I stood on the gravel, nervously surveying the scene and clutching tightly on to the tray of canapes with which I had been entrusted. Age 19, and home from university for the summer I had accepted a day-long assignment at the local stately home to assist with waiting on at a wedding reception.
I’d been working in cafes and restaurants since the age of 14 and I was confident my customer service skills were top notch. I reported for duty, with a smile, at the allotted time to the Lady of the House (the irony in which title will become obvious very shortly). Apparently my shoes, despite having been freshly polished, were not very “xxxxx Hall”, being lace up with a block heel rather than a court shoe or flat slip on. Clearly I hadn’t received the memo from the temp agency on that one.
I was dispatched with 2 of the regular staff to see if anything more appropriate could be found in the spares box. Tittering between themselves they appeared amused and perhaps relieved that the temp was the one getting stick from Lady X. I on the other hand felt distinctly as though I’d walked into a Jane Austen novel. No suitable alternative shoes could be found and as the word came that the first guests were approaching up the mile-long driveway, I was hastily briefed on the order of the day and handed the canape tray.
And so, I looked around me and saw where the other waiting staff were with their trays. I noted which groups of people were already eating and which had yet to be served. I worked out the shortest route to the empty-handed guests and set off to deliver the tasty morsels on my tray.
And that’s when it happened…
“YOU, GIRL! YES YOU, THERE! GET OFF THE GRASS…GET OFF THE GRASS!!! DO YOU SEE ANYONE ELSE WALKING OVER THE GRASS? NO! THE GRASS IS NOT FOR WALKING ON!”
I had just been bawled out by Lady Muck in front of an entire wedding party. The guests who had heard her looked embarrassed. None of the regular staff made eye-contact with me. The other temps made subtly sympathetic faces. Of course, I leapt off the grass like a cat on a hot tin roof, my cheeks burning with the humiliation. I got through the rest of the shift as best I could, albeit with my confidence shot to pieces, and escaped without a backward glance.
It would have been so easy to sidle up to me and say “I’m terribly sorry but I can’t remember your name. Perhaps no-one’s mentioned, we don’t walk on the grass as it’s recently been re-seeded” or, here’s a novel idea, someone could have briefed me properly on the house rules rather than sneering at my style of shoe.
I’ve never forgotten how that made me feel, and I use it time and again as an example in management training. The principle isn’t difficult:
1. Make sure your people know the rules
2. If they break the rules, raise it in private whether it be a “quiet word” or a formal disciplinary.
Whoever you are, reprimanding staff in the way I’ve described happened to me (whether they be long serving employees or ‘just’ temps) in front of their colleagues and/or your customers is never a reasonable management practice. Ever.
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