Peter Montreuil – How May I Help You?

This week’s column is going to be dedicated to some unsung heroes, i.e., people who deal with the public. I will be mentioning some of my “interactions” with clients and co workers and while the technical minutiae may differ from your experiences, I am sure that you will see the common thread. In any case, whether you are a cashier or front desk worker or grocery clerk, you are doing a great job during these frightening times and you have earned my admiration and respect. Actually, you’ve always had my respect, but shamefully  I have been remiss in showing it. Until now, that is, as it took your steadfast behaviour in this grave situation to make me express it. Let us apply a very broad brush definition to “unit”. I am speaking in terms of a store or work section or restaurant.

One of the building blocks of a cohesive and successful unit is a sense of “belonging”, of knowing that you are supported by your supervisor and your co workers, that your contribution to the success of the group is not only appreciated, but valued. I remember once when my back was hurting me, but I still came to work 1). Every coffee break, one of my co workers would come and take my order and go pick it up for me. They didn’t have to do that, but they did anyway. Likewise, if someone had a question, somebody else would either answer it or look up the answer. On a number of occasions I would be walking by a co worker’s office when the claimant they were interviewing began to raise their voice. I would stop by my co worker’s office, ask if everything was okay, and the claimant would see me standing there and became more conciliatory 2) in their manner. And my co workers, why my co workers would do the same for me. We always projected the tacit message that no employee in the unit was alone.

In order to interview someone successfully, you have to establish a “connection” with the other party. Once the person on the other side of the desk realized that you were taking their situation seriously and were going to do your very best to help them out, 99.9% of the time they cooperated. Note that I didn’t say “always”, because you got some who stubbornly refused to help themselves. ( As a civil servant, I was lumped in by many people with teachers and unionized workers as underworked and overpaid, as a class of people whom one could “hate” with a clear conscience. I used to say to my friends “I’m not very civil, and I’m certainly not your servant!” Then I would pop another beer and we’d all laugh.”)

One time, I was interviewing a very difficult client. He really tested my patience, but I kept myself under control. (If you lost your temper during an interview with a client, the interview was, for all intents and purposes, over.) I went up to the 4th floor to check his Employment Insurance file. I read the fact-finding statement from the Agent and began to laugh. The Agent had spoken to the employer and been told that the claimant had always displayed the most disagreeable, argumentative behaviour and had been let go after numerous “last chances “.While it didn’t completely assist me, it gave me some guidance on how to finalize the interview.

There was an Agent who needed some “RFS” 3) information about a claimant and I was aware of this. The claimant came in and I interviewed him. As I checked his ID, he asked if I was the guy who knew about “planes”. I nodded and he asked me a question about the B-58 Hustler. I answered it, took about 5 minutes to explain, then I asked “Could you tell me why you left your last employer?” He sang like a bird, I filled 3/4s of a page with fact-finding. He left, I went to see the agent and handed her the precious page. She looked at me quizzically, and I said cryptically ” You can thank the B-58 accident rate for that!”

On several occasions outside the office, someone would ask me a question about federal government and expect me to drop everything and answer them. For example, one evening I was at wedding reception and beer had been consumed 4). Suddenly I had a guy on either side of me, asking about programs. (Someone had pointed me out as a “fed”.) For the next month, I was VERY cautious when exiting the office to go to lunch or break, but they never showed up, as far as I know. I got that “I pay your salary” crack so often that it got boring after a while. One of my co workers, who was having a very bad day anyway, was confronted with this clever remark  According to legend, he took 2 cents out of his pocket, gave them to the claimant, told the claimant that this was his share of the employee’s wages for the decade, and could he possibly leave his office posthaste?

Another of my co workers, on being overloaded with work by a rather obtuse supervisor, famously said “Why don’t you just stick a short broom up my ass and I can sweep the floor at the same time!”

The legend of “Carmen’s short broom” grew in stature with the passage of Time. Brilliant! That’s a good reminder that sometimes the problems lurked on the same side of the desk as I did. Generally, I had fine supervisors and managers. I remember one time when the assistant manager sent an irate memo around to all of in the Front End and insisted that we read and initial it. The supervisor did so, but first printed in block red letters at the bottom that it was not our fault since she had forgotten to advise us of a change in procedures. I always found that the best managers/supervisors sat back and let you do your job, and would never hesitate to pitch in to help if you were overwhelmed. The best of these appreciated your honest effort.

