Was this an employee problem or an employer problem?

A restaurant in my neighborhood opens at 5:00 p.m.for dinner. Recently, when I arrived around 5:15, I was the only customer. I seated myself in a booth. The waitpersons were huddled together, talking and laughing. They didn’t even know I was there. I decided to wait silently until one of them noticed me. I waited 10 minutes.

In another recent incident, I took my grandson to an outdoor pool at a local country club. Kids were swimming; parents were sunbathing. I noticed that the young lifeguards were all huddled around one lifeguard station, laughing and “hanging out,” as teenagers are prone to do. The problem was, they weren’t doing their job, which was to diligently watch for swimmers in distress.   

In both instances, I was initially upset at the employees. They were derelict in their duties. Their job was to serve customers but instead, they were focused on each other.

Upon further reflection, I realized that fundamentally, this was not an employee problem, it was a managerial problem. Why hadn’t supervisors properly trained these employees? Why weren’t managers monitoring real-time performance and correcting deviations from standards? 

Leaders/managers, that’s part of your job. 

One reason why I love to spend time on a cruise ship is that the employees are well managed. Every employee is attentive, works hard, on-time, and serves with a good attitude. Performance standards are set and enforced. (I heard that on one cruise, when a waiter insulted a passenger, at the next ports-of-call he was put off the ship and sent home.) 

When reasonable expectations are clearly set and fairly enforced, employees feel valued, secure, and productive. And customers are satisfied.

I also embrace the value of individual initiative and effort. In the previous scenarios (inattentive waiters, distracted lifeguards) each employee could have, and should have, broken off from the pack and done the right thing. (Those individuals are rare; look for them and value them.) But ultimately, the well-being of an organization is determined by the leader. 

Leaders/managers, that’s part of your job. 

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16 thoughts on “Was this an employee problem or an employer problem?

  1. Absolutely and strongly agree with all of your points. This should be required readings for all owners, managers and employees everywhere!

    Many people are so tired of poor customer service that they seldom eat out or shop in their local stores. Hence the popularity of online shopping and take out restaurants. I’m guessing when people do order take out or fast food, they spend less than a visit to a restaurant. Poor customer service and a poor products are killing many businesses.

    • Thanks, Margie, for taking the time to write. There are so many things that are out of our control (the economy, global politics, etc.); the one thing an organization does have control over is its employees. We should pay more attention to that aspect.

  2. I can really appreciate this. I had more than one unpleasant experience similar to these this past week while at Great Wolf Lodge with my family. But really, this sort of thing happens all the time in every sort of business, and I am always left to wonder; does management care so little about the face of their business, and their clients, that they will not invest in proper training and then hold their people accountable? Conversely, on a recent trip to a Target in Allen, I was shocked at how well trained the staff was and how well I was treated by every single staff person I encountered the entire 45 minutes I was in the store. It was refreshing (and that used to be the norm).

    Thanks, Don.

    • Rhonda, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Isn’t the contrast great-between good customer service (Target) and poor (Great Wolf Lodge). Thanks for your consistent, good work at the church. Don

  3. Don – I agree that both of those problems you describe are management problems. In our business, we consider every problem a management problem. To be more precise though, we lead people and manage things, so those cases are a leadership problem. If you have an employee who proactively takes responsibility and accountability for something, that is a rare treasure. But, it is not surprising since leaders lead no matter their title, age, or length of tenure. It is our responsibility to recognize and promote those leaders to enhance our organizations.

    Great essay!

    • Thanks, Garyld, for taking the time to write. I like your statement “we lead people and manage things.” We must always be searching for competent, engaged people and when we find them, recruit them.

  4. I totally agree with you on all points. In the Lifeguard situation I hope you gave feedback to the supervisors as that is a life saving/threatening situation. Sad how many times and places this happens, seems these days many are not so focused on doing things with excellence and paying great attention to detail.

    • Julee, thanks for writing. Right; some expressions of neglect are more serious than others (lifeguard vs waitress). Don

  5. An acquaintance of mine and I were chatting about the very same thing–when I say thanks for xxxx, cashiers say “No Problem” instead of “You’re welcome”. A somewhat minor variation, but one that says to me the customer, “well, I did what I am supposed to, but that’s it”.

    The discussion went on to millennials, after attending a seminar on this and several articles later, I surmised that planning is obsolete. Offices and regular hours are not perceived as necessary, and there are no time commitments as long as you get the job done [in their view]. Managers are perceived as surrogate parents–something suspect and “behind the times”. While there are certainly some fantastic younger workers, the norm is increasingly just that–the norm, mediocre, nothing exceptional. I wonder what the next generation will bring?

    • Jennifer, thanks for writing. The millennials are a unique breed of homo sapiens. They have a lot to offer but seem to think differently about delivery of work. Don

  6. Good article, Don. It goes along with explaining to a young child how you expect them to behave in church, at a concert or at the mall, etc. Training employees to pay attention to customers is imperative!

  7. Yes, it was a managerial problem, but was it a lack of proper training or, as Jim Collins puts it, did he have the wrong people on the bus? Training and setting performance expectations are critical, but having the right people with the right attitude to carry out those expectations is equally important.

    • Jackie, point well taken. Some people are just not inclined to do certain tasks (hospitality, etc.) in which case they are in the wrong position. But even people who are in the right position need to be managed well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Don

  8. I think this is a very true essay. I was a little put off by the misuse of the word “There”. In that context, it should have been “Their”. Third paragraph, third sentence.