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How to Manage Stress, Deal With a Perpetually Late Employee, And More of Your Questions Answered

Remember that stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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How can I make my professional life less stressful? But don’t tell me to work less; that’s not going to happen.

OK, but maybe you can work smarter — and take a more benevolent view of stress. Reframe it as “happiness-neutral.” Sometimes stress is a cause of suffering, sometimes a sign of a challenge or importance, and sometimes it’s something that will make you stronger.

In her book, The Upside of Stress, the psychologist Kelly McGonigal refers to a 2011 study of 30,000 Americans that linked high stress to a 43 percent increased risk of death, but — get this — only among those who already believed that stress is bad for your health. In another study, she cites, hotel housekeepers grew physically healthier when encouraged to think of their hard work as good exercise; those who saw it as arduous labor didn’t.

Stress is typically caused by things that seem out of your control. Ironically, they are things you CAN control, if you’d just make a few psychological tweaks:

  • 1) Release the belief that you’re responsible for everyone and everything.
  • 2) Let go of perfectionism. There’s nothing perfect in the world. It’s an unnatural state and as Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz has written: “Good enough is almost always good enough.”
  • 3) Stop trying to do it all yourself. Delegate. Ask for and accept help from others.
  • 4) Create a list — that will give you a sense of control — but then ignore everything but the top five items. Focus on what’s important and the rest will take care of itself.
  • 5) Learn some breathing exercises. It doesn’t have to be transcendental meditation — but it could be. Deep breathing is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.
  • 6) Start every day with something you’re good at. That will set you up for a positive day.
  • 7.) Stop and do something nice for someone.
  • 8) Exercise.
  • 9) Finally, join a choir. Singing in a group is proven to be one of the best stress relievers around.
After more than 20 years of solid production, my best salesperson’s performance is falling. What can I do?

It could be she needs to update her selling style. The ways in which people want to be sold have changed, and salespeople who follow the old power-selling school of salesmanship won’t find consumers as responsive, especially the younger ones. Get her (and yourself) an update on state-of-the-art selling skills so that she sells smart and not so hard. That usually means asking more questions, listening more, and essentially letting the customer close the sale herself. Give real thought to bringing in a sales coach; implemented correctly, training will make your fading star feel valued and will restore some of the confidence she’s no doubt lost. (The improvement in sales should repay the cost pretty quickly.) You may also want to reconsider the metrics you’re using. Closing rates are good, but to ensure your whole business is looking more forward, track some other areas as well, like new contacts initiated with potential customers, how contacts are followed up, and the amount of face-to-face or phone-to-phone time your salespeople are putting in. There’s a fairly direct correlation between these factors and selling success.

I’ve been summoned to meet an IRS auditor. Any last-minute tips?

Accept that the fresh-faced inquisitor across the desk is the boss and show him the due respect. Don’t argue if you disagree with something. If the auditor wants to disallow a deduction, state once why you don’t agree. If he’s not swayed, hold your tongue. Antagonizing an auditor will only encourage him or her to search for other areas of potential tax liability. Remember that you can plead your case with several layers of people above your auditor, and ultimately all the way to tax court if you feel you’ve been wronged. Surprisingly, most IRS auditors aren’t tax experts. Most are fairly recent graduates whose major was in an unrelated field, so don’t feel intimidated, and don’t underestimate your own tax knowledge. At the same time, while it’s not bad to be congenial, this is not a social event. You’re there to discuss only the sections of your tax return in question. The more you talk about other areas or things that you’re doing, the more likely the auditor will probe into other items.

If an employee is consistently late for work, can I dock his pay? Are there legal ramifications I should be aware of?

From a legal standpoint, it typically depends whether he is a salaried or an hourly employee. If it’s the latter, he should be punching a clock, which will automatically deduct his time. If he is a salaried employee, you have to pay him, late or not, says Suzanne DeVries, president of Diamond Staffing Solutions. However, she adds that you should have the issue — and the consequences — covered in your employee manual. “If the employee’s tardiness is as constant as you say, you may need to make some tough and important decisions — such as ‘three strikes and you are out,’” DeVries says. “It is never a good idea to let any one employee get away with such behavior. It sets a very bad example for those who are always on time — and you are setting yourself up to be accused of favoritism.”

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Your Holiday Questions Answered, Including Security, Aged Inventory and Sales Presentation

Plus a tip for making shoppers feel comfortable in your “decompression zone.”

