Over the years I’ve been in business, I’ve met a cross section of people who’ve either been part of a passing parade or have stayed put and worked with us for years. On the way back from our Melbourne office yesterday, I was looking at the diversity of people who surrounded me on the Virgin flight. Yes, I was in economy, where everyone was sitting quietly doing what passengers on planes do. No doubt each one had a story to tell, either as a boss or employee.
As my thoughts drifted while the plane seamlessly passed through cloud after cloud, various people, mostly from the early days of Switzer, started wandering through my mind. Strange things can happen at high altitudes!
First to appear was a wonderfully odd man who’d applied for a job as a graphic designer. As I said, this was a long time ago and my experience with doing interviews was in its infancy, though I haven’t really changed my style much, despite the fact that I’ve learned a lot about people.
To this day, I still ask people what their passion is because I firmly believe that if the work you do on a daily basis is your passion, then you’ve got it made. Most graphic designers are artistic types so on asking him this question, I thought this chap would say he loved music or art or welding metal into contortions. I was so off the mark here. Having already told us he was Polish, he stood proudly with hand on heart declaring that his passion and the love in his life was Poland. I felt moved at his nationalistic zeal but a little deafened when he belted out a full verse of his motherland’s anthem – in Polish. What a voice! Wiping the tears from his eyes on completion, he announced that this job was not for him and he was going home to sing for his country. I’m not joking, this actually happened and my colleague Jess and I were left wondering what we’d uncorked. While we didn’t give him the gong, he certainly didn’t score well on the potential employee front.
On another occasion, there was a candidate who’d applied for a sub editor’s role, and won the job! She was young and attractive but had an air of sadness to her. While only in the third month of her probationary period, she’d given her manager an avalanche of feedback about us – all of it negative. Now I treat feedback as the breakfast of champions and I’m open to hear the opinions of others about what we can do to lift our game or improve our business. But her manager was finding the constant negativity a little hard going and asked me if I’d have a chat with our relatively new staff member. Naturally I back our managers so I did this.
I explained my above view about feedback to Sally (her stage name, not her real name!) but gently said that there had been only negative feedback, which led me to ask her if she was happy working with us. She burst out crying. And she cried and cried and cried. Tissues were sought and offers of cups of tea made. I apologised saying that in no way did I mean to upset her but just wanted to see if she was happy. On using that word again, the floodgates opened and there was another torrential downpour. We were left floundering.
Then Dr Jekyll turned into Ms Hyde.
With her back totally straightened, she told me I had no right to ask her if she was happy and flew into a rage.
I called a halt to the meeting, caringly offering her time to regain her composure. She slowly packed up and left the office, not returning for two days.
In the meantime, an employee who’d been with us for some time, showed me an article written in one of those penny dreadful weekly/monthly magazines. The story focussed on contestants on a TV show, where the person who loses the most weight wins. And there was our girl, with ‘before and after’ shots of her, twice the size she was currently, weighing in at 110kg.
My ‘happy’ question had obviously tapped a nerve and while the kilos had been shed, whatever prompted the enormous weight gain in the first place hadn’t been dealt with.
I know that employers have a duty of care to their employees and at Switzer we take that duty seriously. But sometimes we need to spare a minute for the employer, who runs a business often with their house on the line, has constant cash flow concerns, debtors, creditors, revenue pressures, taxes to pay etc. Plus they often have a family in their care at home too.
Running a business isn’t for the faint-hearted. And if you care about people the way we do, you come across all sorts, shapes and sizes. And while you want to help them all, business owners can be so stretched. They say nothing can really prepare you for being a parent but the role of being not just a business owner but an owner with employees isn’t easy because you’re dealing with people. Sometimes there are bumps with the people you have on board with you and calmness is restored. But there can also be real turbulence and that can be so hard to handle.
And though most people are wonderful, life can put you into a variety of situations that you need to be fully equipped for in order to survive, not to mention thrive.
I’d like to say Sal’s time with us went on for years and there was a ‘happy’ ending (oh, not that word again!) but I’m in the content and financial services space and while I try, some people need continuous counselling beyond my skills. Try telling that to the ‘fair’ work judge!