“I Can’t Help You, I’m On a Break”


This recently happened to me when shopping at a big box retailer – I was having trouble looking for a particular item and noticed an employee walking by. I stopped her and asked if she could help me. She quickly said, I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I’m on a break” and continued walking.


I was taken aback by this statement, but after learning more, I found out that it is company policy to not work in any way, shape or form, while off the clock.  In thinking about it, I understand this policy from the company’s perspective in a way, but as a typical customer, this only gives the impression of employees who don’t want to help customers and can give a negative perception of the store and its staff.


If this type of policy is in place, it’s a good idea to train staff on ways to handle this situation without appearing as though they don’t want to help or ‘do their job’ in order to maintain a positive experience for customers. Some tips to achieve this goal include:


1. Encourage staff to appear as much like a customer as possible – whether this means removing an apron that identifies them as an employee, putting a sweater or jacket on over a uniform, or anything else to help not identify them as an employee as they are walking through the store to take their break or meal will make them less conspicuous to customers, and hopefully this will lessen the interaction during these transition periods.


2. Teach them the right way to say things – in my example, the employee simply apologized and stated she could not help me. In a perfect world, it would have been better for the employee to say they couldn’t help me right now, but they’d get someone who could. In walking back to where ever this employee was going, I’m sure they would have encountered a coworker or possibly stopped at the service desk to let a coworker know I needed help. Another option would be to guide the customer to a place where help was available, whether it meant going to the service desk, picking up a help phone within an aisle, or offering another quick solution. This might alleviate any negative perceptions that may arise during these interactions.


3. Offer alternative exits and entrances when possible – this may not be possible within all companies, but providing a means to exit and enter the building that is out of the main customer traffic might be helpful. This way employees are not put in this type of situation.


4. Don’t penalize employees, at least not too harshly – if it happens where an employee ends up assisting a customer while off the clock, remind them of the policy and offer ways around this (see above), but try not to punish them too harshly. I once encountered an employee who could not help me because she was off the clock, and shared with me that she “already got in trouble once before, and if it happens again I’m really in trouble.” While I was sympathetic with the employee and did not want her to jeopardize her job, my perception of the company lessened a bit. I don’t think any employee should be fearful of losing their job over something like this. Of course, there could be a back story I’m not aware of as to why this employee might be on the verge of more trouble, but from my limited perception, it didn’t bode well for the company. And, as they say, perception is reality.


Ensure your employees feel empowered to handle all kinds of situations in the workplace to make them feel successful at what they do. This is just one small example, but I’m sure there are others you can think of. It might be a good time to ask your employees for their feedback on stumbling blocks to their work – you never know what they’ll share!



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