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As we were watching a news story on the massively popular basketball tournaments that are played in March, the story mentioned that the expected losses to American businesses were somewhere north of $2B (yes that’s a B as in billion dollars, and $2B sounds like a big number to us, even when spread across a lot of companies). They then mentioned that the official site had a way for people to watch the games at work on their phone or at their desk over the internet. As if this wasn’t enough, the website included a “Boss Button,” which provides a quick way to switch the screen over to another view with some sort of a fake PowerPoint that would give the appearance of real work. So if someone is watching a game and they hear the boss coming into their office they click the button and it looks like they are working on a presentation.
We are greatly saddened to see that stealing time or any kind of stealing or fraud is getting legitimized on such a grand scale. Some would offer, “I work lots of extra time for the company.” While that might be true, we would suggest that someone in our industry who decides to balance the score by taking a set of wrenches out of the store under their shirt would be considered a thief. When someone is being paid for working and they are pretending to be working, is that somehow ok? We are not lawyers, so theft may be the wrong term for it; maybe fraud is the proper term? In any event, the trend concerns us.
In most columns our objective has been to describe problems and then to provide suggestions, from our experience, to those problems. There are some problems facing our industry for which we cannot dig into our experience for answers. Some are new problems, and others are old problems with new twists. While we have some ideas that we will provide, if any of our readers have proven ways to deal with these problems, or even some additional suggestions to share, we would be interested in hearing from you. If we receive enough feedback, we will publish them, with or without attribution, in a future column. As with most things, we think the answers are a challenge of coming to a fair balance — fair to the employees in creating a great workplace and fair to the company in providing a good ROI to the owners. As always, our suggestion may involve actions and policies that you must review, in advance, with your labor attorney.
Some additional concerns and suggestions:
Use of phones in the workplace for voice, texting or e-mail — In our experience, this seems to be more generational than some problems in that those people who have grown up with cell phones seem to think their continuous unfettered use of their phone is a birthright with protections for it somewhere in the constitution. With that being said, we see this addiction at all ages. We have seen situations in our industry where customer-facing people are making customers wait while a personal call is conducted. We understand that people have lives that are managed in real-time but think it is extremely disrespectful to conduct personal business at the customer’s expense. When a customer-facing person must conduct personal business, it may be better to do it in a break room where the customer they are supposed to be facing will not feel ignored.
Suggestion: Consider a policy stating what your company allows, and what is not allowed while working on the clock. Pay special attention where safety is involved, like forklift operators and drivers. Some of your team may not consider it disrespectful to continue their personal call or texting while a customer waits so helping them understand how it is received may be all that is required.
Texting while driving — we think companies should consider a policy regarding texting while driving. We are not lawyers but many states are starting to recognize that it is a dangerous behavior akin to driving under the influence. If you create such a policy, your drivers, outside sales team and any other person who drives as a part of their job should understand that it is a serious violation of your safety procedures and that it will be treated as such.
Using the phone while driving — similarly, use of the phone while driving has been shown to be a distraction. Some states are now requiring hands-free devices to reduce the distraction. While experts seem to think, hands-free devices don’t solve the problem, they may make it better. Consider, your policy and whether the company should provide hands-free devices to your team.
Non-work related use of the internet — In our experience, we have found that some people just don’t understand that using Facebook, Twitter and shopping on Amazon or e-bay are not considered company business. They are personal business. When they are on company time, they are not somehow exempted when they are done on the individual’s personal phone. Some also think that it is somehow exempted when done in the bathroom and that ½ hour bathroom breaks to play a game or text a friend are acceptable.
Hooking up friends and customers — As in, “you need a new wrench, I’ll hook you up.” The wrench might be free, at a reduced price or at normal price. According to the online Urban Dictionary, there are other uses of “hook up” that involve some sort of sexual or non-sexual liaison and also to the sales of drugs. (We are not covering those uses even though, your company may have need for concern in those areas also.) Long ago one of our clients found that one of their most “popular” counter people was stealing from them. What they discovered was a small amount (<$50) taken for personal use and so they were considering a slap on the wrist and repayment of the stolen amount.
