Episode 608: Don’t Poison Your Employees

Recently, Dairy Queen was in the news because one of their manager’s “corrective action” sent people to the hospital. As managers, sometimes, actually fixing the issue is something we all want to avoid for one reason or another – let’s be honest, it can be exhausting (especially if it’s an issue you’ve already addressed a million times). Getting through to your employees is hard, and we’re all human. The most important thing to remember (other than the fact that poisoning your employees is NOT the way to go) is that you need to keep your emotional response in check and, as we always say, attack the problem, not the person. Listen to this week’s episode of What the Hell Just Happened?! to hear Paul Edwards and Jennie McLaughlin talk about facing employee challenges head-on.


Voice Over: You’re about to listen to an episode of What the Hell Just Happened?! Join Paul Edwards and his guests as they discuss interesting HR topics and solve some of our listeners submitted questions. 


Paul: And occasionally I’ll go off HR topic and talk about whatever I want to talk about. Think barbecue. Space exploration. Technology. Money. Managing. Business. Things that interest all of us.


Voice Over: We get a lot of emails with questions. Stay tuned for details on how you can submit yours to the show. And now let’s get started. 


Paul: Everybody, welcome to this episode of What the Hell Just Happened. And I’m kind of looking forward to today’s podcast because I get to point out a huge mistake I made as a manager. This happened like 25 years ago and I’ve been waiting for the subject to come up and the right question to be answered or topic to come up to be able to kind of confess what I did.


Paul: And so if you’re a manager out there, you’re probably making mistakes. I made mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not managing. I’m going to share with you a story, starts with a Kentucky Dairy Queen manager, poisoning a bunch of his employees and ends with me confessing my mistake.


Paul: Hey, Jennie. 


Jennie: Hey, Paul. 


Paul: So everybody, I don’t know what we’re talking about today. So when we first started the podcast they would just ambush me with questions to see how the podcast would turn out. And it turned out okay. So we try to do a little more planning most of the time, but in this one we just…I don’t know what’s coming.


Paul: So what’s, what’s is it a story? Is it a problem? Is it a question? Does it have anything to do with HR Jennie? 


Jennie: It does have to do with HR. 


Paul: Okay. All right. 


Jennie: But you know me, I find the crazy ones. So there is a news story circulating about HR. It’s about a Dairy Queen in Kentucky.


Paul: Uh huh.


Jennie: Where you know, most of the staff there, they’re part-timers, high schoolers, a lot of them. So, like, half of them had to go to the hospital because their manager poisoned them. 


Paul: That’s that is an HR issue. [laughs] Wow. So what happened? 


Jennie: What seems to have been happening was that the, like, ice cream machine or whatever it was wasn’t being cleaned properly.


Paul: Right. 


Jennie: So meaning it was dirty or they’re cleaning it and not really getting all of the cleaning solution out of there. 


Paul: Oh, so we’re getting into my past life as a chef. I know exactly. I know exactly what’s going on. 


Jennie: So customers are eating their ice cream and it doesn’t taste so good. 


Paul: They bring it back and they’re like, “This tastes bad”.


Jennie: Yeah. So obviously the way to get your employees to learn how to do this better is to force them to eat the contaminated food. 


Paul: No, they did not! 


Jennie: And that is what the manager did. And it was, this article is saying they were told by the manager [laughs] that whether they like chocolate ice cream or not, they’re going to taste it today. And they had to eat the entire serving they were given. 


Paul: I would be torn, I would be torn. I’d be like, well, this is chocolate ice cream and it is Dairy Queen chocolate ice cream, which is very good. 


Jennie: Well several of them needed to go to the hospital. They were literally poisoned by cleaning solution. So shockingly, this manager has been fired.

And the police are investigating the incident to see because again, a lot of these employees are teenagers. Their parents are pretty upset. 


Paul: [groans] Oh man. Oh no.


Jennie: And this is being investigated. The owner is obviously saying that he’s not on board with all this stuff.


Paul: Yeah, he’s freaking out about all of this. But so they fire the manager? 


