A Short Pub Tale


Here’s a little story from the pub. It has nothing to do with policing…or does it?

I was waiting at the bar in a busy local pub recently when something happened that made me think about organizational trust and frontline staff empowerment. (Okay, I get bored easily, especially when I’m thirsty). A lady at the bar was waiting to order food whilst her adult disabled son sat a few feet behind her, alone at their table. He seemed somewhat distressed to be separated from his mother and kept calling across to her. She told him she wouldn’t be long but was clearly becoming uncomfortable, so as a waitress walked past she asked her politely if it was okay if her food order could be taken at the table, thereby allowing her to sit with her son.

The waitress appeared even more uncomfortable than the lady – her initial response was, “I’m really sorry but it’s company policy that food orders have to be taken at the bar”. The lady replied, “Ok, don’t worry about it then. Thanks anyway”. The waitress could have left it at that but she didn’t, as it must have dawned on her that whilst she had instinctively complied with policy, her response wasn’t helpful. She then voiced the opinion that she wanted to accommodate the lady’s request but would have to ask the manager first.

As luck would have it, the manager walked past at that moment and the waitress posed the question. The manager responded instantly, “Of course you can. No problem at all”. I could see the relief on the lady’s face, as well as that of the waitress, and they returned to the table where son and mother were reunited. The waitress began to take their food order and all was well. My mind then returned to beer until I started to think about what I had just witnessed.

Although it was contrary to usual procedure, no one else waiting to place food orders at the bar minded that the lady was allowed to order hers at her table. It was the clearly the right thing to do. The waitress knew it was the right thing to do. She wanted to help, but didn’t have the authority. The manager knew it was the right thing to do. She also wanted to help. It was obvious really.

So why not simply trust waiters and waitresses to make such decisions without having to refer them upwards, or seek permission before being able to help? Had the manager been unavailable at that moment, the situation could have been painfully drawn out whilst waiting for someone who could make this straightforward decision. Let’s face it; if a member of waiting staff made the wrong decision in similar circumstances, what harm could be done? What is the risk? Pretty much nothing, I reckon.

The lesson here is this – in most cases your staff will probably make the same decision as you would anyway. What’s more, it will probably be the right decision. Why not just let them do it?


About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I dislike numerical targets and unnecessary bureaucracy.
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7 Responses to A Short Pub Tale

  1. patently says:

    You could take it further.

    If you trust your staff to make those decisions sensibly and reliably, then why not let them? Equally, if you don’t trust them in that way, why are you employing them as your first point of contact with your customers? Either they aren’t suitable, or (more likely) you haven’t trained them, briefed them, and supervised them well enough.

  2. Dave Hasney says:

    And… As a manager, working for an organisation that has selected the wrong people and then failed to train them correctly, don’t think you can mitigate those failures by invoking purile discipline procedures against your staff to make things look better.

  3. Great story. The problem is that stories like this happen day in, day out, in most organisations, including police. Rules are rules, policy is policy, more than my job’s worth, etc.

    One suggestion is that this is a failure in training or recruitment, ie it’s either down to the poor waitress for not having the right attitude, or not being trained correctly. I don’t think so. I think she wanted to do the obvious -and right- thing in that situation. So what stopped her?

    I suspect that taking orders at the table is against policy, and that the performance culture of that pub (was it part of a chain?) is such that breaches of policy are not tolerated in any circumstance. Literally, she must have felt it was more than her job was worth to take an order at the table.

    What is the purpose of that pub? Is it to ensure that their staff comply with policy at all times, so that they only sell the food that they are told to sell, at the times they are told to sell, in the way that they are told to sell. That’s great if you fit their standard customer profile. But if you would like a side salad instead of peas, or breakfast at 10.30am instead of between 8am and 10am, or need to order from the table, then this pub is not for you.

    Or is their purpose to sell food to customers so that customers can have a pleasurable experience and that the company makes a profit? If so, then the staff might feel that they have some options. Providing it’s not going to lose the company money, perhaps you can put a side salad on the plate instead of peas, or knock up a breakfast at 10.30am, or take an order at the table.

    At least that particular pub has given some discretion to its manager. Or let’s hope his/her senior manager doesn’t get to read this story!!

  4. CJ Inspector says:

    I’m afraid Dave has identified the a common police response – use of purile disciplinary responses. This reinforces the ‘more than my jobs worth’ approach and undermines those who step outside of policy to ‘do the right thing’. Of course the danger is that stepping outside of policy becomes accepted, and it allow bad decisions too – often shortcuts or dangerous activity that provide a poor quality of service. In policing (unlike food service) this means victims not getting justice, offenders continuing without intervention and even risk of death in the worst scenarios.
    That said, the response is not to withdraw into a position that requires a policy for everything and attacking staff that step outside it (though there are some managers who like this approach – its very simple to operate: no thinking required), as this approach will never work in the long term. The approach is to ensure you have staff who can be trusted with the increased freedom, and its increased responsibility. This is about recruitment, and then staff management systems that allow you to weed out those that are not able to use that freedom appropriately.

  5. Blue Eyes says:

    The problem is that good management is hard work. There is a culture in many organisations that promotion is a reward for past work and not a step up in responsibility. Managers of many hues think that it is their role to tell their underlings what to do, not to work hard to ensure that their underlings know what to do.

    The really hard bit is for a manager to take the time to work out who he/she can trust to get it right and who he/she can’t and help them get it right.

    So in reality too many people don’t bother so everyone has to default to micromanagement by tick-box, puerile discipline and arse-covering.

  6. Dave says:

    I wonder if the manager and waitress had a target (or KPI) for ‘% food orders taken at the bar’ and their own personal scores were used whenever they tried for promotion. Imagine also that there was only one pub wich was government run and could never close.

    Employees would soon lose perspective and forget why they ever wanted to work in the pub trade in the first place. Customers would have to put up with it.

    Hang on…

  7. Stephanie says:

    Interesting and some interesting points raised in the comments too. I would argue however, that it would not have killed her (?) if the waitress took some initiative!

    I bet you that at interview stage – just like with any other job when you are face to face with the public – she will have stated the obvious yet failed right away when the situation presented itself.

    Ok, I am yet to meet a decent and very capable manager, but in theory and very often in practice, no manager would have reprimanded this employee for doing the right thing by ALL customers by sorting very swiftly a difficult situation thus avoiding embarrassing a vulnerable customer and yet ensuring a sale!!

    1) the customer would have felt comfortable and probably would have come back knowing that in this pub she did not have to explain/be put in an awkward position

    2) the sale is retained / the waitress might have even got more tips for her prompt reaction (some people are positively affected by good behaviour)

    3) everyone else with half a decent mind would have appreciated the waitress reaction and the fact that a potentially embarrassing situation had been avoided

    4) a good manager would have praised this member of staff – heck she could have become employee of the month!!!!

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