Why Cell Phones Sometimes Drive Me Bananas

I’m no Luddite, but sometimes I don’t think of technology as progress. Particularly when it involves my employees during work hours.

I never thought smart phones would be the bane of my existence, but phones in call centres try my patience. Any employee can be distracted by their phone. In an admin environment it gets annoying when too much time is spent texting, but otherwise isn’t much bother. Unless of course the employee is too dumb to switch their phone to vibrate/silent.

Cell phones in my call centres caused major productivity headaches.  Phone reps would sit in wrap up for an extra minute to shoot someone a text. This is a problem when you have 25 callers sitting in your queue waiting five minutes each.

You might think high queues would prod employees to answer the phone they are being paid to answer, but you would be wrong.

We had an outright ban on cell phones on the call centre floor, but that stopped no one. If I turned my back on some employees, the phones would zip out.  It drove me nuts to be constantly on my employees for not doing their jobs.

Did they ever stop? Sure, when the call centre closed.

The dumbest cell phone incident I can remember came when a new rep was still in training. In any call centre, new reps usually spend the last day or two taking actual phone calls with the help of the trainer or an experienced employee. In this case, the trainer had the small group each take a few calls and helped them when they needed it.

While on a live call with a customer, a new rep I’ll call Marsha had her cell phone out on her desk and turned on. It rang during the phone call.

What did she do?

Why, she tossed off her headset mid-call and picked up her cell phone, of course. You could hear the confused client through the headset, “Hello, hello?”

The trainer was standing right behind Marsha, so this wasn’t an attempt to be stealthy. Clearly not a bright rep.

We conferred with HR and decided Marsha was already a lost cause. If she behaved that badly in training and in front of management, can you imagine what she’d do when we weren’t looking?

For some reason Marsha seemed surprised by her firing. Another sign we’d made the right decision.

Sometimes team manager equals juvenile babysitter.

What They Don’t Tell You About Managing Disabled Employees

Did the title of this post make you uncomfortable? In a PC world, singling out different types of employees for discussion isn’t always acceptable.

Have no fear. This post isn’t meant to dump on anyone, but I do want to highlight some things I never knew until I managed a disabled employee.

Some people fear a disabled employee will be too much trouble. I’ve also heard the opposite, when some goof said to me, “Oh, they are always so grateful just to have jobs that they make the best employees!”

Neither is true. Like all employees, some are great, some are terrible and most will fall in between. How are they different? Some managers are too afraid to address any performance or behaviour concerns with a disabled employee. Guess what? They aren’t really equal if you don’t treat them like other employees.

I’ve mentioned Charles once before in a post about a silly building management decision. Charles had a physical disability that left him in a wheelchair and with somewhat limited use of his hands.

Charles was already a member of my team when I took over its management. Fortunately he was very open about his disability and always willing to answer questions. I knew he had an attendant that came in once a day around lunchtime, but I didn’t know what other accommodations he might need. My own manager was also great at filling in the blanks, since she’d worked with Charles for a number of years.

In most ways, he was just like any other employee. But I did notice a couple of ways in which managing Charles was different. The first was offsite meetings and team building activities. Management was generally good about trying to remember and accommodate for Charles. But in a department with over 100 people, every once in a while he was forgotten.

Anytime an offsite event was announced, my first question to the organizer was always, “Is X place wheelchair accessible?” Management did forget once and quickly had to arrange an alternate location (after some idiot suggested we just not bring him).  It fell to my boss and me to make sure Charles was always included.  If he needed a new accommodation we often had to push for it. We never expected to become advocates in the workplace, but we somehow ended up in that role anyway.

There were a couple of small work tasks that Charles couldn’t perform. He didn’t have the dexterity for paper clips and he needed a bit of help with the fax machine. This wasn’t a problem and no one minded helping, but it did mean having a conversation with every new employee to the team. I didn’t want anyone to be surprised if he asked them for help. So our team had an extra bit of orientation that no one else got.