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What should I do to reinforce security measures at this time of year?

Here’s some advice from Jewelers UnBLOCKed:

  • Create obstacles. Use display cases and holiday décor to block thieves from running straight in and/or out of your store. All areas that contain valuable merchandise should be visible to both customers and staff. Avoid any blind spots.
  • Stay under the radar. If you’re planning a vacation, don’t advertise your absence; refrain from posting vacation pictures until after you return. Posting while traveling makes your store, employees and even your home susceptible to invasions, crimes and thefts.
  • Double and triple check seasonal employees. Even if they’re temporary, you need to ensure that all employees are trustworthy. Don’t forget to perform background and reference checks.
  • Limit the number of pieces that can be presented to a customer to between one and three pieces of jewelry or watches at a time, and post signage of this policy. If a customer complains, sales associates can point to the sign and mention its store policy. Deter potential thieves from trying to take off with a stockpile of jewels.
  • Keep store windows clear. A cluttered window blocks criminal activity from being seen outside.

We’re expecting to see a lot of old faces over the next few weeks. What should we do about aging inventory our customers may have seen before?

Stop fretting. Start polishing. “The majority of your customers don’t remember your stock,” says Dick Abbott, owner of the Edge POS software. “They may recognize a specific piece they have looked at previously, but the majority of it will look new to them, as long as it looks new.” Make sure each item is clean and sparkling and has a fresh ticket on it to adjust the retail to reflect today’s prices. Add a different chain to a pendant. Rearranging your cases makes everything “new” in the eyes of your customers. Identify the items you wish to clear and give your sales team a sense of ownership by brainstorming ways to clear old stock and then review your results and strategies every day.

What last-minute things can I do to sharpen my sales presentations?

Sales and display consultant Larry Johnson recommends enriching your vocabulary. There are adjectives that carry more emotion than the usual ones salespeople tend to use, he says, suggesting words like stunning, glowing, bold, brilliant, glistening, radiant, elegant, natural, fabulous, attention-grabbing, sparkle, romance, edgy, and timeless. “Upgrade your sales presentation to include these descriptive words that add impact. Start out today using one or two until you are more comfortable with adding more.”

How can I get shoppers thinking about buying as soon as they cross the threshold?

Pay attention to your store’s decompression zone, according to VEND, the global cloud-based POS and retail management provider. The decompression zone is the first few feet of your shop. Shoppers who are in this part of your store are prone to distractions, which is why most experts agree that retailers should keep the decompression zone simple and uncluttered. In addition, having greeters in your store makes people more aware of their surroundings and helps them focus.

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How to Be Safe at Company Parties, the Best Interview Question for a Prospective Hire, and More of Your Questions Answered

Plus how to avoid becoming a mediocre business.

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How do I lift my store out of the rut of mediocrity?

According to work by the Brigham Young business school on high-performing teams, peers manage the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to maintaining standards. But how to get to that almost mythical land of self-enforced high standards?

Joseph Grenny, a social scientist and author of Crucial Accountability, says there are four leadership practices that can help:

1. Start by showing the consequences of mediocrity to connect people with the experiences, feelings and impact of bad performance. Keep the issue alive by telling stories that illustrate work well done and the real human cost of shoddy work, such as lost diamonds, ruined weddings and upset customers.

2. Set clear goals and explain why they are important. “Use concrete measures to make poor performance painfully apparent,” says Grenny.

3. Establish peer accountability so that people feel comfortable challenging one another when they see mediocrity. Regular weekly reviews can provide opportunities for mutual feedback and establish peer-accountability as a norm, Grenny says. It’s key that your store becomes an environment where everyone feels entitled to challenge anyone if it is in the best interest of the business.

4. Be quick to defend the high standards. A chronic poor performer is a clear impediment to the goals you’ve set. How you handle this situation will let your team know whether your highest value is keeping the peace or pursuing performance.

“When you ask a group to step up to high performance, you are inviting them to a place of stress — one where they must stretch, where failure is possible, where interpersonal conflicts must be addressed,” says Grenny. “If you shrink from or delay in addressing this issue, you don’t just lose that person’s contribution — you send a message to everyone else about your values.”

I’m planning my company party, but one concern is that somebody might get drunk and have a car accident. Got any advice on protecting myself?