Jennie: The manager has been fired. 


Paul: He’s already been let go.


Jennie: So, you know, clearly the way to teach your employees a lesson is to poison them. And that way you don’t have any employees to come to work, to poison your customers. There’s so much logic there Paul. 


Paul: Yep. You can’t mess this up if you’re in the hospital. I’ve been a chef in my past life. I think we’ve talked about a few times.


Jennie: Yeah, we’ve done this before haven’t you, you poisoned your employees? 


Paul: I have done something stupid with my employees that this manager did. Well, I guess I could tell that story in a second. I have some empathy. This is the proverbial parental: “I’ve talked til I’m blue in the face. I’ve told you guys to clean this machine. I begged you to clean this machine. You’ve all been standing at the counter and had an ice cream returned to you because someone says it tastes like cleaning solution. I put signs on the machine.” Anybody who’s in any place that has one of these machines look over at it. It’s got a sign on it telling people, make sure that you, you know, rinse this thing out.  


Jennie: Like signs in the bathroom: “Staff must wash their hands before -”  there’s a reason the signs have to be up.


Paul: There’s a reason why the signs are up there. “Don’t forget to punch in” is in the breakroom meaning many of our listeners here probably have something like that. I had a sign over the door where the bartenders left to go out to the bar that said, “Smile, damn it!”

And it may have had a curse word inserted in there somewhere. You know, just, you talk to you’re blue in the face. “You’re like your mom. I don’t know. I don’t know what else I have to say to you to get you to do this.” And so he decided that, he decided to do, try to do something about it. And he’s like, “You experience this”. Now, over the top was even considering that someone should be forced to taste ice cream that has been contaminated by cleaning fluid. Way over the top is you must eat it all and then you know it’s I guess predictable that some people – 


Jennie: And also, even if you don’t like chocolate I mean that’s the worst part. That’s very rude.


Paul: Well, that would be like making me eat, uh.. 


Jennie: That would be like making me eat eggs. 


Paul: Or me oatmeal cookies with raisins in it. 


Jennie: Oh, okay Paul. Let’s change the story. It wasn’t chocolate ice cream. It was mint chocolate ice cream. 


Paul: [groans]


Jennie: Paul gets real upset about that flavor.  


Paul: Yeah. And if you put raisins in oatmeal cookies. All right, so here’s what I want to say before I share my story where I did something like this. Some of the people were not cleaning the machine right. And he poisoned all of the people. Right? We have to assume some of the people were cleaning this machine right. And by the way, for everybody listening, the ice cream machines are very, very difficult to clean and they’re very, very difficult to rinse.

And it takes extra time. And it just is. I’m not making excuses for the employees not doing it right, nor for the manager for poisoning them. But it is a very hard thing to do. 


Jennie: So it’s not necessarily that they’re just like, “I’m not going to do this”. It’s that maybe they were trying. It’s just it’s hard.


Paul: It’s very hard. And there’s turnover. I’m telling you, there’s turnover. But nonetheless, it’s you know, you still got to clean the machine. And we all want to eat in restaurants that are clean and safe and all those things. So, I mean, he should expect people, anybody who’s capable of tying their shoes should be able to get that machine clean eventually.

So he punished all of the people for what some of the people weren’t doing. And this is a very, never mind the obvious mistake that he made here. I think that the management’s mistake that he made here is one that we talk about all the time. Because the tendency I mean, Jennie you can confirm, you’ve been in the solution center.

So the tendency is one or two of a team of eight, or three or four of a team of 20 or some subsection of something. It’s more than one person are doing something you don’t like as the owner of the manager and you put out a memo. This is a memo. This is the quintessential memo which said “a couple of people are doing this wrong, all of you must be brought to accountability”. 


Jennie: Yeah, “You’re all being disciplined and chastised for this thing”. 


Paul: So I did this. I did this very thing, Jennie. I, one time, I got very upset because business was down a little bit. I had eighteen employees and we had these meetings once a month. They only lasted about 20 minutes. And it was, they were important to me because it was just a team meeting.