One last quirk I noticed about Charles in the workplace was everyone else’s reaction to him. All employees were nice to him, but Charles was extremely chatty. He could lose track of time and talk someone’s ear off.

With anyone else, our employees would nicely say they needed to get back to work or go to a meeting if they were detained too long. But some staff just couldn’t say this to Charles, even if it was true and polite.

Our supervisory staff ended up having to rescue hapless employees from these prolonged conversations. If we didn’t go over to ask them or Charles an unnecessary question, they could spend an entire afternoon listening to Charles regale them with major league baseball stories. We could never cure some employees of this problem no matter what we tried.

To sum up I’d like to tell managers not to be afraid of hiring disabled employees, but you must have the fortitude to treat them like actual employees. You also need to watch for real differences that must be addressed in order to ensure a happy working environment for everyone.

Things That Left Me Shaking My Head

Today’s post is a hodge-podge of strange employee behaviours that make me worry about the intelligence of humanity.

Thinking back to a previous post about too much information, I was reminded of an employee I’ll call Elizabeth. She was a middle-aged phone rep. (Which is often the first clue there might be something wrong with the employee. Call centres are more of a young person’s game.)

Elizabeth was one of the chattiest employees I’ve ever had. She had a penchant for regaling people with boring stories about every topic under the sun. She reminded me of Norm from the ’80s sitcom Cheers. She also liked discussing her very busy sex life.

Unfortunately for me, Elizabeth loved sitting in the desk right beside mine.  I don’t really want to know about anyone else’s favourite sexual position, but I couldn’t seem to stop her from telling me. She drove me nuts. No one else could stand her grating voice or intimate stories either. When she left for a “better” job, we actually went out for drinks as a management team to celebrate.

Her new job turned out to be not so great, so she called us one day asking if we needed phone reps. We did, but I sure as heck didn’t tell her that.

The other nutty stories for today come from Julia, an employee I discussed earlier on this blog. She’s a treasure trove of great anecdotes.

I was sitting at my desk one day when a high-pitched barking sound started. I knew we hadn’t let a dog into the building, so I went to investigate. Yep, it was Julia.

I asked the obvious question, “Why are you barking?”

“Oh, I always bark when I get nervous. I just can’t stop myself. Arf, arf.”

I didn’t bother asking the follow-up about what made her nervous. I decided I didn’t need to know.

My other favourite Julia story happened on a busy day in the call centre. She disappeared on an unscheduled break, which usually meant someone was making a trip to the bathroom. But Julia didn’t come back for 30 minutes.  Another team leader got curious and went in search of our missing employee.

No Julia in the bathroom. No Julia in the lunchroom.

Then another phone rep came in for the start of his shift and mentioned that Julia was outside the front entrance snogging with some guy. Apparently it was getting pretty hot and heavy and they were pressed up against the side of the building by the doors. So the team leader went downstairs to retrieve Julia.

We probably should have fired her over this or her many other crazy stunts, but Julia was such good comic relief and she was a fine employee when she actually got on the phones to do her job. No one had the heart to fire the moron with a heart of gold. Sometimes she was the only laugh we got in a day.

I’ve learned something over the years about the kind of employees I can handle. And I would take 10 Julias over one Elizabeth any day of the week.

How Hiring Decisions are Really Made

Employees find all sorts of silly reasons to claim hiring decisions are unfair when it comes to internal job postings. And when you work in a call centre, competition is fierce for any job that will get people off the phones.

If you think to yourself, ‘Who would want a boring admin job that doesn’t pay great?’ you’ve clearly never been forced to work a call centre before. Any job that gets you away from crazy clients and over-analyzed phone stats is a godsend. I would have taken a pay cut to get off the phones when I first started.

Internal job postings still involve the old resume and interview shtick, but hiring managers and HR also have access to more information to help with a decision. We could look at call stats and scores to determine how good a phone rep was at their job, plus we got to take into account team manager and floor supervisor feedback.

