke-heart & 4 cheese pizza in Jim Thorpe, PA. (scamourza is called, “scamutz” in coal-cracker!) Our perpetual hillbilly house-guest & HUGE, exceedingly gay & event-horizon Black best friend would don torn bib-coveralls & stop to buy us all “wax hillbilly teeth” out of a machine at the tourist RR station; this, to confuse all the NooYawkCiddy tourists, up there to rent $3,800 Chinese bicycles, breathe beryllium while cycling ‘Murikas 1st abandoned railroads admiring the most polluted streams & discussing The Molly Maguires, Mother Jones, Joe/ Hillary, why the heck Jim Thorpe’s last wife buried him in Mawsch Unk?

  10. Eclair

    Ah, Sheetz.

    Occasionally, when visiting family in NJ, we drive south from Chautauqua County, NY, through the steep dark hills of the Allegheny National Forest, and the dying small towns that line the route, where we constantly wonder what keeps them clinging to life, aside from the occasional cement block tool and die shop and the famous sausage (50 varieties, at least) store in Kane, PA.

    My spouse has stories about most of the towns, since his ancestors, hailing from both Sweden and the schizophrenic Alsace region of France, no! Germany, scraped a living here, felling first growth forest trees and rafting them down the Allegheny River to Pittsburg, then walking back.

    But, by the time our aging bladders call for a pit stop, we have reached a gigantic Sheetz. Once, it was deer hunting season, and the place filled with pick-ups and giant guys in camo, devouring pizzas. Last fall, we were hungry and decided a sub couldn’t be too bad (we had tried the pizza in times past) and I figured out how to work the automated ordering screen with its pics of tomatoes, sliced ham, sauces, etc., while the three silent women behind the counter slapped together the food and handed over the bags. No smiles, no banter. They might as well have been ghosts. Well, now I know. Working for Sheetz must have that effect.

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