Dodging the Bad Apple Syndrome

Quick what was your last memorable customer-service encounter?

Mine was the surly, late-night reception clerk who made me feel like I had done something wrong by staying at his hotel (and, by extension, paying his salary) because I arrived in the wee hours and, as he put it, "I'm on the phone and there's no one at this desk right now."

As a customer, I was pretty peeved. But, as a people guy, I had to wonder about the back story behind the interaction. People don't get cranky for nothing. And it seemed unlikely that a hotel with a typically high standard of customer service would knowingly have hired and kept someone who disliked people. Nope. Something must have been up. Bad day at home? Maybe an ailing parent?

Some employers would say that doesn't matter. Once an employee's on the job, boom: you're working. End of story. But human nature doesn't typically work that way. Much as we'd all like to believe in compartmentalization, life off the job follows us to work. A dad, for example, who knows he's going to get penalized for calling in sick and who feels he has to show up to work despite the fact that his son has a 103° fever is going to get understandably snarly on the job. So now you've got an unhappy employee who's potentially making unhappy customers who then go online and post unhappy comments. And guess what? Now, everybody's unhappy.

Creating a Better Equation

Let's take that same dad and cut him some slack. Let's assume there's a culture in place at work that says, "If you've got a family emergency, go take care of it. You will not be penalized." And let's take it a step further and say that the unspoken code among employees infers that, "If we end up shorthanded, your colleagues will pick up the slack. Because that's what we do."

Research shows you get a whole different scenario. The really interesting part about this whole equation is what happens next. By laying the groundwork of support by saying, "Go do what you need to do, we've got this" that same dad is going to want to deliver for both his employer and his colleagues. So maybe instead of calling in sick and leaving his office shorthanded, he arrives at work and says, "Look, I've got this situation. I'm on call for my son. If my family needs me, I've got to go." So now, instead of a chain reaction of snarling, you've got a reasonably managed, dependable happy ending. I call it living up to a positive benchmark. It allows people to perform in spite of life's pressures and it works.

Those kinds of occurrences don't happen by accident. They go back to the classic service/profit chain the better you treat your employees, the better they treat your customers. And that goes back to value statements; to creating workplaces that allow people to contribute, and not just today but sustainably. Great workplaces are defined by principles like having a value-based structure representing how the organization is run. It's about having really supportive cultures that allow people to contribute by remembering they exist outside the office, and that are well-branded so people know what to expect when they work there. These organizations don't just walk their talk, they are their talk.  You know those places we all do. They're the ones people line up both to buy from and to work for. They're the retailers customers go to for the "Move heaven and earth" philosophy, and that salespeople go to work for because they take pride in doing so.

The Power of Employee "Likes"

All of this works as insurance against what might be called the Bad Apple Syndrome the tendency to let an entire experience be spoiled by one rotten exchange because of unmanaged life disruptions spilling into work. Truth is, I had a perfectly pleasant experience at that hotel after the "There's nobody here" invisible reception clerk, but that's what I remember. Human nature, right?

And that can be poison for employers in the internet age, when every day is open mic day for the disgruntled who can broadcast to the world in the time it takes to hit "post video" or "tweet."

And that means, when it comes to sustainability, the best business models aren't just the ones with the loyal customers on Facebook; they're the ones with the internal cultures that prompt employees to hit "like," too.

Bright Horizons® offers work/life solutions that support the service/profit chain. Visit  to find out how our family of solutions can work for you. 
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About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands

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