Thursday, May 08, 2008

Does An Admission Equal Guilt?

I may never eat at Tim Hortons again.

Overreacting? Being melodramatic? I don't know. What I do know is, I would have been fired many times over if the places I'd worked over the years were as anal as a Tim Hortons in London, Ontario.

Before I get to the details, think yourself, as a customer. How many times have you been given a free sample of something in a store where you're a regular customer? I can't get away from these people at the mall, wanting me to try lotions and perfumes, and I don't even shop there regularly. I actually grumble about it at Costco, because they take up so much space at the ends of aisles with those tables, and there's always congestion there.

And those are just two examples from last weekend. If I was to create a list of places I've been given a free sample, this would be twice as long as a usual post, and you'd be here half the day.

What's the point?

A single London mother of four is out of her Tim Hortons job, fired for giving away one of the 16-cent blobs of fried dough to a tot who came in with a regular customer. "I have been fired for giving a baby a Timbit," Nicole Lilliman, 27, said yesterday.

A Timbit. costs 16 cents. You know, when I worked at Gravenhurst Bakery, they used to give samples away, and the owner would throw in extras for regular customers. They understood something about customer loyalty. Heck, they always gave staff courtesy stuff - they were very generous, and I loved working for them. I stayed until the owners sold the business.

Same goes for many other places I've worked. This is a strategy writers have been adopting and modifying - free short stories online, free downloads, free samples of work so that people know the product. Neil Gaiman shows us how it's done After making his latest available for free download online, he reported:

68,000 unique visitors to the book pages of American Gods

3,000,000 book pages viewed in aggregate

And that the weekly book sales of American Gods have apparently gone up by 300%, rather than tumbling into the abyss. (Which is -- the rise, not the tumble -- what I thought would happen. Or at least, what I devoutly hoped would happen.)

What really gets me about this Tim Hortons story is, this was a regular customer, and it was an act of kindness. I know that we have to make sure people don't abuse privileges. Sadly, we always have to think worst case scenario.

Giving food away free is against the rules, said Tim Hortons district manager Nicole Mitchell.

"Employees aren't allowed to give out free products and that's the bottom line," she said. "She gave out free product and it doesn't matter if it is a Timbit or a coffee or a doughnut or 10 sandwiches or what."

Another thing that bothers me about this is the fact that Tim Hortons is apparently saying there have been other problems with this employee, but the woman maintains nothing is written up and she's unaware of other issues.

You fire someone over 16 cents without any warnings? Come on.

Tell me how many employees haven't come back 30 seconds late from a break? By Ontario minimum wage standards, employees earn $0.0243 per second. In fact, it only takes 6.58 seconds to earn 16 cents.

Which manager hasn't stepped outside for a smoke that took longer than that, while they were still on the clock? That's stealing time.

Add in that employees don't get paid to the second, and in most retail/food service places I've worked over the years, you end up staying just a bit late here and there and never get paid for your time. In fact, my last position, in the educational field, involved working countless overtime hours. I clocked overtime every week, and I'd been hired initially to work part-time. However, they wouldn't pay you out, they banked hours, so you never got the time and a half that you're supposed to be paid for overtime.

And they wouldn't let you use your banked hours because they didn't have enough staff in place to cover you.

I'm not going to get on a soap box about life being fair, because it isn't, but this incident smells bad. Okay, maybe the woman who was fired wasn't a stellar employee - I really don't know - but I do know this is no reason to fire someone. Even a warning would seem harsh to me.

It was an act of generosity, an act that inspires good will and loyalty on the part of a regular customer. And I'm willing to bet that the firing of this employee may just inspire that regular customer to reconsider at least which Tim Hortons she gets her coffee from in the future.

In particular, note what the manager said:

"Employees aren't allowed to give out free products and that's the bottom line," (Mitchell) said. "She gave out free product and it doesn't matter if it is a Timbit or a coffee or a doughnut or 10 sandwiches or what."

Nicole Lilliman responded to the news that she was fired, saying "I was crying. I was like, 'I'm a single mom with four kids and you are going to put this on my record?' You should bring all the staff in here and fire them all and yourselves, too. People give out Timbits to dogs in the drive-through all the time."

Mitchell responded to that in the article:

The Timbits given to pets, Mitchell added, are usually "day-old and recycled."

Um... didn't she just say that it didn't matter what someone gave away, employees aren't allowed to give away free products?

Pot... kettle.

