The Consultant's Desk

The Consultant's Desk
Poring over the details on your behalf

Monday, May 05, 2008

Case Study: The Nebulous Barista

One of the greatest challenges any person can experience is what to do when presented with a potential conflict of interest situation. It first has to be identified as a potential conflict of interest. If it can go either way, the consultant (or any other business person) must have a thorough and honest assessment of their own self in order to determine whether they are capable of putting aside their personal feelings in order to deliver a fair and balanced assessment of the situation and then make reliable recommendations.

I've never faced this sort of challenge in any of my business or consulting career until in the last six months or so. I was in a relationship with "Martin" and it had pretty much become public. Knowing my business identity as a management and career consultant, all three of his shift supervisors, during conversations on different days about various and sundry topics, broached the subject of Martin and what a great worker he is. The only perplexing issue for all three of them is what to do about him. He's max'd out on what he's qualified to do for the company yet he has talents that are not being tapped. Everyone is losing. They (all three) wanted to know what they can do to help Martin.

In the first two conversations, I promised I would think about the situation and get back to them. With the third, I began to question myself on the conflict of interest matter. "Can I put aside my personal feelings in order to deliver a reliable, independent recommendation about this?" I asked myself. It was a legitimate concern and one on which my reputation as a person capable of doing an accurate assessment and analysis rode.

One of my strong suits is taking a clinical look at a situation in order to see the various issues impacting it. A colleague recently commented on how careful and detailed my analyses of situations are and how well they make plain the issues that are buried in the tangle of each situation. Even when it's something about my own personality, I'm very strict with my assessment, analysis, and corrective measures. I finally responded to the third supervisor that I could do the assessment (that is, I could maintain an independent perspective of the subject) but it would need to be on a consultative basis, not as one-on-one training. She was satisfied with that response but we did not explore any other details.


Martin started with the company in the lowest entry position possible. He is smart. He knows the way to keep a job is to do one's work well, thoroughly and in a timely fashion, without being told to do so two or three times.

He is a willing worker. No matter what the task, he is available to carry out the steps to bring it to fruition. He does not grouse or grumble. But he is bored. Thus, when I met him two years ago, nearly anything could distract him -- mostly the women. He began to find my table on a frequent basis. He began providing little extra services. Eventually, he was given a timer so that he could remember when it was time to recommence his cycle of duties. The timer worked.

All three of his shift supervisors agreed on one aspect of Martin. He's reliable. "I know that if I assign something to Martin, I don't have to think about it again. I can rely on him to get it done and done the right way." It was as though the three had read these words from a script because each one said exactly the same thing about him.

But the company had determined that in fairness to all employees, it was no longer going to have a custodial position. Instead, everyone would pitch in on maintenance; everyone would have their day at the bar. Therefore, Martin's world broadened because he needed to learn names and preparation of drinks. He became more engaged in his work, happier and more productive. His ceiling was raised.

Previous Work Experience

About a year ago, Martin shared with me information about his education and work he did in his native country. He talked about some of his personal responsibilities and his interests; he shared several of his interests with me. Unfortunately, what he spoke of as his previous occupation and education did not match the capabilities he exhibited. I have reservations about his representations in this regard. It seems to me he was attempting to impress me in order to gain more favorable attention and reception.

His lack of facility in English was plainly why he had not followed his previous alleged profession here in the United States. If he was telling the truth, he is drastically under employed and doing himself a mortal disservice by staying in his present position without seeking some type of promotion. However, this is by personal choice and necessity. During private conversations (before the meetings with the supervisors), I suggested to him that he consider taking one or two evening classes, even an ESL class. He declined the suggestions by saying he did not have enough time to attend the classes.

Martin enjoys reading. He is a wealth of information that he yearns to share with others but is constrained from doing so because of his position and his language deficiency. He would do well in training others. In fact, he is usually the one who trains the new employees about the various housekeeping duties of the store. He is conscientious and thorough. Unfortunately, he gets a little confused about co-worker congeniality compared with romantic overtures and requires constant reminders that "it's called training."

Another thing that didn't match his purported past with his current environment was the ability to deal with people. True enough, he serves people with courtesy. And in accordance with the theme of the company, he makes you feel as though you're at home.

However, Martin's previous occupation involved explaining concepts to others, making plain those concepts that are difficult to grasp, and getting people to talk to one another. He would have been responsible for negotiating deals and bargaining with others. He would have been deeply immersed in long and complicated conversations about complex subjects. These conversations would have droned on until there was resolution, the parties saw eye to eye, and all was plain.

Martin is good at talking to people but not in confrontational situations and not when negotiations are required. When hostility rears its ugly head, Martin backs down and looks for an ally to come to his defense. In the past, Martin has shared stories with me about the hostile customer who did not receive their drink as quickly as they desired or the drink did not meet with their approval. Although we attempted to rehearse some of the scenarios, he declined on the basis that rehearsal was unnecessary. Likewise, we attempted to come up with negotiated resolutions. These failed because he was seeking someone to step on his behalf rather than seeking a way to amicably resolve the situation on his own.

This reticence to discuss and resolve carries over into other situations. In the long run, it is ultimately discovered that the reason for the conflict (lack of seeing eye to eye) is because of a misinterpretation from one language to the other. Clarifying questions and answers would have resolved the tension.

Assessment and Recommendations

Even though Martin's representations about his background and work experience do not match his current behavior, he is a dedicated, diligent, and reliable worker. He will continue in his present position (or some form of it) for as long as he desires to work for the company.

If Martin wants to advance in the company, there are requirements for reaching each new position in order to qualify for it. It is mandatory that he fulfill those prerequisites and stop avoiding them. He constrains his own opportunities with his reticence to face new and greater challenges. He also retards his growth with his refusal to accept responsibility for his acts.

Martin needs to realize that flirting is not a synonym for customer cordiality. He would do well to continue to offer a pleasant smile and attentive service. But outright flirting with the female customers is not necessary.

Although AB 1855 only requires training supervisorial staff on the issues of sexual harassment, it would be well for all personnel to receive some training so that they have some concept of where the line is and when they may be crossing it or inviting someone to do so. Again, a person with the previous work experience that Martin represents he has would appreciate the differences and be capable of accurately identifying the behavior, no matter where the source that gives rise to it.

He would do well to learn more about the names and attributes of products, correct spellings, prices, and proper display. He should be trained on all aspects of front counter service and become involved in delivering service in that area so that he becomes a completely well-rounded employee.

It would be wise to train Martin on how to handle hostility in the workplace whether it occurs between employees, employees and customers, between customers. It would also be helpful to train him on how to handle the scene when it appears there will be an attempted robbery and how to recognize a developing dangerous condition.

Martin's greatest shortcoming is communication skills. He needs training in how to have a conversation about misunderstandings rather than blame others for mistakes or allow problems to fester because of lack of communication. Still, communication skills is a broad term and only scratches at the surface of the root issue. Martin's skill in spoken English is poor and retards his progress in everything he endeavors to do. He should be supported in taking an English as a Second Language course so that he may master his vocabulary recall and fluidity of speech.