Head office can take it from here (Editorial)

Over-protective employees can do more harm than good
By John Hobel
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/16/2006

It inevitably happens to some employer somewhere in Canada this time of year. And it tells us something about the mindset employees can adopt in the name of “protecting” their employer. This year it was a grocery store in Quebec.

Tom Mullin, a 76-year-old veteran who served in the Korean War, was given the boot from a Provigo grocery store in Montreal when the store determined there wasn’t room for him to sell poppies before Remembrance Day. Followed (surprise, surprise) by being asked to come back when the story got out to the public.

There’s always some example of a mall, commercial property, transit system or other place of business asking poppy-selling vets to leave the premises. Then the head office steps in to apologize, correct the situation and save the organization from gaining a reputation as a mean-spirited place that picks on elderly people and callously demeans the sacrifice given by those who served in the military. (It’s generally agreed that sort of thing doesn’t look good on the corporate mission statement.)

What’s the problem here? It’s not like head offices issue directives to keep an eye out for poppy scams. It’s usually a case of lower level employees making a bad decision — one that looks a lot like someone protecting their “turf.” Or is it a case of some satisfaction derived from exercising power — the power to stop an outsider from encroaching on a company’s physical space. Or perhaps it’s the power to deny a refund or customer request.

Retail staff trying to thwart customer refunds and exchanges, even in the face of “no hassle” return policies, is more common than many head offices would like to think. It starts off rather innocently, with a feeling that the customer’s complaint is unreasonable, followed by a natural desire to protect the hand that feeds. Head office may be okay with being taken advantage of every now and then in the name of good service, but that doesn’t mean staff on the ground will put up with it.

Breaking this mindset is one of the great HR challenges. Employees who act in this protective manner are often the hardest-working, longest-serving staff an organization has. They just don’t fully understand that their concern about being “taken advantage of” is not their employer’s concern.

But, with enough effort, HR can turn off the “turf protecting” switch in staff. It means an investment in training that enforces a customer-first strategy. It means visiting outlets and calling service lines to get a first-hand sampling of the customer experience. It means guarding against internal bureaucracy that creates barriers to client service or change management. And it means recruiting the right staff and orientating them successfully.

Every employer appreciates staff who have a sense of ownership. The trick is knowing when that protective attitude is going too far. Getting it right means an employer has scored an HR advantage.

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