Letting “Bad” Behaviour Slide

Sometimes employees do things they aren’t supposed to, but you want to quietly cheer them on anyway. I’ve had a few of those experiences over the years. In a call centre you often send emails “to the floor”, meaning to every person who works in that particular business unit. Sending these emails is generally done only by the management team when they need to disseminate information.

In all of my call centres, there were always a few employees who forgot this, and used the call centre emails for their own rants or to try selling something. I’ve seen people send religious thoughts to the floor and try to sell their used barbecues. People never learn.

At my last call centre, classy place, we had a problem with lunches being stolen out of our communal refrigerators. I guess some people were too cheap to bring their own. I lost my own lunch twice. The second time the culprit also took my Winnie the Pooh lunch bag. (Yes, I am a grown woman with Winnie the Pooh gear. It was a gift from my mother.) I happen to really like Pooh, so I was steamed. I started keeping my lunch at my desk with an ice pack after that.

Anyway, when this would happen the unlucky lunch loser would often send a nasty email to the entire floor, something along the lines of “Thanks for stealing my lunch, jerk face.”

While I sympathized, we couldn’t just let staff run amok with mean emails. However, one of my employees, who I’ll call Maria, sent a more ingenious message after losing her lunch one day. The email said:

“To whoever stole my carrots today, I hope you really enjoyed them. I licked each and every one when I put them in the bag.”

I snorted tea through my nose when I read that one. I didn’t publicly applaud Maria’s email, but I didn’t chastise her for it either. The lunch snatching was getting worse, and we couldn’t figure out a way to catch the culprit(s). Everyone is always in and out of the fridges. How do you determine what belongs to whom? It does nothing for morale when you can’t trust your coworkers not to steal from you.

Everyone got a kick out of Maria’s email. Not sure what the thief thought. So I decided to let the etiquette breach slide. Not sure what other managers would have done, but I’m glad I left it alone.

The Perils of Employee Reviews

As a manager, I hate writing employee reviews. My loathing exists on a number of levels.

Time is a problem. To do a thorough job on a review takes a lot time, especially when you have thirty employees reporting to you. My first management job required reviews to be all free-hand.  No check boxes for us.  And they wanted a full page for each category of each review.  Forget the time factor with those. The biggest problem was coming up with enough material for each section. For an employee who was severely underperforming or a superstar, I was ok. For anyone just doing a solid, run-of-the-mill job, I didn’t have enough content to fill all of the blank spaces.

My second management job at least had reviews with multiple-choice check boxes and room in each section for a couple of comments. Much better. The problem here? I took over the team one month before annual reviews were due.

It’s a little hard to write creditably about anyone you’ve only known for four weeks.  To make matters worse, three members of my team had been seconded to another department months before I arrived. Management thought I should still write the reviews instead of their new temporary team leader. I thought it was a little unfair to me and the employees that I had to write reviews for people I had never laid eyes on. But hey, that’s just my opinion. (It was multiple decisions like that one that had me running for the door five months into my tenure. I don’t know why they were surprised by my exit.)

Having to answer to scores that don’t fit perfectly onto a bell curve is another fun part of the review process. Fighting against HR and upper management over unfair scores being forced onto employees is even more joyous.

None of those things counts as the biggest employee review headache. In any review process that has an official scoring system, such as a five-scale or three-scale ranking, the biggest headache is having 85% of your employees who truly believe they are above average performers.

For anyone a little slow at math, let me point out that the majority of people can’t be better than the average. Try explaining that to pissed off employees.  If there is a high performance category, no one wants to be solid or satisfactory. Those are dirty words.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had the same conversation:  if you are doing everything you are supposed to, that makes you a satisfactory performer. And there is nothing wrong with that. We’re thrilled that you can do your job competently. Especially in a call centre filled with boobs.  (I don’t actually say that last part.)

No one ever listens. They explain all of the things they do that make them high performers. I patiently answer that each item they have listed is a regular requirement of their jobs. It gets me nowhere.

If you are a new people manager, know that someone will definitely complain to HR about you in regards to their performance appraisal at some point in your career. It’s a big hassle that includes HR combing through every check mark and comment you have made. For pissed off employees out there, know that almost all of these complaints will be rejected by HR. They too, will eventually determine you are average.