It was a way for us to get on the same page,  I could talk about all the shows that were coming up the next 30 days, because we did all the live music. 


Jennie: This is at your music venue? 


Paul: Yeah this was at the music venue, and so it was just important to kind of get it together. And if we were having problems, we would get a quick chance to discuss it and we could go over inventory numbers and stuff like that.


Jennie: But this isn’t a health care practice, it’s their morning huddle, or their monthly meeting. 


Paul: It is their monthly meeting. It is just a long morning huddle. I realized they were all in school. They got other part-time jobs. I just need their undivided attention. And, you know, for the most part, most people showed up. And the people who didn’t show up for it, for the mandatory meeting,  we would say “Hey, it’s mandatory. You know, it’s mandatory. Don’t forget it’s mandatory.” It was the same three or four people. And I got really mad and I thought in my mind, if I put pressure on the rest of the team, that they would put pressure on those four people and they would shame them into coming to the meetings.


Jennie: Mm hmm.


Paul: And this is kind of like hiring someone to clean windows without asking them, “Do you like to clean windows?”.  I mean, there’s there’s a missing piece of management information in the equation. And so I called a mandatory meeting for 2:30 in the morning on a night that we weren’t open. 


Jennie: [laughs] Okay. 


Paul: And said, “If you don’t show up for it, you don’t have a job anymore”. And the same four people who didn’t show up for any of the other meetings, which, I liked like two or three of them. So it was really hard you know. They obviously didn’t show up because, you know, that was already there. And the other employees, my other employees who I, you know, were showing up for meetings, they showed up for the 2:30 meeting and they were livid.


Jennie: Mm hmmm.


Paul: And, you know, I don’t blame them in hindsight. I thought I was just like this guy. I thought I was at my wit’s end. I was just like, “I’ve got to do something to have an impact here”. And it had exactly the opposite impact that I intended for it to. And we see that happen all the time, you know, with managers in the world where you…I don’t know.

You need to just take the confrontation down to the person who’s not showing up for the meeting. You need to watch who’s not cleaning the machine, and you either need to have them clean it again and retrain them and retrain them until you’re sure they have it or you just let them go because they’re not coming to your meetings or they’re not cleaning your machines right.

Jennie: Yeah.


Paul: But you don’t punish everybody else by making them come into meetings and putting this kind of pressure and stuff. 


Jennie: What happened with your team of good employees who came to the meeting and now hate you? 


Paul: It ruined my…the culture that we had there was not the kind of culture that I intentionally set here. And we have that core, you know, value culture conversation that goes there. My core culture there was good most of the time, but we kind of created it as a team. But, so it didn’t really have a North Star. It was just like “Are things okay? They are okay.” I don’t know why they’re okay, but they’re okay. Everybody’s doing their job. Everybody. That’s great. Well, the problem with that kind of culture is that I shifted all 18 people into hating the place that they worked in, the guy that owned it, and who was managing them and leading them. And it got… it started to run like that. And, you know, it was really not good.


Jennie: Yeah.


Paul: And it was a 100% leadership failure, 100% my fault. And, you know, in classic leadership failure modus operandi, it took me about a month to admit just what a dummy I was and to try to back it up. So it was a month of really bad culture churning in the place. And yeah, I didn’t get those people to show up for the meetings I made all my employees mad. Thank goodness I didn’t poison any of them. 


Jennie: [laughs] And that, you know, I think. So we work with business owners and managers who try to do the same thing and for a few different reasons. And I think one is like having, you know. You have a team of 20, and four of them are doing something wrong. 


Paul: Yeah. 


Jennie: And you decide you’re going to address it to the whole team in the meeting or you’re going to address it to the whole team in a memo or an email. And part of the reasoning for that is similar to, I think, what you had where “I need the rest of the team to see that I’m doing something about this”. 


Paul: I didn’t think about that, but… 


Jennie: That’s sometimes what I think the mentality is. Yeah, but in reality, you know, if you talk to the employee who is already doing the right thing and they just basically felt like they got talked at for doing something wrong. They’re frustrated because they’re like, “You think I’m doing something wrong? Why do I have to listen to this when I’m always doing it right?”. Or they now think they are doing something wrong and they’re paranoid. They don’t know what they’re doing wrong. 


