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.

Bad Resumes

To go along with last week’s post about bad interviews I’ve conducted, this week’s post will talk about some of the ridiculous resumes I’ve been forced to review as part of my hiring duties.

There are always the usual spelling mistakes, unexplained gaps and outright fabrications on resumes. I’ve also had a few weird ones. When hiring for an admin role, I had one person send us five versions of her resume in plain text format in one email. She had a message at the top telling us to choose which resume we wanted. That was odd enough. When I read all of the resumes, I realized they contradicted one another. The jobs and years she listed on one did not match the jobs and years on the others. This is a surefire way to ensure you don’t even get an interview.  What on earth was she thinking?

My second favourite resume from that same pile was the applicant whose entire resume was in 28 point font. As a comparison, most resumes are in 11 or 12 point font. I almost fell off my chair when I opened it. Maybe she thought I was visually impaired. I really hope that it was just a conversion issue from her computer to mine. I’d hate to think she actually wrote it that way. I now understand why people suggest sending PDF versions of resumes instead of Word or other programs.  You can be reasonably sure a PDF won’t get screwed up in translation.

Still from this same job posting, I had one candidate call me to earnestly push for an interview, saying he would be a great candidate and would I please look at his resume? I appreciate the guts it took to (politely) call, so I promised to go back and review his resume. Guess what? He never sent it to me. Even checked my junk folder. Attention to detail didn’t appear to be one of his strong suits.

Other annoyances: people spelling my name wrong or listing a different person and job on their application.

The last goof from that round of hiring was someone who never returned my call for an interview, but then tried to connect with me on LinkedIn. Sometimes I just shake my head.

Besides being good for a laugh, these resume mistakes make me feel like a brilliant person in comparison. A laugh and an ego boost. Maybe I should do some more hiring….

What Not To Do In An Interview

One of the joys of people management is recruiting. I find the process of scouring resumes, selecting interview candidates and holding interviews fascinating. Sometimes it’s a joy because I have great candidates to choose from. Sometimes the candidates just provide comic relief. This is particularly true when interviewing for call centre phone representatives.

For anyone out there applying for frontline jobs, there are some things you definitely should not do in an interview.

Don’t struggle to answer questions from your own resume. We will ask you about your job and education history. I don’t suggest lying, but if you do, you need to be good at it. We had one candidate who gave a different school and years attended in his interview compared to his resume. His job history also didn’t match up. He struggled to give us reasons for leaving his previous jobs.

Exasperated, the HR Manager conducting the interview with me pointed out to him that his answers did not match his resume. So he confessed that his mother wrote his resume and forced him to apply for the job. He hadn’t even looked at his resume before coming in to see us. He didn’t want a job, his mother just wanted the mooch out of her house.

Big surprise, he didn’t get the position. We don’t have many standards in a call centre, but he managed to squeeze under our very low bar.

Another thing you don’t want to do in an interview is show up late. If you must show up late, apologize profusely and come up with a good excuse. Do not drag your boyfriend into the interview room (with his scary piercings and black makeup) to take the blame for your lateness. Yes, this actually happened to me.

Don’t sleep right through the interview, particularly if the interview was scheduled for 2PM. Yep, had that one too.

Finally, dress appropriately. I know, it’s a call centre. We do not expect suits and ties. We expect you to not wear t-shirts with cussing on them, dirty, holey clothing or anything that screams “hooker”. One of the worst fashion offenders I saw wore a black mini skirt that skimmed her crotch, 10 pounds of black eye makeup and a see-through top so low “the girls” almost made an appearance.  This was the same girl who dragged her boyfriend in to say he made her late. We actually went through with the interview just for our own amusement.

If you are a recruiter out there, I suggest you appreciate the bad ones for what they really are: your day’s entertainment.  If you have any painful candidates and just need to get them out the door, start skipping questions and make it a five-minute interview. If there are two of you conducting the interview, work out a signal beforehand to skip questions. This will keep you from becoming trapped in the interview from hell. We established a smooth system in the call centre for getting the worst offenders in and out fast, because sometimes the comic relief was just too painful.

Implementing Stupid Management Decisions

As a lowly frontline supervisor you are often charged with implementing stupid management decisions.  One of the silliest decisions I had to explain involved a disabled employee I managed. This decision didn’t come from my own company; it came from the management team in charge of the building where our offices leased space.

