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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.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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