“Working there was a nightmare,” said John (not his real name). “I am so much happier at this new company.”
John spent years with a Bellingham company owned by an abusive boss. Yelling at employees, changing the rules on commissions, manipulating customers, and creating a poisonous working environment were only the start.
Racial slurs aimed at Hispanic co-workers, behind-your-back dramas and profanity aimed at staff were common, as well. John was continually offered better pay and benefits from this boss that somehow disappeared each time due to one reason or another.
Being an easy-going sort of guy and trying to support his family, John didn’t dare leave for fear he wouldn’t find another sales job in his field. In addition, John always seemed to feel that if only he worked harder, things would get better.
After injuring himself trying to close a truck door that had been left unrepaired, John was unable to work at all until he went through a surgery and physical therapy. During that time, he realized just how much stress he had been under while trying to repeatedly please a boss that couldn’t be placated. He finally quit.
John’s case is extreme in its damage not only to his self-esteem, but physically, too. He had been emotionally beat up by a bully boss. Unfortunately, lots of people find themselves in the position of boss or business owner without the slightest clue about how to get the best work out of their staff without being so lenient that nothing gets done.
The best bosses create an environment where people like to work. A climate of fear, distrust, abuse, or manipulation serves only to create high turnover and higher labor cost. Continually training new people is expensive, and the ones who leave tell everyone they know about their experiences with you. Bellingham is too small for behavior like this. Nothing stays a secret for long.
People need much more than just a paycheck. They can work anywhere. Job-hopping is common these days and if your turnover is too high, you need to look at what you’re doing to create it. If you can’t afford major benefits, find small ones you can give. But remember that the atmosphere at work is key to employee retention.
If you’re having trouble with your staff, don’t blame them, look to yourself first. Employees give what they get. Here are a few words of wisdom from someone who’s had over 1,000 employees in the past 20 years:
Hire right to start with. First impressions can be deceiving and it takes a lot of experience hiring people before you learn to not make mistakes. Interview carefully, watching for eye contact, level of nervousness, avoidance of questions, and ability to stay on the subject. Look for people who give energy out, not suck it from you while you talk. Always check references and ask why they left their last job. It will give you a lot of insight into their attitude about work.
Do what you say you’ll do. If you make a promise to fix something, offer a bonus or whatever, do it! Do not say something just because you think it’s what your employees want to hear and then forget about it later. They haven’t forgotten and you will lose credibility.
Say what you mean. Be honest in your approach, but don’t attach emotion to it. Anger only makes employees become fearful and they stop hearing what you’re saying because they’re so caught up in your emotional state.
It’s a completely different thing to say calmly, “Your long lunches have caused some problems with customers and I had to deal with the Jones account yesterday for you. What can we do to solve this problem?”, or to say angrily, “You’re always gone when we need you here and I’m giving the Jones account to someone else.”
Be direct, state the problem at hand and look for a solution together without the emotional drama.
Set standards. Employees do not get up in the morning thinking about how they’re going to break the rules at work today. Most people genuinely want to do their jobs, but need clear guidance in how to do them right.
I had a client who had problems with the staff not dressing properly. We initiated a written dress code and a written warning system that let everyone know exactly what would happen if they violated the code. This gave the employees and the boss a tool that everyone understood. Clarify your rules and write them down.
Expect the best. Most people really want to do a good job and if you expect it of them every day, they will deliver. Offer honest praise for a job well done when it’s appropriate and let your employees know when they’ve gone above and beyond. Give out awards.
Genuinely listen. Take the time to listen to their problems and create solutions whenever you can. Employees who are the front line with customers know what those customers need and want. Have an open door policy so people feel comfortable telling you things.
Don’t shoot the messenger; if you criticize or ignore these comments, you won’t be allowed on the inside track anymore. Talk to your employees often. This will not only boost morale, but will help customer service, too. I hear far too many people tell me that the manager doesn’t care and it would do no good to mention changing a store policy.
Be a role model. Employees will treat each other and customers the same way you do. Genuinely look at your own behavior before criticizing the staff. They learned it somewhere.
What happened to John? He found a new job with a different company in his field a few months later. Working with honest, caring bosses, he realized just how dysfunctional his last job had been.
He is now extremely successful in his work, and is surpassing his sales goals. In addition, his old clients are moving their business to the new company because they want to work with John. Because he doesn’t have to deal with the boss’s mind games and dishonesty, he is able to focus on doing the best job he can for his customers.
— Taimi Gorman is the founder of the Colophon Cafe and The Doggie Diner. She is a marketing consultant and serves on the state’s Small Business Improvement Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.