Our building was a large tower in downtown Toronto. All such buildings are required to have emergency evacuation procedures in place and must practice fire drills on a regular basis. We had normal procedures to follow, such as which door to exit and where to rendezvous outside. After 9/11, we got a secondary rendezvous location further away in case somebody blew up the first location. Not sure anyone would still be around to go to the second location after an explosion, but it was still part of the procedure.

Our hiccup with “normal” was Charles. Due to his disability, he was wheelchair-bound and had limited use of his hands. People are supposed to stay out of elevators in emergencies, but there was no way Charles could get down the stairs by himself.

When I started in my role, Charles had a dedicated buddy on our team, who volunteered to stay with him during an evacuation. Building management had a list of employees who needed special evacuation. They would send their personnel up using the freight elevator to collect Charles and his buddy.

About a year into my tenure, building management decided this was too dangerous for their staff and Charles’ buddy in a real emergency. So they changed their procedures. Charles’ new instructions in case of actual fire or other meltdown were to barricade himself in an office with the door closed. The building would give him a roll of duct tape to keep at his desk so he could take it with him. Charles could seal up the door to his office if smoke or gas was present. Everyone else was to evacuate the building.

Anybody see the problems with this procedure? Remember, wheelchair-bound, limited use of hands.

First, Charles couldn’t actually maneuver his wheelchair into many of our offices. The offices were small, and the chair was big, weighing in around 300 lbs. Second, Charles likely couldn’t close an office door because of the space issue and his limited hand use. Finally, how on earth can someone who can’t stand and has manual dexterity issues duct tape a door?

I swear the building manager kept a straight face when providing us these new instructions.  We disagreed, but it wasn’t our building. If they refused to send staff up with the freight elevator, we couldn’t use it.

My boss and I had the joy of explaining the new process to our team.  This involved a lot of snickering from the staff.

Jim, another member of the team, asked, “Do they really think we’d leave him up here in an actual fire? Screw the chair. We’ll carry him down.”

See, look at that. It took a staff member 5 seconds to find a better solution than an entire management team was able to come up with. I know it can’t be “official” policy to make employees carry other employees, but who in their right mind would leave a defenseless person all alone in a burning building? It was nice to know my employees actually cared about one another.

No, You Can’t Wear That To Work

dress code violations

The pig clothing is more appropriate than what some of my employees wear.

Dress code violations are a special pain you will encounter as a people manager. As reported in Maclean’s this past week, summer can be the worst time for employees taking business casual too far: http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/07/13/flip-flops-at-the-office/

Unfortunately, flip flops aren’t the most egregious violation you might face.

Clothes too casual? Yep, I’ve had that one many times.

Too much cleavage? I’ve had that conversation so often I’ve lost count.

Shorts too short? Low-hanging pants too low? Obscene shirts? Yep. Yep. And yep.

But those still don’t come close to being the worst. My two favourites in the “no, you can’t wear that” hall of fame are from my call centre days. The first story comes courtesy of a colleague who had an employee show up in a t-shirt with the words “Lick It” in loud letters and a giant arrow pointing straight down to her crotch. Subtle, I know. She was of course very surprised to learn this was not acceptable work wear.

The second hall-of-famer came to work in a sheer, completely see-through dress. No bra. Black thong.

I’ve never seen so many men run into pillars and cubicle walls.

If you are an employee out there who hates being told what to wear, I promise I hate having to explain your wardrobe violations to you even more.  Please just make an appropriate choice and save us all some embarrassment.

For a people manager looking for advice on this particular topic, make sure the conversation is private. Keep it brief. Tell the employee the clothing is not an appropriate work choice and suggest they don’t wear it back to the office. With a smart employee, one conversation will suffice. With the slow ones, be prepared to have the same conversation over and over.

I had one employee whose low-rider jeans were constantly falling down, giving everyone around him an eyeful of his briefs. He never got the message. When we fired him for other reasons, his pants were still around his knees.

If you are a new manager and you think bad clothing choices are the most embarrassing thing you’ll ever have to discuss with a staff member, you haven’t had the pleasure of a smelly employee. But that conversation is for another blog post.