For those who may be wondering if I am one of those managers who hates giving out high scores, even in individual categories on one evaluation, I am not. I love giving out high scores. I love great employees. I enjoy telling them how great they are. I like to see how excited employees get when they see their scores and comments.  I like telling employees about the nice cash bonuses they receive with their high scores. It’s one of the best parts of my job.

More high performers also result in fewer repetitions of the “you are doing everything you are supposed to” conversation.  I love that too. I wish I had nothing but high performers to work with, but I must live in a place called reality.

Keeping Your Poker Face at all Costs

I don’t have the world’s best poker face. My emotions tend to be obvious. If I think you’re a fool, it shows.

As a people manager, I’ve had to temper my natural responses. With good employees I don’t need to worry. With my problem children, it takes a lot of effort to keep a neutral countenance.

I’ve gotten better over the years. I can think of one example in which I did a marvelous job of keeping my feelings to myself. I had one horribly high-strung employee I’ll call Mara. She freaked out at nothing and had a temper like a bulldog with an oozing toothache.

Her boyfriend also worked for us, and keeping her happy was almost a full-time job for him. Watching them reminded me of an old song by the Canadian band the Northern Pikes called, “She ain’t pretty, she just looks that way”. I could see the physical attraction, but I have no idea how any male could put up with her antics. I digress.

Mara yelled at customers and coworkers alike. She cried a lot. I couldn’t stand her. She sucked people of their energy.

One morning after a particularly bad phone call, Mara walked up to my desk and announced, “I’m leaving.”

“Are you leaving for the day?” I asked.

“No, I am never coming back.”

This is where the poker face practice came in. I wanted to grin like a Cheshire cat, but I was afraid I would jinx her leaving. Normally, when you put a lot of money and time into training an employee, you want to get your money’s worth. That means you try to talk them into staying, particularly when your call centre has high turnover. With Mara, I felt like I’d just hit the jackpot.

I had to at least pretend that I cared, especially since we were in the middle of the call centre floor surrounded by other employees. So I asked what happened and was there anything I could do to make her stay?

This started sobbing and screaming on Mara’s part. I was smart enough to get her the heck off of the floor. Crying panic doesn’t do much for the rest of the troops. I herded her to a quiet corner while she yelled about how awful the job, the people and even the city were. She wanted to leave all of them and she was never coming anywhere near the place again.

I wanted to dance a jig, but I kept my serene manager face plastered on. I told Mara I understood her feelings, wished her luck, then whisked her towards the front door. I made sure to take her security pass. If she changed her mind, I didn’t want her getting back in the building.

Only when she was gone did I skip back down the hall to my desk. I went straight to my computer and did the electronic processing required for her termination in record time. It was a good day.

You Must Give Clear Instructions

If you become a people manager, please know that providing instructions can sometimes backfire.

With some employees, I must be as detailed as possible when providing instructions, otherwise a task or behaviour will go completely awry. One of my favourite examples comes from the first employee I posted about in this blog, Julie.

Julie had a habit of wearing inappropriate things to work. Sometimes her outfits were jaw-droppingly awful. Others just needed minor tweaks. One day Julie’s bra straps appeared prominently as part of her ensemble. Another team leader pulled Julie aside and told her she needed to do something about her bra straps.

Julie said ok and quickly went off to the bathroom. She came back without her bra. Just took it off, so the straps couldn’t stick out.

Did I mention she was wearing a skin-hugging, white shirt? And that she was incredibly endowed, thanks to some cosmetic enhancements purchased by her boyfriend?

“Do something about your bra straps” was not enough direction.  With an employee like Julie, we should have told her to push the straps under her shirt or pull her shirt back over the straps. “Do something” was just asking for trouble.

You might be thinking to yourself, ‘Do I really need to baby my employees that much?’ The answer is yes. Sometimes.

I hope you don’t run across too many Julies in your career. I promise, there are frontline employees capable of rational thought. They just didn’t work in my call centre.

Feigning Interest in Their Lives

As a people manager, you can’t help but get caught up in employees’ personal lives sometimes. I do care about what’s happening with my staff and personal troubles bleed into work life some days. But there are some personal things I just don’t care about or really don’t want to know. There are also stories that leave me trying my best not to laugh.

