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The Case of the Bad Break

Should the owner fire him or not?

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LEAH COHEN WAS proud of all that she and her team had accomplished since she took over Lake Forest Jewelers from her father about four years ago. Making it work through the pandemic had taught the Lake Forest team a few things about agility and innovative thinking — and it seemed the customers in their Midwest city very much appreciated their effort. Business over the past year had been the best in the store’s history.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

While she welcomed the post-pandemic zest for life that was fueling the increase in business — especially in their custom department — Leah was caught off guard back in March when the longest tenured and most productive of Lake Forest’s three jewelers decided that it was time to follow his heart, which was telling him to move across the country with his girlfriend.

Leah knew from experience that finding good salespeople was difficult. She didn’t know that finding good jewelers was nearly impossible. Even before the jeweler’s announcement, the increased workload in the shop had become tough to manage.

Being down one jeweler had delivery dates for repairs as well as custom work pushing back to unreasonable levels.

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It took over two months of trying everything from networking to online ads before she found Jeff Winton. He was young and just out of trade school, but like Leah, he had grown up in his father’s business, a small shop in a town downstate. Jeff learned the practical side of bench work by watching his dad and by working beside him whenever he could. He had just completed his second year of community college several months ago when his father decided to close his business and retire.

He suggested that Jeff get some formal training and put his talent to good use. He helped Jeff enroll in a highly regarded trade school program, and then the director of that program put Jeff in touch with Leah.

Jeff came highly recommended by the school’s team, and the other Lake Forest jewelers were impressed with the work he delivered during the bench test that was part of his interview process. After nearly two weeks in the shop, Leah thought Jeff was adjusting well to his first “real job,” and she was happy to see that the store’s backlog of jobs was starting to clear.

With the increase in downtown activity, Saturdays had become busier than ever at Lake Forest — and Jeff’s second Saturday on the job was no exception. In addition to working on his regular volume of repairs, he had been called out to talk with three custom bridal clients before noon. All three of the jewelers were stretched pretty thin that day, but Leah could see that the store was filled with people, sales were being made, and Lake Forest customers were leaving happy — a sure sign that all was well.

Around 3 o’clock that afternoon, one of the jewelers came out to tell Leah that Jeff hadn’t returned from his lunch break and had been gone for nearly two hours. She saw that he still had four jobs in his box for the day, including two that were due to customers that afternoon. Leah tried reaching Jeff, but her call went directly to voicemail and texts went unanswered. After talking with the other jewelers to ensure that they could get the jobs due to customers that day finished, she went back to trying to contact Jeff in between conversations with shoppers in the store. She was trying hard not to think the worst, but she genuinely feared for his safety.

Two hours later, just as the team was about to start closing up for the day, Jeff returned to the store. Relieved to see him, Leah asked if he was OK, then asked what had happened. Jeff rolled his eyes and told Leah that he was totally overwhelmed and had just needed a break — so he left.

Dumbfounded, Leah asked him if he had expressed his concerns to anyone in the store before leaving. Jeff said that he didn’t tell anyone because there was nothing to tell. It was no big deal. He just needed a few hours to himself. He then asked Leah what was in his box for Monday.

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Leah looked at him completely confused and didn’t know what to say. She was furious — what Jeff had done was a fireable offense, but the thought of having to call dozens of customers to tell them their jobs wouldn’t be done on time was almost as upsetting to Leah as the thought of having to find another jeweler.

The Big Questions

  • Should Leah go over Monday’s jobs with Jeff and let it go this one time?
  • If she does, is she sending the wrong message to the rest of her team?
  • Should she write Jeff up and tell him that if he walks out on his schedule again, he will be terminated, or should she just fire him on the spot and take her chances with finding another new jeweler?
Ellie T.
Chicago, IL

I think the owner should work with him and talk about her expectations. Ask him to tell a coworker or her that he is going outside to take a break, and that it would be great if he could limit his afternoon break to 20 minutes if he has already taken a lunch break (which should probably be 30-45 minutes).

Shaking off the overwhelmed feeling may make him fresh and sharp for the rest of the day.

A 30-day check-in to see how he likes the work might be helpful and give the owner a chance to give feedback as well. All the bench jewelers should definitely get up and stretch every few hours.

If the new employee continues to do a great job with both volume and quality and is meeting deadlines, but his afternoon breaks sometimes go longer, let it slide. Allowing him to be more entrepreneurial with his time management could bolster production quality. Everyone works differently.

Robert D.
Mendham, NJ

She should give him one more opportunity to do the work, letting him know that he must communicate with her in the future. If it happens again, he is let go on the spot. In my case, I let the person go and sat down and finished the work myself, on time. The store owner needs to be able to handle every inch of the store.

Jerry B.
Great Neck, NY

Evidently, this guy has something wrong in his head, especially with working in his father’s store. It might be the guy has anxiety problems in dealing with customers. Perhaps it’s time limitations or keep him off the counter? Better that than losing a good jeweler.

Albert D.
Fords, NJ

This is an easy one: Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! Him walking out is not right and can’t be acceptable but ask what really is going on. I think by talking this out, you can come up with a solution.

James O.
Fresno, CA

Write him up! Explain why the write up and that if he has stress issues that he should speak with his superior and work them out. At that point, keep him on very close watch, reduce his job count for each day, and after a couple of weeks, start adding more to his plate. Start hunting for another jeweler.

Gabi M.
Tewksbury, MA

Leah should make it clear what she expects from Jeff. Explain which jobs are rush and when they need to be done, no exceptions. I would work out a “three strikes” type of agreement with him. That being said, they should also have a conversation about mental health. If Jeff had walked out from puking, I’m assuming it would have been more excusable in Leah’s eye. If he had the chance for an extra break, he could’ve came back feeling calmed down, positive, and more productive. They should discuss break times and what to do when he feels overworked or overwhelmed, making sure that the scheduled jobs are done on time. Both Jeff and the workload seem worth it to give it another shot at making things work!

