Wi14 Education: Dealing With Difficult People

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The goal of the education session “Dealing With Difficult People” at Winter Institute 14 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last month, was to help bookstore owners and employees learn how to empower themselves to end uncomfortable situations, including harassment, with professionalism and respect.

Booksellers Lissa Muscatine, Alena Jones, and Rachel Watkins and moderator Meg Smith
Booksellers Lissa Muscatine, Alena Jones, and Rachel Watkins and moderator Meg Smith

Among other things, panelists at the Thursday, January 24, session discussed tips for identifying and navigating these distressing situations, as well as suggestions for talking points booksellers can rely on while under duress. Booksellers heard discussions among panelists on prioritizing personal safety; tips for changing the power dynamic in a situation; tips for extricating yourself from uncomfortable circumstances in a professional way; and ideas for how to ask for help when needed.

By difficult people, said ABA Membership and Marketing Officer Meg Smith, who moderated the session, “I don’t mean your pesky neighbor next door who refuses to turn down the stereo. We’re talking about difficult people in the context of the bookstore. We hope to address the situations that are uncomfortable and to help you resolve them in a professional and safe manner.”

The panelists were Rachel Watkins, director of operations at Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia; Alena Jones, inventory manager at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago, Illinois; and Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. Each panelist discussed a different type of social or professional “difficulty” that can be encountered at a bookstore, with Watkins starting off by covering awkward interpersonal situations that can arise among staff.

“Most of my difficult conversations are from a human resources standpoint, and we don’t outsource our HR, although a lot of people do. If you do, I strongly advise you have somebody there who is approachable. Oftentimes, owners and founders aren’t approachable, even though it dumbfounds them [when people don’t think so],” said Watkins. “I do try to coach my staff, but they’re also learning to ask for what they want. They will come to me when they are not happy about management and complain, and I’ve learned that I have to coach them and say, ‘I need you to e-mail this person and be direct.’”

Watkins said she often has to act as the umpire in these situations since Avid is a small store with only 18 staff members at two locations who all work closely together. The main thing, she said, is having someone whom staff can tell things to in confidence, whether or not they need to take any other step beyond unburdening themselves.

When it comes to management having to deliver bad news or an awkward criticism of an employee, Watkins suggested that managers always use the “sandwich” technique: “You sandwich it with a positive, a negative, and a positive. [Our staff has actually] said, please talk to us that way.”

“Corrections, much like with children, are best done in real time if you can do it,” added Watkins. “If you can take someone off the floor and say, ‘Hey, I noticed X, can you please do it this way?’ That’s the best way to do it; a lot of times you can’t do that as they may be opening alone, so we’ll just make a note. Often, I will wait and see if it happens more than once. I’m not going to jump on them immediately.”

Watkins also documents important details related to each individual staff member using Basecamp, a project management and team communication software, such as whether a staff member forgot to close correctly, or if it seemed that an employee was having a rough day.

“We have learned to document even the weirdest things, like when people just seem to be off their game,” said Watkins. “We have actually tracked some mental health issues that staff didn’t even know they were having.”

For her part, Jones has worked for two years at Seminary Co-op, and since then, has helped create a training document called “Tips for Addressing Difficult Customer Situations” to detail processes, strategies, and procedures staff members can use to end uncomfortable situations with customers who spark feelings of discomfort or lack of safety, all while still exhibiting professionalism and respect.

Just as in any workplace that focuses on customer service, Jones said, stories about specific customers at Seminary Co-op whose words or behavior make certain staff uneasy have always been circulated in whispered conversations, usually among female staff. In these circumstances, staffers support each other by taking over with a customer when necessary, but not every staff member has the same experiences. At Seminary Co-op, managers created the document to use as part of an annual presentation focused on raising awareness of such behavior among booksellers who have not experienced it firsthand.

“This is about personal boundaries, and everyone has really different personal boundaries,” said Jones. “What is uncomfortable for one person might not be uncomfortable for another, so I wanted to help staff to find their own personal boundaries and feel comfortable expressing them and know who can pick up the conversation if they want to leave.”

