Employees must always take high road

These days, when you're talking to one person, you're talking to a thousand'
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/24/2014

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, 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 fit into, 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 “Ugly, racist altercation caught on tape at Sears,” page 1.)

What was 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 in the store, though that portion wasn’t on the video 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 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 appears to rely heavily on online training for staff — who are scattered at stores across the country. In-person workshops seem less prevalent.

With face-to-face training, staff have to wait until there’s a class and enough people to join, according to Vince Power, vice-president of corporate affairs and communications for Sears Canada in Toronto. That means 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 — 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 — it 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, investment and policies can accomplish. I guarantee the salesperson knew he shouldn’t have said what he said. 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.”

Another thing to remind staff is 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.

Reader Comments

“I don’t know where this idea came from that organizations are recommended to get their first HR person at 100 to 150 employees. I suspect it was extrapolated from the concept that a large organization might have one HR person per 100 employees, and even that type of generalization doesn’t take into account the breadth of services an HR department provides. I recommend we stop saying that a company’s first HR person is needed around 100 employees. (How’s this: You only need your first finance person when you reach $1 million in revenue, not before. See how ludicrous that sounds?)

HR people are required way before the 100-employee mark. A company may start out with a casual, independent HR consultant as an advisor, then retain that independent HR consultant for regular consultation, then have a part-time HR person on staff (even with 30 or so employees), then grow to have a full-time HR employee at perhaps 50 or 60 employees. Starting the company on the right foot should be the goal of small companies, before bad policies and habits develop that require significant retraining and cultural adjustments to correctly align policies.”

— Andrea Zanetti, commenting on David Crisp’s blog
“The role for HR in the no-HR organization."

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