Jennifer P.
Alexandria, VA

Leah should give the young jeweler a written notice (that will also be included in his employment file) that this behavior is unacceptable. She should make clear the impact that this behavior caused for others, and that future incidents could result in employment termination.

In my store, we have a very small staff of three, and when any one team member is out, it can be a problem. I have taken steps to mitigate the impact. Leah might brainstorm possible mitigation steps such as 1. longer lead time on repairs, 2. adding a part-time bench jeweler to the team and cutting the young jeweler to part-time, and 3. finding an outside source for repairs to supplement their in-house staff.

Michael F.
Kent, OH

For me, he just burned his one major second chance. That being said … if you’re in this industry, no matter how many or which hats your wear, you’ve felt burned out. You’ve had days where you’re a cinder husk just trying to breathe and keep your coal lit to remember the joy of the fire. I would take him aside, one on one, and talk it out. Make it clear from every angle how his decision to just walk left everyone in the lurch, concerned, uncertain, and messy. If he can’t communicate with his team, he’s not on the team, plain and simple. This is your chance to prove you’re on the team. Next time, leave a note that you’re quitting because you’ll be let go.

Mary Jo G.
Oconomowoc, WI

Take a couple of minutes and put your human hat back on. Several times it is stated this is his first, outside of family, job. Talk to him. Let him know you understand how crazy things can get, especially on a Saturday. I do not pull my bench people off their benches to deal with customers; it breaks their rhythm and their concentration. The customer at the counter is not more important than the customer on the bench. My team and my company are most important to me, and jobs get done when they get done, and my customers are happy to wait because they know it will be perfect. My youngest bench person only works 32 hours a week, and rarely on a Saturday, but when he is at his bench, his work is meticulous. When I read the story, I heard, “I have a baby unicorn who ate the roses in the garden, and now the customers who never knew I had roses might be upset. Should I shoot the unicorn?”

Kathy J.
Greensboro, NC

Certainly in the interview process, procedures were discussed. No employee should think it is acceptable to just walk off from your job with no word with your manager/supervisor! Since the workload was so heavy and he was needed, a very serious warning should be given with consequences to him. A clear understanding that this type of behavior will not be tolerated ever again! A second chance may be good, since this is his first “real” job and the workload was more than he thought it was going to be. But never again!

Marcus M.
Midland, TX

I think Leah should let this one go with a warning. But she definitely needs to sit down with him and tell him that what he did isn’t acceptable and to let her know the next time he gets overwhelmed and needs a break. I would think any reasonable person could understand that sometimes people just need a moment to themselves. Especially seeing that Jeff is a young talented jeweler who seems to be carrying a heavy workload. I don’t agree with him leaving and not responding to the phone calls, but to me … this is not a fireable offense.

Lisa S.
Los Angeles, CA

Normally, if an employee is with me for more than a year and out of the blue starts exhibiting questionable behavior, I’d say it’s time for a “get well plan” — basically a warning with some mentoring on how to improve. Having said that, if an employee is in their 90-day “probationary” period, they come to the new job with all the credibility possible and it’s only theirs to lose. One would assume that new employees are on their BEST behavior, not their worst. It’s a sign of things to come, in my opinion.

In this specific case, I say it’s grounds for immediate dismissal, to model the way for other employees.

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Ben A.
Bozeman, MT

Write him up. That’s once!

Paula H.
Concord, NH

Monday should be a meeting day first thing in the morning. The goldsmiths should be brought together to talk about what Jeff did and what he left his coworkers to do by the end of the business day. I would explain that the responsibility that the goldsmiths have to complete work in a timely fashion is what keeps everyone employed. I would praise the goldsmiths that completed Jeff’s work while he was out for the afternoon. With that said, I would tell Jeff the door is always open if you feel overwhelmed or if there are any concerns, but you cannot have another disappearing act again and be unreachable by phone. A team works together and will help each other out — however, you are not a team player if you just walk out on the team. Job saved this time, but Jeff would be on warning with me.

Ralph H.
Connersville, IN

A lot depends on the quality and commitment of the goldsmithing staff. The decision would have been to terminate if he made “Mrs. Gottrocks” mad and lost her as a customer. I’d still lean that way, since he obviously is clueless as to the importance of his position. Ask him why he thought this was acceptable behavior, and if he is not forthcoming and willing to commit sincerely to the job, let him go. At most, I’d say, “You’re on probation as of now; one more incident like this and you’re terminated.” You have to spend too much time on management as it is to worry about baby-sitting someone who doesn’t care.

David B.
Calgary, AB

Before anyone goes off on the millennial weird work habits, I would cut the guy some slack. Not all of us handle pressure in the same way. Dealing with pressure can cause mental stress, and as an owner, you need to handle that. If he took the afternoon off needing to go for chemotherapy, it would be easy to understand. Often mental illness, which covers stress, is poorly understood or handled. It isn’t easy! Often frustrating.

How we as owners take in jobs and often put stress on ourselves by trying to meet crazy customer deadlines is a point of stress. Nobody wants to lose the big diamond sale due to a rush.

Work with the guy. Don’t give him ultimatums or write him up. Yet! Ask how you can avoid this in the future. Tell him how important he is and give him some coaching. If it keeps happening, then you have to take action to find another person.

Before you get to that stage, a lot of tequila may help.

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If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. jewelry store, you’re invited to join the INSTORE Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting the jewelry industry. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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