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Mar 11, 2014

Employees must always take the high road

In light of Sears incident, remember: 'These days, when you're talking to 1 person, you're talking to 1,000'

By Todd Humber

Some people are just jerks. That applies to CEOs and front-line customer service reps. It applies to salespeople and it applies to customers. It applies to neighbours, to co-workers and drivers on the road. It’s just an unfortunate fact of life.

Some people are always jerks. Some just temporarily turn into idiots when backed into a corner, or if they’re having a particularly bad day.

It’s hard to know exactly what category of jerk they were, but two of them came face to face at a Sears store in Winnipeg. And, as is always the case these days, a camera was rolling. (See the cover of the March 24 issue of Canadian HR Reporter for more on this story.)

What was captured on film and posted to social media was an ugly exchange between a Sears salesperson and an irate customer. It started innocently enough — the worker allegedly asked the customer to take his children off a lawnmower that was on display, though that portion wasn’t on the clip I saw.

After the Sears employee — who was a “long tenured” worker, according to the retail chain — said security had been notified, the customer proceeded to insult the employee by saying, “Let me guess, you came from Domo?” (Domo is a gas station chain.) And the employee responded with a curt “You just came off the boat?”

The employee was suspended, and ultimately fired. No doubt that was the appropriate response — though you’d be hard pressed to find an employment lawyer who would say every employer would be justified in firing an employee who made a racist comment. There are far too many variables at play — even catching an employee stealing doesn’t always amount to just cause for termination in Canada.

But in this case, Sears seems to be on pretty solid ground. Even if it were to ultimately lose a wrongful dismissal lawsuit, it couldn’t not act decisively — not with its customers watching and not if it wants the 20,000 Sears employees in Canada to know making a racist comment towards a customer is completely unacceptable and won’t be tolerated.

So score a victory for Sears and the way it was handled post-incident by management and its HR department, but also cue up a review of the training procedures for salespeople. No doubt that behind closed doors, there is a navel-gazing exercise occurring to see what the department store chain could have done better on the training front so its customer-facing staff know it’s unacceptable to insult customers, especially with a racial slur.

Like many organizations, Sears relies heavily on online training for staff — who are scattered at stores across the country. In-person workshops seem less prevalent, according to Vince Power, vice-president of corporate affairs and communications at Sears Canada in Toronto. In an interview with Canadian HR Reporter, he said face-to-face training doesn’t always happen because staff have to wait until there’s a class and enough people to join — so employees can be on the floor with only online training and having to sign a code of conduct under their belt. That’s all fine and well, but there’s a big difference between being presented with an ugly situation during a simulation and choosing from multiple choice canned answers on a computer screen and being faced with an unpredictable, fast-moving situation on the floor. For that, some role playing is in order — that certainly costs more, but it should prove more effective in giving salespeople the skills they need to defuse tense situations.

But it’s not a panacea. There are limits to how much training and investment and policies can accomplish. I guarantee the salesperson knew he shouldn’t have said it. As soon as the words crossed his lips, I’m guessing (and hoping) he regretted it. I don’t know this guy from Adam, but there’s a decent chance his neighbours will say something like, “He’s a good guy. He’s the last one I’d expect to make a racist comment.” They always seem to in cases like this one.

Another thing to remind staff is that the cameras are always rolling. In the Netflix series House of Cards (spoiler alert here) journalist Zoe Barnes is offered the job of chief White House correspondent by her editor. She doesn’t want the gig, calling it a graveyard where “news goes to die.”

In response, the grizzled editor insults her. And she says, “Remember, these days, when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand.”

That’s a line that should be included in all training for customer-facing employees. 

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.
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Tollerance is the answer
Saturday, March 22, 2014 11:16:00 AM by Joe Nunes
What a sad story. A CSR lost their job because having been insulted they reacted emotionally in what everyone will agree was an inappropriate manner. But hands up everyone who has had the lifetime composure to never lose their cool. We all lose it sooner or later in a lifetime and I am disappointed that this ill timed outburst by the CSR ended in swift termination. I would be soothed if the story told of longer-term performance issues and that this moment was the last straw. I am left thinking that it was an out of character moment which seems unfair.

What isn't being discussed is the real root of the problem which is a lack of tolerance for people that are different. "Off the boat" is an insult to someone whose appearance suggests they weren't born here in Canada. However, what it also exposes is contempt by some for those that weren't lucky enough to be born in one of the greatest countries in the world.

In my work and life I meet many who were born elsewhere but who were fortunate enough to gain admittance to Canada to build a family and a career. Most that I encounter are respectful, polite, hard working folks that all of us admire. Frankly some of the born and bread Canadians sitting on their rear end waiting for someone to make their life worthwhile could learn from the initiative and humility that many newcomers to Canada display.

We need to mature as a country to not see our fellow citizens by colour or country of origin and instead see people for who they are and what they can contribute. And we have to be patient with each other since no once can be sure what challenges and stresses the other person is under. None of us is perfect and we need to remember that as we expect other to be so.
What are parents thinking?
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 3:52:00 PM
In regards to 'A different perspective' Well said.I agree that the customer should also bear the brunt of discipline and should be banned from the stores.Kudos to the CSR for caring enough to ask the children to get off the machines. It is not a playground. what would happen if the children got hurt or the machine was damaged? It would likely be the CRS's fault for allowing the children to play. What are parents thinking nowadays.
A different perspective
Tuesday, March 11, 2014 4:02:00 PM
First of all, what were the children doing playing on an expensive piece of equipment in the first place AND kudos to the store's CSR for asking the parent to take them off!
Secondly, why is a comment suggesting that the store CSR formerly worked at DOMO any less discriminatory or racist than the CSR's comment?
Thirdly, shame on whoever posted the video clip online!
Sears should have dealt with the employee in a manner consistent with its progressive discipline policy for an employee who displays discourteous behaviour to a customer - taking all factors into account (past issues, etc.). The customer should have been banned from Sears stores for verbally abusing one of its employees AND for his/her inability to control his/her own children!