At every call centre I’ve worked, it’s the manager feedback that was actually an employee’s ticket off the phones.  I didn’t realize how important this feedback was until I was on the other side of the equation.

During my first interview for a team manager job, I got asked plenty of situational questions, those pesky “what would you do if…” questions. I find those harder to answer than “give me an example when you…” because you aren’t talking about a real situation. The question that threw me the most was, “What would you say if employees were complaining that promotions always come from X side of the call centre floor?”

The first that went through my head, which I also blurted out unfiltered, was “Do people really complain about such stupid things?”

Who would have thought geography had anything to do with hiring decisions? And who would even notice? (No, management had not decided to only hire people from the west side of the call centre as some sort of ploy to mess with everyone’s heads.)

The interviewer assured me it had been a real concern expressed. I kept thinking everyone was nuts until I was on the other side and saw just how much team manager input influenced hiring decisions.

It turns out the complaining employees were right, but it wasn’t geography itself that resulted in the hiring decisions. In this call centre everyone was assigned to a team with around 15 other employees and one team manager was in charge of that group. Every phone rep was assigned a workstation in the call centre near their manager’s cubicle.  And some managers pushed harder for promotions for their employees.

The pushers would lobby for their employees during every hiring decision, whereas others would only occasionally push and some never bothered.  The pushers almost always won. And by chance a couple of the pushers had teams clustered together, so promotions did mostly come from one section of the floor.

For once the crazy employees were sort of right. It happens sometimes.

I guess the moral here is be nice to your boss. You’ll never know how much they can help or hinder your progress at work. And pray you don’t have a lazy manager who will never bother to fight for you.

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.

Too Much Information

High on the long list of things no one told me about people managing is having access to too much information. When you are a boss, some of your employees will feel the need to tell you about their lives in full detail, particularly the illnesses that keep them away from work.

I’ve had plenty of employees with attendance issues I’ve needed to address, but I’ve never once asked for a full detailing of symptoms experienced. I really don’t want to know. That’s never stopped people from telling me.

I’ve had to perfect my poker face, so I don’t look as horrified on the outside as I feel on the inside when given all the gory details. I think I’m at a disadvantage being a female boss in this situation. I am sure many a female employee would be too embarrassed to talk about “feminine” problems with their male bosses. I, on the other hand, receive full disclosure about every menstrual problem experienced by some employees. If you are an employee out there, I truly don’t want to know anything about your cramps.

I co-managed an admin team once featuring an employee who could win a TMI award. Let’s call her Lucy. Every time she was away, she would leave me lengthy phone message describing each of her physical symptoms. One morning, this involved cramps and some disgusting gastro-intestinal issues. I knew she was one of the few employees who would not be embarrassed to tell anyone about her problems, and she technically reported to my new partner, Ryan. I got to work first and had a perfect view of his desk. I didn’t warn him when he came in; I just watched and waited for him to check his voicemail.

Yep, he got the same message. I could tell from the growing look of horror on his face as he listened to the two-minute description Lucy left him. He looked a little green by the end of it.  He wandered over to my desk to tell me it was the most disgusting message anyone had ever left him.  I told him Lucy missed plenty of work, so he had more of these to look forward to.

I think my worst offender was a call centre employee who was making a lot of bathroom runs one morning, and he decided to send us an email detailing his rash and, um, leakage issues. I still shudder when I think about it.

Am I Supervising Recess?

As a people manager, there are times when I feel like a referee for grade three kids. You don’t just get normal work problems to handle. Sometimes you mediate odd disputes.

On one of my admin teams, my employees sat with their desks in rows and no cubicle walls in between them. This allowed everyone to just turn in their seat when they wanted to ask a co-worker a question or shoot the breeze. Sometimes this made my employees too close for comfort.

One morning an employee, Terry, came to my desk to complain that Dave, the employee who sat in front of her, kept pushing her in-trays back when he turned to talk to her. She said each time she’d move them back he would turn around and push them when he started conversation. She was very upset and wanted this to stop.

Really, this was the expert managing they hired me for?