Paul: Right. 


Jennie: And also they’re like, “Why can’t you just go talk to those people? Why do we all have to sit here and awkwardly all know it’s those four people over there, but no one’s going to say anything.” And that’s another reason why I think this happens is because, well, same thing, but it’s you don’t want to confront them, you know.  Confronting people and addressing an issue, issuing discipline, asking someone to do their job is not always an easy thing to do. 


Paul: No.


Jennie: So the manager or the owner is trying to avoid that difficult conversation or the aftermath. And sometimes they don’t want to do it because the person causing the problem also happens to be their favorite employee. 


Paul: Mm hmm.


Jennie: And so they know if they have the direct conversation, at some point they’re probably going to have to let…they’re trying to avoid this going south. So a lot, and I think that’s what the rest of the team sees, that their manager is avoiding actually fixing the issue… 


Paul: Mm hmm.


Jennie: …and instead basically making it our problem. And that’s not the way that you have a good team or fix the problem. 


Paul: So what I’m getting from what you just said, Jennie, is that he should have just poisoned the people who weren’t cleaning it and not the entire team. 


Jennie: Yes! Just poison the people who actually did it. And they are the ones that go to the hospital. By the way, and now you’re going to have a worker’s comp claim from all of them because guess what? You’re on the hook for all these medical expenses, by the way. So which is also why the owner is pissed because now his worker’s comp rates went up. 




Paul: Okay. So with that…


Jennie: Yeah,  don’t don’t poison…


Paul: Don’t poison your people. 


Jennie: Maybe talk to them.


Paul: And don’t poison them with team memos when it’s not a team issue.


Jennie: No.


Paul: Sometimes it is a team issue and sometimes it’s, you know, the vast majority of your team. And that’s generally something around SOP’s. And we’ve got to change the way we’re doing something or, you know.


Jennie: Sometimes you need the memo because you don’t actually know who’s doing it. And so sometimes the starting point is a reminder to everyone. But then if it doesn’t work, you know, sometimes you’re going to, you know, maybe if it was your job this shift to clean the ice cream machine, then it’s my job to go confirm you did it correct. 


Paul: Yeah. 


Jennine: Until I find the offender. We’ve ironically had this come up for the past year in a number of situations involving poop problems in the bathroom.


Paul: Ah. 


Jennie: Someone’s making a mess in the bathroom and no one knows who it is, or someone seems to be… We had a doctor convinced he found drugs in the bathroom but we don’t know who it is. And you know, in those situations, it’s tricky. 


Paul: Yeah.


Jennie: Because you don’t know who did it. And you have to come up with a strategy on how to find the person. You start with the team discussion. That’s not a bad starting point if you have no idea who’s doing it. 


Paul: Right, right, right, right. So every week you guys are sending in questions to us and we took a couple of weeks break before we got back in the record so we have a bunch of questions backed up. So every episode we try to take one very much HR question and answer it from somebody out there. Where did this one come from? 


Jennie: So this one actually came from our Facebook group, which is called HR Base Camp. And one of our group members posted this, and it got a lot of interest in the other group members because I think this is something that is not uncommon to happen. Basically what happened was a long time, long term employee. Been there for many years up and quit over text. Just decided she’s quitting. No notice, all that. 


Paul: We don’t know why?


Jennie: We don’t know why.  And the manager, you know, got in touch to say, “Hey, you know, we’ve packed up the stuff from your workspace, you know, it’s here. Let’s arrange a time for you to come after work, to come pick it up”. 


Paul: Yeah. 


Jennie: She says, “Oh, I really want to come during the workday, you know, so I could say goodbye to everyone there because I’ve worked with them for so long”.


Paul: Right. 


Jennie: The manager is asking, “Do I need to let her come in during..this person who just up and quit by text, to say goodbye to all these coworkers she cared so much about”? 


Paul: I’m a hard no for that. 


