The Fashion Gas Mask

Oops... the picture is missing!After a couple years in retail, I thought I had seen it all.  Apparently, I was wrong.

One of my associates in the Fashion Department suddenly and inexplicably developed a sensitivity to scents.  I have allergies—I get it; however, instead of getting a doctor’s note detailing her condition and the required accommodations, the employee decided to start wearing a mask to work.  No, not a surgical/SARS precautionary-type mask, but a half-face, dual-cartridge gas mask!

Not surprisingly, the response from customers was less than pleasant.  On one occasion, several girls were seen posing in front of the associate and taking pictures (undoubtedly, to post online).  On another, a customer queried management as to whether the store should be evacuated due to a toxic substance which necessitated the staff wearing gas masks.

Despite my insistence that she provide medical evidence of her need to wear the mask prior to working on the sales floor, the associate ignored my requests and continued to show up for her shifts wearing the mask.

After telling her that she wouldn’t be allowed to work until she provided medical documentation, the associate, visibly upset but hard to understand with her Darth Vader-like mask voice, admitted the following between wheezes, sobs, and more wheezes: while her doctor was sending her for tests, he did not support the use of the mask (wheeze, sob, wheeze).

I explained that in the absence of medical or religious reasons, we couldn’t authorize her violation of the company dress code in such a manner and would require her to remove the mask.

In response, the associate chose to publicize her discontent with the company on Facebook (and basically, sign her own pink slip), alleging that we were discriminating against her and infringing upon her human rights!

Was Darth Vader actually human?


Methods of Recourse in Ontario

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Knowing where to turn in challenging employment situations is critical

It’s unfortunate that more people don’t know their rights under the law, especially when it comes to workplace situations.

Typically what happens when there is an issue in the workplace is that an employee goes to his or her supervisor and makes a complaint.  In the absence of a union or proactive HR department, the complaint often falls on deaf ears because, more often than not, managers and payroll people aren’t familiar enough with pertinent employment legislation.  Having been in this situation before, I know firsthand how frustrating it can be when no one seems to care that your vacation pay wasn’t calculated properly or that you weren’t paid the overtime that you were entitled to for working on a holiday or, worse yet, that you were injured on the job.  So what methods do you have for recourse?

Well, first of all, if you belong to a union, you should definitely start by speaking to your union representative.  In the absence of a union, you have several options, depending on the nature of your complaint.

Ministry of Labour (MOL) – If you have a complaint related to holiday pay, overtime pay, minimum wage, parental leave, or anything else covered by the Employment Standards Act (ESA), the MOL is the place to go.  Generally, this is the quickest way to resolve the issue as the MOL will contact your employer on your behalf and require the company to respond to the allegations within a specific timeframe.  However, an ESA complaint can cause animosity between you and your employer if you continue to be employed.  As such, most ESA complaints are filed by ex-employees.

Of interest is the fact that the MOL publishes a list of Ontario companies that have been notified of their ESA violations and have yet to make the appropriate amends, and so have been fined.  http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/enforcement/archive.php

Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario – This is the place to go if you have a human rights complaint and feel that you have been discriminated against, or harassed, based on any of the prohibited grounds for discrimination named in the Human Rights Code.  A word of caution here—this can be a very time consuming route, and you cannot concurrently seek retribution via this route and the ESA as the Tribunal has been known to dismiss complaints that are subject to another proceeding.  Decisions of the Human Rights Tribunal are also available online. http://www.canlii.org/en/on/onhrt/

Office of the Worker Advisor (OWA) – Non-unionized employees seeking assistance with workplace injuries and other Workplace Safety and Insurance Board WSIB matters can access free advice and representation from the OWA.  In addition, as of April of this year, the OWA provides support to non-unionized workers who have been threatened or punished by their employers for following workplace health and safety laws or trying to enforce them.

Talk to a professional – HR professionals, paralegals, and lawyers may all be able to offer assistance if you find yourself in a tough employment situation.  As opposed to the options above, engaging a professional will likely involve a cost, either by way of a retainer up front or a portion of the monetary amount recovered.  Ensure that you ask lots of questions and are completely comfortable with the terms of service before hiring an HR professional, paralegal, or lawyer.