I asked Terry if Dave was moving them on purpose. She said no, he just seemed to lean against them when he talked, but it drove her crazy and could I please ask him to stop. I then asked Terry if she had ever said anything to Dave about this. No, she didn’t want to start an argument. Clearly not one of my more assertive employees. Dave was a pussy cat.

I decided this was just too silly a dispute to have an actual conversation with Dave. Some employees feel that any “talking to” means they are in trouble and that wasn’t the impression I wanted to convey. He might have also been annoyed that Terry bypassed him to tattle to me.

I thought about it briefly and came up with a solution. I gave Terry an entire pack of sticky tack from our supply cabinet and suggested she use it along the bottom of her trays. She did. It worked like a charm. When Dave leaned over her desk, he could no longer move the trays without giving them a good shove. Terry was overjoyed. Sometimes managing people really is that simple.

Supervisor as Nursemaid

So there I was, on a Saturday morning, standing watch as one of my employees vomited into the garbage can by her desk.  I wish I could say this was a strange occurrence in my people management career, but sadly it wasn’t.

No one told me when I became a “boss” that I would occasionally have to play nursemaid to sick employees.  Or in this case, a hung over employee.  Dealing with ill staff is just part of the territory.

In every job I’ve held, I knew how to find the sick rooms, the first aid kit and the taxi slips for sending people home.  I knew because I needed to use all of them.

In this case, a colourful employee who I’ll call Julie had spent a hard night of partying on Friday. Our call centre opened at 6am, so she might have still been drunk when she arrived to work. With her it was hard to tell the difference.

A few hours into the day I heard retching from my desk and got up to investigate.  I located the source of the vomit and supervised Julie in her endeavours. There isn’t much you can do until the retching stops. The funny part was in between her heaves, Julie would look at me and loudly yell, “I swear I’m not hung over!”  Her protests might have been more believable if the garbage can hadn’t smelled like gin.

When Julie was done, she was conscientious enough to take her own garbage can to the bathroom to clean it out, saving me the hassle.  This event turned out much better than it could have. I didn’t have any cleaning to do. We weren’t always so lucky.

My unfortunate partner, Jason, worked a different morning that involved an employee projectile vomiting all over her desk and the carpet.  She was in no shape to clean up after herself and there was no janitorial staff around at 5am. That left Jason with clean-up duty.  I think I got the better end of the sick deal.

I guess the moral of this tale is that managing people is not for the squeamish.  Two job requirements for any supervisor: the ability to handle the unexpected and an iron stomach.


Welcome to What They Don’t Tell You About Managing People!

This blog is for anyone who aspires to be a people manager or is already battle scarred from their own management experience. I want to shed light on the role for the uninitiated. For those who’ve already been down this journey and have found it wanting, I am hoping you will see that you are not alone in your frustrations.

The idea for this blog came from my eight years of experience managing people. I was a reluctant people manager and almost had to be dragged into the role when I worked for a large bank. They had done some re-jigging in our department and suddenly had a small team in need of a leader. My managing career was born.

They try to teach you in school and early in your career that managing is where it’s at. Managing means you are trusted and moving up the company ladder. It’s something to aspire to. I think people believe management is a cushy job. You get a lot more pay and can boss people around.

My actual experiences have felt nothing like that. Being a first-tier manager means you get a lot more responsibility and headaches accompanied by a small pay increase. You don’t get enough decision-making power to make any true difference in a large organization.

However, what I didn’t know was how strange and sometimes rewarding the job can be. This blog will focus on the funny and the weird from my people management days. I do have fond memories and have managed some wonderful people, but those stories tend not to be as funny as the bad ones. You will hear more of my cringe-worthy experiences as a result. I’ve spent most of time managing administrative and call centre employees. Call centres are breeding grounds for the bizarre. Most of my juicy stories come from my contact centre days.

This blog isn’t intended to turn anyone off the idea of people management. Some people love it. I just want everyone who hasn’t been down the road to understand how wacky the job can be.