September 1, 2011

Your profile: No time off!        


There is a classic riddle that asks: What takes many years to build but only a few seconds to destroy? Answer: A reputation.

When we own our own businesses, as far as the public is concerned, we are always ‘on.’ I am not referring to always being available for work or for free advice. I am referencing how we are being judged.

Politicians and television evangelists have attempted for years to explain away misbehaviour as having occurred on their own time. That excuse does not fly with constituents or with parishioners. There is an expectation of behaviour for public persons, and whether you agree with the concept or not, it exists.

Here are two examples. There is a shop in our town that has a reputation for being the best in the business. I have used its services for years and they are indeed remarkable. This past winter, my family and I took in a concert at a venue that was serving alcohol. The table behind us was so drunk, so boorish, that I asked them to clean up their act. “Let us enjoy the show if you don’t want to,” were my words. One of the three causing trouble was an owner of that shop. No doubt, he can explain his behaviour as occurring away from the shop and therefore, no reflection upon his business. I don’t buy it. The “what happens at the concert stays at the concert” theory no longer holds water (or beer).

A friend of mine, who is the sales manager for a large hotel, did not accept the away from work line when she was faced with a similar situation. One of her staff members attended a golf tournament, got drunk, and made a fool of herself. The employee’s side of the story was that it was on her own time. Her boss’ side was that she was there, representing the company, that there were people from the trade in attendance, and that this was not the first report of alcohol-fueled behaviour. She was terminated.

I am very much aware that no matter where I am, no matter how removed from the workplace I think I am, I am responsible for how I am portrayed. One night I was in Safeway, getting a few groceries. It was late, I was tired and grumpy. The line was moving slowly because the cashier was not very good at her job. There was a very real part of me that wanted to shout out, “Hey lady, could you speed it up!” I know that everyone in that line would have concurred with my sentiment. But I also knew that at the end of her shift, her story would not be “some guy gave me a hard time, he was a real ass.” Rather it would be, “That guy from Lakeview Gardens is an ignorant jerk.” I chose to remain silent. Good choice.

My company’s public face
We no longer have that luxury of anonymity. Not with the internet, YouTube and Facebook. News now travels at the speed of light and what we do on holidays, thousands of miles from home, can be made public not long after it occurred. Gordon Campbell, premier of British Columbia, found that out the hard way. He was picked up for drunk driving in Hawaii and within a day, his half-sloshed, grinning mug shot was in the news. It was on the internet, it was in the newspapers, it was on television. It is a little more than difficult to claim, “It was a misunderstanding,” when your photo shows you as being the proverbial three sheets to the wind.

Rants by politicians and celebrities in airports, over not being treated as VIPs and being made to wait, are recorded on cell phones and downloaded before the ranter’s blood pressure has dropped to 120/80. It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. It is difficult to deny or to put your own spin on bad behaviour that has been caught on tape. Ask Mel Gibson.

From politicians and Hollywood celebrities, we can segue into our own trade. I was on the trade show floor at a major green industry conference. There were six of us gathered at one booth. Two of the group decided that it was appropriate to openly brag of their grand adventures on a trip into the U.S. According to these two, they had a great time with an abundance of women to entertain them. Need I write that both are married? As they regaled us with their tale, I glanced at the other three and all were uncomfortable. None of us were impressed, nor were we willing to revert to a 1950s attitude of ‘boys will be boys.’

What I fail to grasp is: If your behaviour is inappropriate by most people’s standards, why would you not keep it to yourself? Why would you openly brag? Do you not think that others will repeat the very words that you just spoke? Do you think that somehow your behaviour will not be scrutinized?

I often hear as an explanation, when a buyer complains of receiving a disorganized shipment from a supplier, “What do you expect? That company runs on booze.” Sadly, even in this day and age, there are companies that have reputations for allowing and encouraging excessive consumption of alcohol. And while I am not on the bandwagon, preaching abstinence, there is a line being crossed by some between enjoyment and out of control.

There is a printing company in my city that runs on booze. The boss is the worst of the bunch and when they are out in public, he runs an open bar tab for his employees. Things invariably get out of hand. I have asked to have my table moved far away from theirs when we have attended the same event, and I am not the only one. Again, do they not realize that there are many people who see their public persona and refuse to enter their place of business the next day? What they see as having a bit of fun when they are at an event is perceived by others as a reason to avoid having anything to do with them.

Can’t take them back
Booze set aside, there is something else that affects all of us in the workplace, and that is words. Words can encourage employees to improve their productivity, words can encourage customers to make purchases and words can have the opposite effect. Words can cause employees to quit or to reduce their loyalty to a company and words can cause a customer to leave a garden centre, vowing never to return. Words are very powerful and they should be chosen carefully.

All readers of this column will know at least one greenhouse or garden centre operator who continually chooses words without any consideration for the end result. They respond with an inappropriateness that leaves many others shaking their heads. These people exist across all trades and our green trades are not excluded. All of us hear stories from disgruntled customers of how they experienced an attitude that verged on being an adult temper tantrum at another store. Hopefully, those stories are never told with us as the central character.

How many times have I chosen the wrong words, only to wish within seconds to have those words back? Sometimes, my words were not the problem. It was my tone. I think many of us can relate to being children and having our mothers or aunties advising us, “Don’t take a tone with me, young man.” They were training us to be aware that it is not only what we say, but it is how we say it. When I have bitten my tongue in a difficult situation, and chose not to share my innermost feelings, I did not live to regret the silence. None of us, none I repeat, ever regret having said too little when we are upset or in an unpleasant mood.

In 1987, I had a regular customer with whom I got along quite well. She called me several times, wanting quotes on different ways of proceeding with her back yard. Had I to do it again, I would have told her, “I am swamped right now with it being May, but when it slows down, I will drop by and we will get your dream garden going.” That is what I should have said. Instead, I snapped, “I don’t have time to stop and deal with every ‘what if’ situation you imagine. It’s May and I am swamped!” Not surprisingly, we have not spoken since I uttered those insensitive words. It was a learning experience for me if there ever was one available.

We have learned that whenever we are out in public, what we say and do is being observed. We also know that what we say, can and will be repeated by others. We know that there is no longer privacy in today’s world. We know that the more we pay attention to what it is that we do and say, the better off we are. Choose your words and your behaviours carefully, and stay on the road to success.

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.