Jennie: So am I. 


Paul: I mean, look, there are circumstances where, like, for instance, we had an employee go on maternity leave and she was expecting to return and shortly after going on maternity leave, she realized she wasn’t going to be coming back. And she let us know. And then it’s, you know, four months later and she’s had the baby and everything and she’s like, “Hey, I want to come by and get my stuff. Can I come by and say goodbye to everybody?”  And the answer to that is a resounding yes. It’s obviously a resounding yes. But when someone just up and quits or they’re terminated or, you know, they do something like this, they don’t really give you a reason.

You don’t see it coming. I don’t see anything good that can come out of that. I don’t know why you quit. I don’t know why you did it over text. I don’t know what, you know, anything. They could be coming in to hurt people. 


Jennie: Yeah. 


Paul: They could be coming in to blow up your business. They could be coming in to try to print off something or get their hands on something or try to cover their tracks. 


Jennie: Or just legitimately they want to chat with people who are now not doing their job because they’re distracted by this person, you know, coming in. And I kinda sound like the stickler manager here. But it’s a disruption in the workday to have someone just come in. 


Paul: Yeah. So my answer to this is “no” to the person who asked the question. You don’t need to allow this. You don’t need to be ugly about it and just say “Nope, can’t. We’d prefer for you to come in either after or I’d be happy to mail your stuff to you.” I’d be happy to ship your stuff too. But the choices, and you guys all know this, cause dental offices learn this. If you don’t know it. Well, everybody who’s listening, most of them are dental offices, so they know what happens. But when they’re like, “Well, we have an opening on the 13th. Would you like it morning or afternoon?”. So they book-end it, right? And then you say “afternoon” and then they’ll go, “Would you like that 2, 2:30 or 3:15?”. They don’t go, “What, what day would you like this on, on what date at what time?”. They just keep giving you your options. Well, this is the way you do this here. “No, I’d prefer for that not to be the case. You can come in afterwards or I can ship it to you”. Those are your two choices. Yeah. “How would you like it? Shipped in a box or in an envelope? [laughs] Can I confirm your address?”. So, yeah. No need to let somebody back in the business. 


Jennie: No. And that’s what most of our community also, you know, agreed with. But there was some question there. Like, “Is there, is there some reason we need to allow it?”.  


Paul: Good question. 


Jennie: Or “is it bad not to?” or yeah but like no you need to be concerned about running your business first and foremost here. 


Paul: Great question. Okay. So what the hell just happened was, is that we’ll set aside the poisoning and stuff.


Jennie: [laughs]


Paul: Is the guy punished all people for what some people were doing, and this is a bad management practice you should avoid at all cost. You want to talk to the people who you think you have, are having the problem or falling short or need to improve. And you know, there’s a lot you can teach yourself to have constructive conversations with people.

Now, you can’t teach other people to receive things constructively. You’re not exactly responsible for how I receive what you say to me, but you can hire for that. You can set expectations around that kind of feedback. You can probably, I think all of us can get better at giving feedback, starting with, you know, not starting from a place of upset when you’re when you are upset, in fact, upset.

But you know, just, what the hell just happened is this guy got himself in the, some kid’s sick and really got the business owner and everybody kind of in… and I was going to say hot water but I guess that fits. [laughs] I guess that, but I think that’s the problem is not enough hot water. 


Jennie: Yes. They didn’t use enough hot water.


Paul: Okay so what the hell just happened is not enough hot water. Jennie, thank you so much for bringing this Kentucky Dairy Queen to my attention and hopefully everybody listening out there got something from today’s What the Hell Just Happened in HR. 


Jennie: Well, let’s go to Dairy Queen. 


Paul: Yeah, I’m out. It’s around the corner. Yeah. 


Voice Over: Thanks for joining us for this week’s episode of What the Hell Just Happened.

If you have an HR issue question or just want to add a comment about something Paul said, record it on your phone and send it to podcast@WTHjusthappened.com. We might even ask if we can play it on the show. Don’t forget to like, subscribe and join us again next week.

Mar 18, 2024

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