We reminded them of the rules for stealing: You seldom catch the first theft nor discover the full amount stolen. You almost never recover close to the full amount that was taken. A slap on the wrist, as we have said before, sends a clear message to the individual and to others on the team, “You can steal at least this amount (and maybe more) without getting fired.”
So our suggestions: Clearly communicate how much you can steal without getting fired. As we have said before, we think the number should be zero.
Back to the popular counter person, as our client dug into the theft, they discovered that the guy’s popularity was to a great extent related to his personally implemented “frequent customer” discounting/gifting policy. The customers he liked and who lavished him with kind words and the occasional gift, were getting extra-specially good pricing and the occasional gift (paid for by the company…without the company’s knowledge or consent).
They further discovered that this senior counter guy was the one training all the new counter people, how to take orders, how to pick products, how to put away products in the warehouse and, of course, how to steal from the company.
His departure resulted in a profitability improvement for the branch. Another discovery was that he mostly treated customers disrespectfully so they really didn’t like him but they put up with it in order to get the “frequent customer” discount. The customers missed the discount but didn’t mind that the guy was gone.
Supervisors who look the other way are not doing their job – We want to start by saying that first line supervisors have a tough job in wholesaling and in most industries, for that matter. They are responsible for the day-in, day-out coaching process for their department or area. We think the best supervisors are involved at a very detailed level. (We used to say “hands on” but have seen so many stories in the news lately, we now say involved in the details, keeping your hands to yourself.) Some supervisors have recently moved into the role and want to retain the friendships they developed with the others in their area. Other have a need to be “loved” and cannot stand doing anything that would upset their team. They love doing the “good-guy” parts of the job and resist or completely shirk the “tough-guy” parts of the job.
Suggestions: Supervisors must be selected carefully. Often the best worker is promoted without considering the other traits possessed by the best supervisors. It must be clear from that start that supervisory roles are not for everyone because the role includes reviewing, praising, correcting and, as needed, disciplining their team. We have had people “opt out” of a possible promotion to supervisor when they came to grips with the reality of what the job involved.
Supervisors must be coached by their supervisor. They need both encouragement to fully fill the breadth of their role and support as the struggle with the “people” part of doing the job well. The best supervisors care about their team which makes some of the things they must do very difficult. Doing these difficult things with guidance and support from their boss does help. We have witnessed bosses who basically cast their supervisors adrift alone to solve the problems and we think that is often a cop-out by the boss.
Supervisors must set the example for how people on their team operate. Unlike the counter guy above, who, at the other end of the spectrum, was teaching people to misbehave, a good supervisor models the right way and also corrects people when they are not doing what they should.
One problem we don’t have a solution for that seems to exist in society today is supervisors getting threatened. It seems to be at many levels. An acquaintance of ours took a job as a grade school teacher in a city school. He went in thinking he would make a difference but soon found that a 6th grader he sent to the office for a behavior problem would threaten to kill him as he walked to his car after school. Another acquaintance told us that retail shoplifters will sometimes tell store employees that they intend to steal products and that the store employee should be prepared to die if they interrupt the theft. We have heard stories in our industry where telling someone to get back to work resulted in noncompliance and a threat of physical harm. Sometimes these are simply a threat with no intent to do anything but there are enough news stories that any normal person would pause when threatened. This has always been a problem but we see it getting worse. We are interested in your solutions to these situations.
We have discussed a lot of societal and business topics here that are difficult to get our/your arms around but we also think wholesales should not “hope” that these situations will simply resolve themselves without effort. So consider if these apply to your situation and then what actions are appropriate for that situation. If you have already worked through the answers, send us an email and whether we can use your name. As we said earlier, if we get enough interesting ones, we’ll publish them in a future column.