Concerns about liability for alcohol-related incidents, sexual harassment, and workers’ compensation claims have led many companies to forgo holiday galas entirely. You don’t have to. But if you’re really afraid, lawyer Anil Khosla, writing in Inc. Magazine, suggests the following steps to reduce your liability: “1. To distance the business from the party, make it an entirely social event, don’t invite clients or vendors, and make sure employees know that attendance is voluntary. 2. Plan accordingly. Hold your gathering off-site, if possible. That may shift some of the potential liability to the hotel, restaurant, or caterer. If you must have an on-site party, hire an independent caterer. Don’t permit anyone from the company to serve alcohol, and instruct bartenders to stop serving anyone who seems inebriated. Lawyers advise avoiding an open bar— or, at the very least, limiting it to the first hour. Also, close the bar at least one hour before the party ends. 3. Consider providing transportation to and from the event. Make sure that cabs will be available, and appoint someone to suggest cab rides home for people who have had a few too many.”

How do I tease out a prospective hire’s innate strengths during the interview process?

The indirect method is often best when it comes to getting at a prospect’s true strengths. Marcus Buckingham, a leader of the strengths-based school of business management, suggests asking this question: What was the best day at work you’ve had in the past three months? “Find out what the person was doing and why he or she enjoyed it so much,” he says, adding it’s key to keep in mind that a strength is not merely something someone is good at. “It might be something they aren’t good at yet. It might be just a predilection, something they find so intrinsically satisfying that they look forward to doing it again and again and getting better at it over time.” The theory is that the best businesses are those that fully leverage the strengths of their employees as opposed to trying to fix up their weaknesses.

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How to Promote Healthy Competition and More Of Your Questions Answered

It all depends on how you present it.

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How can I promote competition among staff without it turning my store into the setting for Lord Of The Flies?

The key to fostering healthy competition, according to new research done by a team at Harvard Business School, lies in how you communicate the competition. When employees feel excited, they’re more likely to come up with creative solutions and new ways to better serve customers. When they feel anxious or worried they might lose their job or be publicly humiliated in some way, they’re more likely to cut corners or sabotage one another. Leaders can generate excitement by highlighting the potential positive consequences of competition (such as the recognition and rewards that await outstanding performers) rather than creating anxiety by singling out and highlighting low performers (think of the steak knives scene in Glengarry Glen Ross).

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We want to lay off a sales associate, but we’ve never done it before. If we are to give them “a month’s pay,” does that mean their base pay, or do we factor in their average commission earnings as well?”

Suzanne Devries, president of Diamond Staffing Solutions, says that legally, you’re required to give them only the vacation, sick and personal days they have accrued, although she recommends that you base your decision on how valuable an asset this person has been to your organization, and how long they have been with you. “If it’s a long time and they have been loyal, you should definitely consider a certain amount of days per year. Second, make sure you have documentation that states why you are having layoffs.” She also advises you do an exit interview and have the person sign documentation stating that they understand why “they are part of a force reduction.” An important thing to keep in mind is how other staff will view this. They will want to know that they will be treated fairly even when times are tough.

I keep hearing contradictory advice: Set goals or don’t set them. What’s your take?

There are three main arguments against setting goals: One, that they can lead people to focus on the wrong things (by, for example, becoming too aggressive in chasing sales targets) or cut ethical corners; two, that they become demotivating when it becomes clear they can’t be reached; and three, that it’s healthier to live your life focused on the present. The secret to smart goal setting, then, is to do it in a way that addresses these problem areas. That means:

1. Set challenging goals, but don’t make a big deal of it if someone falls short.
2. Structure goals that focus on behaviors, so your people are learning and improving, rather than wildly chasing a financial goal.
3. Be specific. Setting vague goals can produce higher rates of success with motivated staff, but if your employees are normal human beings, being specific will prevent procrastination.
4. Make the first couple of milestones easy so that people can build momentum toward the major goal. Progress is a huge motivator.
5. And finally, don’t make goals a death march; have fun trying to accomplish them.

I’d like to hire a trainer, but I’m worried about the return on investment. How can I be sure it will be worth it?

To really get your money’s worth, you need to focus on two things: 1.  Hard skills. Overinvest in training that helps to increase ability, rather than motivation. Focus on small but vital aspects of your staff’s sales skills. It could be when to pause in a presentation, how many features to stress, or phone manner tips. Break tasks into discreet actions, practice within a low-risk environment and build in recovery strategies. 2. And this is just as important: Follow up. Bring in a trainer, but only if you yourself are willing to buy into their lessons and do ongoing training and reviews.

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