Dealing with Problem Children

On the operations side of the business, catalogers all too often must contend with chronically tardy employees, workers too wracked with personal problems to concentrate, and simply inefficient employees.

Part of the reason is that “these are typically low-paying jobs, and the people who take low-paying jobs typically don’t have a lot of other choices,” says Liz Kislik, president of Rockville Centre, NY-based call center consultancy Liz Kislik Associates. Then, too, many aren’t made to understand why their jobs in the call center and warehouse are important to the company.

In a worst-case scenario, you may have to fire underperforming employees. But first, read how several catalogers worked to avoid reaching that point.

Taming the tardy

There are two types of consistently tardy employees, says Kislik: those who report late right from the beginning, and those who start out prompt before falling into chronic lateness.

Employees who fall into the first group need to be reminded of the company’s scheduling needs and the consequences for not satisfying those needs. Kislik advises putting them through your company’s discipline process — two verbal warnings followed by a written warning, for instance — while being explicit about your expectations and the consequences if they are not met. If you indulge somebody who consistently flouts the rules, Kislik says, “every other employee learns it is not necessary to follow the rules.”

Dan Coen, author of How to Become a Great Call Center Manager and president of management consultancy, suggests discouraging tardiness by giving workers a reason to show up on time — scheduling a breakfast meeting at 8 a.m. every day, for instance, or running a contest that is open only to those who are on time. The late workers will soon tire of missing out on free food or the information given at the meetings.

At Northvale, NJ-based military parade decoration catalog Glendale, only employees who consistently arrive to work on time in addition to successfully performing their other duties receive end-of-the-year bonuses, says president Wendy Lazar. Three of her 13 employees missed out on bonuses at the end of last year as a result.

The second category of tardy employees typically have a change of circumstances in their personal life, such as a broken-down car or child-care issues. “You may need to renegotiate the schedule to work out a mutually accommodating situation to preserve the performance of a good employee,” Kislik says.

Stopping substance abusers

Sometimes employee shortcomings are the result of a drug or alcohol problem. Glendale had a popular warehouse worker who was a recovering alcoholic when hired, but he starting drinking again a few years into his employment with the company.

“He was a fine employee when he had it together,” Lazar says. But when he was drinking, he would come to work incapacitated, with glazed eyes and slurred speech. Once he fell asleep on a pile of boxes; another time, while inputting addresses for UPS shipments.

While doing research online regarding workplace problems, Lazar read about a type of contract between a worker and an employer called a last-chance agreement (LCA). The legally binding contract stipulates that the worker must meet a list of expectations, such as participation in a support group. If the employee does not meet the conditions of the LCA, he will be fired. Assuming that the LCA was properly drafted, the terminated employee cannot sue for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), since the worker was fired for violating the contract, rather than for suffering from alcoholism or substance abuse.

Often the LCA gives substance abusers both the support and the impetus they need to go into treatment. In Lazar’s case, she altered the LCA somewhat to give the employee time off to think about whether he would be able to meet the company’s needs. The agreed-on date for the employee’s return passed without his making an appearance, and he was terminated.

Seeking out slackers

By listening in on each of its call center reps once or twice a week, supervisors at San Diego-based Road Runner Sports found that some were slacking off in less-than-obvious ways. In fact, had the supervisors not regularly monitored its phone reps (who number 80 during slower seasons and 150 at peak times), they might not have realized that the employees were underperforming.

Some of the reps abused the auxiliary phone system (AUX) that stops calls from coming to certain phones and instead funnels them to other reps. The system is meant to enable employees to use the restrooms or handle an especially long or complex order. Reps at Road Runner are allowed to turn AUX on for no more than 20 minutes a day, but assistant sales managers Lisa Avellino and Julie Scheidt say some workers would turn it on to avoid answering the phone.

The cataloger of running shoes and apparel has also caught reps offering promotions or special sales that customers were not eligible for, just to make a sale. Reps who week after week get a below-average score on their monitor evaluations are put on an improvement plan that includes added counseling from supervisors; only if they fail to improve are they fired.

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