One such story came to mind recently out of a plethora of tales from one employee I will call Teresa. She was an odd duck from day one. Bad social skills, strange customer service skills and weird life problems.

I answered our internal work line one day to find a sobbing Teresa on the other end. My first thought was, ‘Crap, what happened?’ I’ve certainly known employees who’ve had nasty things happen to them over the years.

Then Teresa blurted out, “A cat attacked my dog!”

Not what I was expecting.

Teresa proceeded to bawl out the story of walking her apparently wussy dog down the street. A neighbourhood cat came out of nowhere and beat the snot out of the dog.

I tried to sound understanding, really I did. I am an animal lover and wouldn’t want to hear of harm coming to any four-legged, fuzzy creature. I also don’t enjoy having employees in distress. But it became obvious quickly that no real harm had come to the dog. He had some scratches and cuts, but the vet had pronounced him mostly healthy. I couldn’t figure out why Teresa was still screaming over the incident.

I made some sympathetic noises then got off the phone as fast as I could, because I just couldn’t hold the laughter anymore. How on earth did one wily cat overtake both a dog and a human? She was standing right there. If she screamed at the cat the way she screamed at me, Teresa should have scared the bejeesus out of it.

She came back to work the next day acting normal. At least as normal as she ever got. I asked for a pet update and continued to act as though I cared.

As a manager I sometimes feel like I am part psychologist. I could have pointed out that the incident wasn’t really worth sobbing and screaming over, but some days I just find it’s best to feign interest. Anything else really isn’t worth the aggravation.

How to Handle Work Emergencies

When you become a people manager, no one hands you a manual or teaches you a course on dealing with odd and emergency situations. If it isn’t specifically related to managing the work of your team, you are on your own. I am sure that thought will prove comforting to the employees of the world.

I’ve encountered a couple of employee situations that required me to think on my feet. The first was a health scare. At the start of a 5am shift, a middle-aged employee I’ll call Rick was passing behind my desk when I heard a thud. I turned to find him on the floor, flat on his back, unconscious. He wasn’t the healthiest individual, so my first thought was, ‘he’s dead’. Nothing quiets a call centre floor as fast as a dead-looking employee.

Fortunately, Rick was still breathing. I jumped up and started semi-yelling at him to see if I could rouse him. Most of my employees were glued to their chairs, just staring. This was actually a good thing, as they didn’t panic or get in the way. One employee did get up to hover around us, in case I needed help. I had phone in hand in case I needed an ambulance. Rick came to less than a minute after falling and insisted he did not need medical attention. He was a little mortified from all of the attention. I couldn’t force him to seek medical treatment, so we all went back to work. He made it through the rest of the day without falling down.

The situation turned out fine, but it could have gotten dicey. Every large company must have a health and safety committee and CPR/First Aid trained employees, but most of them weren’t around on a 5am shift. It had been 10 years since I’d gone through any CPR training, so I’m glad I didn’t need it. Plus there wasn’t enough money in the world that would make me want to give that guy mouth-to-mouth.

The other “emergency” situation I got saddled with involved an employee stuck in our elevator. Of course it was 6am on a holiday Monday.  I knew from my Dad’s tenure as a building superintendent that if you can track down the elevator company, they will come and free your stuck person.

I figured the company in charge of the building and security would know how to contact the elevator people. I was wrong.  The only guy on duty didn’t have a clue about contacting the elevator company. Finding the security guy had already taken a while. I was happy the employee locked in the elevator wasn’t claustrophobic, but she did need to pee.

I was about 35 minutes into dealing with this problem when the elevator decided it had enough of a rest and released our employee. (It might have heard her threatening to use it as a bathroom. Just saying.)

My boss wandered in around 9am and told me I could have just called the fire department. Didn’t think of that. Neither did anyone else around at 6am. Considering how often this particular elevator broke, we probably should have posted a large sign beside it saying, “When it gets stuck, and it will, call the fire dept.”

I guess the moral is don’t panic. Use whatever common sense you have and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your company has a health and safety manual, you might want to read it before an emergency breaks out. It likely won’t help, but it might make you feel better.