A Day of Remembering

With Remembrance Day approaching us this week, I am reminded that I have zany employee stories for every occasion, even this one.

Right or not, most call centres are open Remembrance Day and don’t even stop for an official moment of silence at 11am. They will usually offer employees the opportunity to take that one minute for themselves, should they desire it.

In my cynical call centre management view, I am surprised by how few employees actually take this opportunity, giving that it means a brief respite from their phone duty, if nothing else.

We did have one employee who was particularly unimpressed with this policy. He was always a bad fit for the call centre business. He hated all of the clients and spoke to them like they were morons. (Plenty of the clients were nuts, but we did have normal ones too.)  He was always ranting about something and looked miserable dragging his butt into work each day. He was never going to last.

My boss sent an email to the floor the week before Remembrance Day explaining the company policy to everyone. It wasn’t new, but we always had new employees.

The employee I will call John thought the policy was awful, and at first expressed his displeasure in a professional sounding email to my boss. She responded in an equally professional email stating that she understood his concerns, but the company policy would stand.

I knew nothing of this email exchange while it was happening, so I couldn’t figure out why John threw down his headset and stormed off the floor.

My boss burst from her office to find John, because he had just sent her back an email telling her she was “pathetic”. That’s an exact quote. It was the nicest thing he said in his electronic tirade.

Calling the big boss pathetic is never a good career move. We didn’t have to worry about firing him for this exchange or his other moody behaviour and poor client handling, because John was so mad about the incident that he never came back. I guess his principled stand made life easier for everyone.

While I don’t agree with John’s response, his anger was at least well placed this time. I think all call centres outside of 911 should pause to mark this solemn occasion. Lest we forget.

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.

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.