The content of the document that accompanies the training session was gathered from many conversations, both with the Seminary Co-op’s own Bookseller Advisory Committee (BAC) and one-on-one with booksellers. It includes lines of dialogue that employees can rely on in specific situations that make them uncomfortable; the most common of these are being cornered, being touched (in extreme circumstances), or conversations about books that get too personal too quickly.

The training itself was rolled out with two other training elements — a security module and a shoplifting module — but harassment, Jones said, was the issue that had seemed to be bothering staff the most. Managers were trained on these modules so they could run nine- to 10-person groups for 90 minutes to two hours in cycles of three; they plan to offer another presentation either annually or every six months, if necessary. In training, Jones said most of the excuses staffers are taught to deliver to difficult customers come back to bookselling, like saying the boss needs them downstairs. One solution used at Seminary Co-op involved a code word, “Earl”; a staff member pages “Earl needed in room 1” to alert other staff if they feel cornered or they need another person in the room with them.

“The core question became, if we are in an industry that values customer service above almost all else, when is it ok for staff (myself included) to stop and say I am no longer providing customer service to this person, but I am also not failing at my job? When is it ok for me to step away?” said Jones. “It was clear we needed to be open about it and we needed protocol; we needed to let staff know when it was ok to step away and how to do so professionally, safely, and also how to alert staff that this type of thing goes on, because not everyone was subjected to it. If we get staff on board, they see that if this happens to some employees, then you can be a resource for colleagues.”

At Politics and Prose, political harassment has, in recent years, become one of the most common forms of difficulty to be found, said Muscatine: “As a fairly large bookstore in the nation’s capital in 2019, it probably makes us more of a target, but no matter where you are geographically and no matter your size, you should think about the other types of attacks (for lack of a better word) or hostile activities toward a bookstore that can take place, given the incredible toxicity of politics today and the sort of tribalism and division that we all are unfortunately familiar with now.”

Right before the 2016 election, nearby D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong experienced trolling by right-wing extremists related to e-mails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, released by WikiLeaks, in which he was trying to organize a fundraiser with the owner of the pizza place.

“This was taken by right-wing trolls on social media and in some of these darker corners of the web and turned into conspiracy theory that this entrepreneur was running a pedophile ring in the basement of the pizza place,” said Muscatine. “This started before the election, and then after the election, it migrated to various other establishments on the block — including us.”

After the election, just for being in the vicinity of Comet Ping Pong, which was experiencing an incredible level of harassment, Politics & Prose began receiving 50 to 60 harassing phone calls an hour, all day, every day.

“Every single minute, practically, our staff was dealing with the phone calls,” said Muscatine. “At first our staff members were trying to be good employees, answering the phone in the usual way, ‘May I help you?’ And then they would hear some horrible vitriol about how they were involved with the child pedophile ring.”

In the midst of this harassment, Muscatine and her husband, Politics & Prose co-owner Bradley Graham, alerted the authorities of the issue and contacted Twitter and Facebook about inflammatory comments being posted. Then, after the election, on Sunday, December 4, 2016, in the middle of an event the store was having with several hundred people, Edgar Maddison Welch of North Carolina walked into Comet Ping Pong with a shotgun looking for the captive children and fired a shot. After the event, which became a major news sensation, Welch was arrested, tried, and convicted.

Muscatine said conspiracists’ phone calls still crop up sometimes, but they have trained staff to take down the caller ID and report it immediately to the police. Since this happened, she said, the entire incident has forced her and Graham to think about staff and customer safety in ways they never anticipated.

“You get the rogue person who is nutty or says something stupid, but this posed a whole new level of serious threat,” Muscatine said. “The conspiracy theorizing is very uncomfortable to be on the other end of, so we had to develop some very serious security measures for employees that can be employed in emergencies, and we’ve had very special training for staff for these types of situations. We all are now much more hyperaware and vigilant when people seem to be at events for bad reasons. Obviously, it’s hard to know.”