HR Horrors

Uh oh... where'd the picture go?So just for the record, it’s not just retail managers that can be incompetent and oblivious to appropriate workplace behaviour; unfortunately, questionable behaviour can occur in any workplace and at any level in the organization.  Prior to working in retail, I worked in a variety of other industries, including construction, tool and mold and automotive manufacturing.  However, as I was very junior in my career, I tolerated behaviour from senior managers and executives that I wouldn’t dream of putting up with now.

For example, on my first day on the job at the construction company, which was my first real job after graduating from university, my boss took me out for lunch with the crew.  I watched in astonishment as the three site foremen each downed several beers with their lunch.  Wide eyed and safety conscious, I questioned my boss on the way back to the site, and he assured me that this was typical behaviour and nothing to concern myself with.  Fantastic.

This is the same company where I became familiar with the practice of greasing the plant security guards with sports tickets, company swag and bottles of booze; selling old computers out of the back of the shop; tradesmen helping themselves to construction equipment and supplies; as well as the prevalence of extra marital affairs.  What an educational first job!

Following this, I did a brief stint working directly for a tyrant of an owner of a tool and mold company who routinely made fun of our gay financial controller and ruled by intimidation.  The safety practices at the plant were archaic, and the owner wanted no part of rectifying the issues until he was forced to in response to 28 orders from the Ministry of Labour.

The automotive company wasn’t much better.  The plant manager was an insatiable flirt and thought he could say whatever he wanted in my presence, and because I was in HR, I had to keep it confidential.  This included requesting that I sit on his lap, draping himself across my desk while making sexually suggestive comments, and threatening to pull a female co-worker’s pubic hair—not to mention his constant belittling of anyone foreign who spoke with an accent and his unauthorized personal use of company vehicles.

To top it all off, I’m embarrassed to say that I even witnessed pretty inappropriate behaviour from the HR managers at this company.  For example, one suggested (in writing) that an appropriate way to handle an issue with a co-worker was to “kick her ass.”  Another was involved in a pyramid-type sales scheme selling pre-paid legal services, unbeknownst to the company.  He insisted that every employee attend a mandatory session with one of his colleagues with the intention of scamming them,  I mean, selling them pre-paid legal services.  Only after all the employees had attended the sessions did I become aware that my manager was receiving a direct financial kick back from every sale that was made.  Brutal!


HR Manager Mom

Sometimes I just want to fire everyone… including my family!

Sometimes I feel like an HR manager at home, except that unlike work, I can’t fire the people who live in my house with me—at least not easily. I’d like to sometimes, believe me. For example, this evening, I walked into a war zone when I entered my house after work. My two boys, ages 10 and 13, are swearing and screaming at each other. While I know they have foul mouths, I have zero tolerance for this sort of behaviour when the windows are open. (The neighbours think we’re obnoxious enough already.) My soon to be 15-year-old daughter is buried in her cell phone and computer, with the TV blaring loudly in the background.

So I decide to try to break up the chaos by suggesting that we take the dogs for a walk at the dog park. I get groans from two kids, and the middle one, who has a huge homework project due the next day, happily volunteers to accompany me. I insist that everyone should come … it’ll be fun … come on, spend some time with your mother (not to mention that the dogs are not very well-trained, and I really do need some assistance bringing the two of them to the dog park). So off we go. When we get there, the kids promptly get out of the car and leave me to wrestle the dogs out of their seatbelts, onto their leashes, and through the dog park gate. No sooner do I get them through the gate than they both start barking wildly at all the other dogs in the park. The kids immediately plop themselves on a park bench and don’t come to my aid at all.

I am annoyed.

It doesn’t help that my male dog barks at every man who walks by, my female dog chases and barks at almost every dog that we encounter, and, oh look, my two sons are 25 feet off the ground, up a tree. After three times around the park with the dogs, I decide to call it a day.