Since I'm not a coffee drinker, Tim Hortons' appeal for me is in the donuts, and there are other places to get those if I must have them. I'm one of those petty shoppers. I've made a few complaints about staff over the years, when there's been a real problem. I've banned stores from my shopping routine, or products, because of bad service. That said, I've dealt with staff myself as a supervisor and sometimes, you have to step back and look at the big picture. If the rules have to be pretty firm because of the staff volume, then spell it out and give a warning, but firing someone over 16 cents, without any other incident written up against them on their record, is ludicrous.

If this was the US, I'd say a lawsuit was coming.

Justice here will be another employer calling Lilliman and giving her a chance. I certainly know if I had a fussy baby in my arms and someone did me a small act of kindness to help get the baby settled, I'd appreciate it.

And I know from being around women with fussy babies that as a customer in proximity (ever been on a flight with a screamer?) I'd appreciate the gesture too.

In fact, I'll pay the 16 cents myself. Come on Tim Hortons. If I pay for the Timbit will you give this woman her job back?


John McFetridge said...

I think there's more to this story. It sounds like a (probably long-simmering) manager-employee fued looking for an excuse.

And if you stop going to Tim Hortons, I lose my status as the only Canadian who doesn't go there. Well, maybe we can start a trend....

John McFetridge said...

Hey, I just heard on the radio that Tim Hortons have said sorry and rehired her.

Now if only we could get them to use fair trade coffee...

Randy Johnson said...

It does sound a bit cold. Back in my high school days(ancient history), I worked at a fast food joint. An elderly couple came in regularly for burgers and coffee. I started offering refills on the coffee(not a common practice back then). Little did I know that they knew the owner. At an employees' meeting, I was complimented and everyone was told that was how you built customer loyalty. Needless to say, for an unsure kid, a big ego boost. As John said, there was probably more to the story.

Naked Trewth said...

I'm with John...I say there is a feud between the manager and Nicole. It's relatively easy to become a supervisor/manager at Tim's. All it takes is punctuality over a period of time (granted, there is more to it). I've known a few people over the years who have used Tim's as their platform for building interpersonal skills and supervisory/managements skills. These are my first friends who will admit how easy it is to *power trip* when given such responsibility at a young age (for some) or to such an inexperienced person. It strikes me that the manager was going *by the books* and was possibly new in her own position and didn't know what to do. I am NOT defending her -0 when in doubt ASK! Thanks for blogging this!

Sandra Ruttan said...

John, no Tim's, huh? Well, it looks like your status is safe, as it's confirmed, she has been hired back. And apparently, she's worked there about three years.

Randy, dead right that's the way to treat customers. Courtesy goes a long way.

Naked Trewth, thanks for dropping by and adding your thoughts. I understand what you mean by the power trip - I think McDonald's isn't hard to work up the ladder in either. I know when I worked there part time, back in high school, a guy my age was a manager. He'd put in enough time to work himself up to that. He wasn't an unreasonable jerk, though.

I'm glad the company cleared it up. It really seemed unreasonable to me.

DC said...

Seems like they were using her to set an example. I am not very keen to these large corporations trying to apply VERY strict rules they can bank every penny. Aren't they making enough? Won't better customer service equal more money in the end?

I've eaten at restaurants where if you order a plate with potatoes, salads, and chicken, then eat the potatoes and salads, but find something wrong with your chicken they take back your plate and bring out a FULL plate. Now that's customer service (ps- they didn't make me pay for the second plate of food!)

Truly sad when Tim Horton's has gotten that greedy.

John McFetridge said...

"I am not very keen to these large corporations trying to apply VERY strict rules they can bank every penny. Aren't they making enough?"

I'm seeing stuff like this more and more lately.

At the same time, someone recently made the connection between the shrinking middle-class and the lack of unionization. In truth, I don't expect unions to make a comeback (or ever to show up at fast foodplaces and other "service" industries) and I expect the march of the corporations will continue unabated. Oh well, at least we get what we want....

Sandra Ruttan said...

dc, I'm with you - that's customer service! And it's as it should be. I think most of us feel a sense of obligation to someone who's provided good service to us, and we want to go back there at some point and return the favour. Given a choice, we'll give them our service instead of someone else.

John... unions and shrinking middle class, huh? Interesting. I was happy blaming the government and taxes...

fowgre said...

Has there been any evidence surface that there were previous problems with this employee? Then why are people so ready to believe it? Don't we all deserve the presumption of innocence? Read more about what I've had to say HERE.

John McFetridge said...

Well, there you go. The papers this morning are talking about the "strained relationship" before the incident between the employee and the manager - the daughter of the franchise owner.

I bet there was a strained relationship between the daughter of a guy who owns four Tim Hortons franchises and a single mother of four working for $9.05 an hour.

That's less than $20,000 a year. That may the real story here, but we've been taught not to talk about that.

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