Now I did work in units where there was blatant favouritism and or poor leadership and it was an incredibly toxic environment. I remember one unit which was so bad that one Christmas, I walked into my supervisor’s office and gave her a sheet of paper. I told her that it was my Christmas present to her, my request for a transfer! Mercifully she got moved the following month, but the repercussions were felt in the unit for some time. Of course, I do realize that in today’s work environment, the option of getting a transfer or even another job is nearly non existent, which only increases my admiration for you. I think that you all deserve $15.00 an hour as a basic wage. The money is there, it has always been there, just redirect some of it from executive compensation and dividends.

My friend Julio Biafore is a talented musician and also works at a grocery store. He posted a couple of days ago about customers who didn’t believe him when he advised them that an item was out of stock, and he would see them ask other employees about the status of the same item! This immediately resonated with me, as I was all too familiar with the clients who would waste everyone’s time by asking as many different employees as they could the same question. People don’t want a second opinion, they want a DIFFERENT opinion. These were the earliest recorded sightings of “The Askhole”.

In one extreme case, I had to tell someone who had wandered the unit collaring employees that regardless of the fact that  while the answer which he had just received from the receptionist was most favourable to his situation, it was nevertheless rendered invalid and incorrect, because the staff member who gave him this answer lacked both the knowledge and the experience to provide him with a qualified answer.

And sometimes we got visitors from “Head Office”. Here is one amusing incident that happened a trainer from Regional Sub Headquarters. She was dressed to go to dinner and was waiting for a taxi, surveying the traffic. Suddenly she heard a harsh female voice saying “Beat it honey, this is MY corner!”

Other such visitors were less endearing in their words and actions. Even though they had no recent hands on experience with the day to day operation of your job, they still “put their paddle in”. I remember once waiting at an office for one of these “fast movers” as the manager described them, to come and give us an audiovisual presentation. It was a cold February morning and the presenter had come from home, having picked up the projector at Regional Office the day before. Bustling self importantly into the room, they put down the projector, took off their coat and plugged the projector into a wall plug. As their hand moved to the rear of the projector, one of the assemblage opened their mouth to speak 5). Both the presenter and the manager glared at the impertinent interruption, so the cry died still born in the employee’s throat. The presenter flipped on the projector, and with a dramatic “pop”, the projector bulb expired, unable to handle the heat of the surge of electricity. Someone muttered “No movie tonight, kids!” 6) and the presentation lurched forth, much of its glamour tarnished.

Another time two people from Region came to address the assembled multitude. As the Front End, composed of operational people, nestled in to listen, one of the speakers started off by saying that they were both “operational” 7) people. The rest of the “presentation” continued, its soundtrack barely suppressed sniggers and snickers. To make things worse, one of them had a big nose and glasses, and reminded me of “Gaylord the Buzzard” from the “Broomhilda” comic strip. Beginning to giggle, I had to fix my stare on a blank pad of foolscap, not daring to look up, praying that I wouldn’t be asked a question.. Longest 45 minutes of my life.

I was going to finish off with a story about the coolest place where I ever did an interview, but I’ll save that for another column.

To my many friends who deal with the public, thank you for your perseverance. I hope that you have not only learned some usual things, but enjoyed reading about some of the obstacles which I encountered and overcame, through teamwork, hard work and common sense. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that you all deserve a starting wage of $15.00 per hour, benefits and job security. The money is there, it’s just a question of reallocation.

Next week I will write about how I am dealing with this isolation or “How Peter learned to live with himself (and his Cat)!”

See you soon.

1) Sense of duty, not lack of sick leave. It was a very busy seasonal period.

2) I am 6’2″. As I have mentioned, we had an employee who was 6’8″ and had been a wrestler. He was very popular in the Front End when he was the Duty Officer.

3) “Reason For Separation”, why someone left their job. Necessary sometimes to judge whether or not someone would qualify for Employment Insurance. A written copy was always required on the file.

4) The exact number of beers I had is classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to bore you to death.

45) It might have moi, not really sure, though.

6) Guilty 😉 (NOT the Barbra Streisand song, by the way!)

7) If you preface your remarks by bragging of your “operational experience” when, truth be told, you haven’t actually conducted an in person interview since clients came to the office in a “coach and four”, this group of cynical veterans will treat your entire “dog and pony show” with the disdain it deserves. Not saying that we completely tuned them out, but I tell you, there was so much “cherry picking” of statements that day that I thought I was in the Annapolis Valley.


2 Responses to “Peter Montreuil – How May I Help You?”

  1. Bettie Whipple Says:

    Liked your column a ton, Peter—you relate in such an interesting and fun way! Off the cuff on my part-my favorite B.Streisand album-“Guilty” with Barry Gibb. Great to dance to-ah the memories——-Bettie

    • Peter Montreuil Says:

      Thanks Bettie! I had a wife who came from a family of Barbra loving sisters, so “Guilty ” was well known to me too.

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