So back I go to wrestling the dogs onto their leashes, out through the gates, and buckled into the backseat of the car. The kids are starting to pile in, arguing and yelling at the dogs and each other, when I promptly invite them to vacate the vehicle.

Get out! They look at me in astonishment. Get out of my car!

So they do. The walk back to our house is 20 minutes maximum; the drive back takes three. That gives me ample time to water my garden, feed the dogs dinner, and reset the code on the garage door keypad, preventing them from getting into the house if or when they decide to come home.


The Cosmetics Hand Job

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Of all the things to catch on video…

Working in a retail environment, one must always be cognizant of the omnipresent closed circuit television system and voyeuristic loss prevention personnel.   Part of my duties as an HR manager of a big box store was to review footage in connection with internal complaints or investigations.  This proved very useful for catching employees taking extra-long breaks and using their cell phones on the sales floor, and establishing cause in accident and injury situations.  It also played out like an episode of candid camera when it came to seeing customers stuffing packages of steak down their pants, switching their used shoes for new ones from the shelf, or relieving themselves in a rack of clothing.  It was interesting to say the least.

On one occasion, I was summoned to the tiny security office at the front of the store to review a video of an on-duty female cosmetics employee (in uniform) manually pleasuring an off-duty male backroom employee.  It would have been pretty inappropriate if the incident had merely been witnessed, but the fact that it had been caught on video and viewed by a handful of loss prevention and management personnel before I caught wind of it brought it to a whole new level of outrageousness!

I, of course, had the unpleasant task of questioning each of the individuals involved, hoping they would fess up without too much prodding or embarrassment.  Human nature being what it is, both vehemently denied any wrongdoing—until I produced a copy of the incident on DVD and indicated that I would really prefer not to have to watch it again in their presence.

Both individuals were well on their way down the path of progressive discipline prior to this incident, so needless to say, one was terminated and the other suspended.  Boy, I’m glad I’m not in retail anymore!


Defending HR

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“So what does your HR manager really DO, anyway?”

In front of a meeting of twelve or so store managers, the district manager (picture Elmer Fudd) asks my boss about me: “So what does your HR manager really DO, anyway?”

My boss, a taller, rounder version of Gary Coleman, replies, “Ummm … ummm …” and not being able to come up with a reasonable response, says “I’m skating, aren’t I?”

Jerk.

How many times did I come in on my day off because you insisted that I NEEDED to be there?

How many times did I come in on the midnight shift and work the whole shift while you blew it off?

How many times did I cover for you when you were hiding from randoms that you’d slept with?

How many times did I bite my tongue when you insulted anyone and everyone?

How many times did I politely smile at your girlfriend when I knew full well that you were having sex with a prostitute and numerous other girls behind her back?

How many times did I write your reports and prepare your presentations because you are essentially illiterate?

How many times did I write all the management performance reviews (including MY OWN performance review) because you couldn’t be bothered?

How many times did I put up with your constant belittling, your abusive and degrading language, and your utter disrespect for women?

How many times did I try to do damage control for the path of destruction you left behind you?

And after all that… you can’t even defend me or my position to your boss! You coward.

It makes me glad that I take really good notes and keep all my e-mails and text messages.  :)


The Basic Beliefs

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My previous employer promotes the company’s three core values:

Service to the Customers – aka bend over backwards and give customers anything they want because if they call the district office to complain, the district manager will give them a $100 gift card and you’ll get coached (written up)

Strive for Excellence – aka working insane hours, sacrificing time with your family, and endangering your own health and safety, only to be told that you’re a “loser!” by the district manager

Respect for the Individual – aka you had better be at the beck and call of anyone who has a penis and the title “Manager” on his badge

—–

While numerous books have been written about this company, few accounts have been told from an insider’s perspective, and even fewer from a female or a Canadian perspective.  We hear about the allegations of child labour and sexism in the United States but little of the blatant disregard for employment legislation, overt ageism, misogynistic practices, and tolerance of physical assault that permeate the Canadian division of this company.

Having worked as a manager in the only store in Ontario to ever certify a union, I am in a unique position to have seen HR horrors that wouldn’t occur in your worst nightmares.  From feces in fashion to hand jobs in cosmetics, nothing shocks me anymore.

Perhaps it’s because the company relies on the fact that marginalized associates don’t have the knowledge to pursue legal action against the company for their egregious behaviour or the resources to dedicate to publicizing the company’s atrocities.  In fact, I once had a regional HR manager tell me that the company would be in big trouble if the associates were more knowledgeable of employment law.  If that’s not an admission of guilt, I don’t know what is!


The Business of Law

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Lawyers might be wise to take a lesson from business people

The last time I had to get a lawyer I was thoroughly disappointed with the total lack of communication I received. No one discussed fees or what kind of payment arrangements the firm used with me.  In fact, it wasn’t until I asked outright eight months later, that I finally got the answers.  As I hadn’t been asked for a retainer up front, their terms were 30 percent of the amount recovered plus disbursements—disbursements being payable regardless of the outcome.  Okay, I thought, I can deal with that.  I did, however, suggest to the firm’s representatives that perhaps payment arrangements should be something that their office discusses with clients at the onset of representation. I don’t think it was received very well.

So I, in my ignorance, assumed that disbursements would be taken out of the amount recovered and that I wouldn’t be billed for them, seeing as eight months had elapsed and no one had ever mentioned anything about payment.  Apparently I was wrong.  Fourteen months after initially meeting with the lawyer, I received my first bill for disbursements in the amount of $1155.  Holy crap, are you kidding me! Facsimiles: $13; photocopies: $57; transaction levy surcharge: $50; serving documents: $218, and on, and on.

I was astounded.  I realize that I’m not a lawyer—and believe me, I regret not going into law school after my first undergrad degree, although, on second thoughts, at this stage of the game, it makes absolutely no financial sense for me to take four years off work to pursue a law degree only to start out as a new lawyer earning less than half of what I earn now (see, the future value calculations I hated so much did come in handy)—and that I need the expertise, but really, how much expertise is involved in sending faxes, making photocopies, or serving documents! From a business perspective, how does this even make sense?

Instead of taking my usual defensive stance and writing a letter expressing my displeasure, I opted to take a couple of deep breaths and wait a little while before crafting my response.  A month passed (okay, so I waited more than a little while), and I received a reminder notice from the firm; however, this time the bill was for $730.  At this point I was spitting mad.

Seriously?  It takes eight months for you to tell me what my fees are going to be and another six months for you to bill me, and then you send me two separate bills for TWO DIFFERENT AMOUNTS! What kind of disorganized, unprofessional racket are you running over there? Wouldn’t a payment agreement up front be appropriate?  How about monthly billing from the get-go so that clients aren’t shocked a year into the process by a bill they can’t afford.  Or maybe a little communication?  Or a billing policy on the firm’s website?

I think it’s completely ridiculous that individuals who obviously feel they’ve been wronged in the first place, which is why they seek out a lawyer, are left to guess what their costs are going to be and then slammed with outrageous charges for things like photocopies, which, the last time I checked, can be made at most retail stores for 10 cents a page.


Cogeco Cable Complaint

Cogeco customer service leaves a lot to be desired.

I am notorious for my letter writing campaigns.  When I feel that I have been wronged, or someone has done something especially heinous, I like to point it out.  Typically, I write as many letters as is necessary to get a response that is to my satisfaction.  My determination has paid off too.  I’ve gotten discounts on vehicle purchases and repairs, expedited the processing of my passport, convinced Revenue Canada that I didn’t owe them back taxes, and even landed on the front page of the newspaper.

Here is a letter I found the other day that demonstrates the importance of good record keeping as well as diligence in follow-up.

April 22, 2010

I am writing to you to voice my concern about an ongoing issue I have had with your company.

Not only have my repeated phone requests for the resolution of my issue been ignored, but I have not received a response to the written request that I sent to you on April 5, 2010 (text below).

I am FLOORED at how haphazardly you treat customers, with total disregard for their satisfaction. 

From April 5, 2010 correspondence:

Last summer, after a lengthy (35 minute) conversation with your agent Peter on July 16, 2009, I cancelled my account with you.  At that time, I was told that if I returned the receiver, I would be given a credit on my account.  I did so, yet never received reimbursement for said credit.

When I called to inquire about this on January 23, 2010, I was told that I had a $113 credit on my account but that you hadn’t sent it to me because you weren’t sure if my address was still the same.  I confirmed that it was and asked that you send it out immediately.

I called again February 19, 2010 and, for whatever reason, the refund cheque still had not been processed, so again I requested that it be sent.  I was assured that it would go out with the next cheque run on February 23, 2010, and that I would have it by the second week of March.

To date I still have not received the refund and am wondering what it is that I have to do to get it.  I assume that when you do finally send it to me, you will be crediting me interest on it as well, seeing as you have owed it to me since last summer.  As you charge 24 percent interest per annum, I would expect that you would be paying that back to me as well.

I would appreciate it if you would send me this reimbursement forthwith.

At this time I have no other choice but to report your organization to the Better Business Bureau in hopes of some resolution.  Failing that, I will be pursuing legal action.

* I did follow this letter with a BBB complaint and miraculously received a cheque from Cogeco within a week. Imagine that!


Leaving Retail Hell

It didn’t take me long to realize what a nightmare I’d entered into after I got over the blinding propaganda of the three basic beliefs.  I wanted to believe that I had made a good choice in leaving the suffering automotive industry in favour of career advancement by joining the world’s largest retailer; I wanted to believe that I could make a difference.  However, the honeymoon was over fast, and I was dumped into a whirlwind of a superstore remodelling, a mass exodus of management personnel, and the most underappreciated group of associates I had ever encountered.

To say it was a challenge would be an understatement.  It was more like a battle, fought among aisles of housewares and fashion, groceries and paper goods.  In retrospect, I don’t know how I lasted as long as I did—two years, six months, and eleven days.  I guess it was necessity.  I’m a divorced mother of three and needed a job in order to put food on the table, not unlike many of the poor, uneducated workers that the company employs.  My situation is a little different though.  Despite the floundering economy, I was finally able to find alternative employment and escape the stranglehold that the company had on me.  Many others are not as fortunate.

Believe me, I would have left sooner if I could have possibly managed it.  There were days when I felt like I would die and days when I seriously contemplated suicide—or homicide.   I can’t count the number of times I left the store in tears or so angry that I could scream.  It was by far the most frustrating, degrading, and demoralizing experience of my life.

The day that I left was totally empowering.  In hindsight, it sounds a bit ridiculous, but it’s true.  When managers give their notice, the store manager typically requests that they don’t tell anyone until a day or two before their notice period ends to ensure that they continue to work diligently until the end and to reduce the disruption to their associates.  Unfortunately, this often results in managers being unable to say proper good-byes to their associates as they are ushered quietly out of the building.  I, on the other hand, wanted to be no part of this type of departure; I wanted to be candid about my departure and to be afforded the opportunity to address the associates that I had worked alongside for the previous couple years.

So, in perhaps a somewhat vindictive manner, I chose to announce my departure at a morning meeting in front of all the associates and managers in the store that day.  Mouths dropped agape as I announced that while I had enjoyed working with many of the individuals in the organization, the time had come for me to part ways with the organization.  I wished them all well and handed my formal resignation letter to my store manager, at the same time sending an e-mail containing the same message to the district people manager and the regional people manager.

Not surprisingly, I was invited into the store manager’s office (the one that I had spent hours painstakingly painting for him a few months earlier) a short time later.  He indicated to me that while I had given two weeks’ notice of my intention to resign, I was being invited to leave the premises immediately.  I indicated that I would be more than happy to do so and politely reminded him of something that he had preached to all of us often: that people leave companies because of the leadership.  I told him that, in this case, the reason I was leaving was precisely that—his lack of leadership ability.  The food coordinator, a gentleman who had been called into the office to witness the discourse, nearly choked as he tried to stifle a burst of laughter.  And, with that, I very happily left the building.


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