The Phone Call I Screwed Up

I once had a title of Operations Support Leader. Where I worked, this included responsibility for HR, Finance, and IT. It was a great team, and I enjoyed working with the diverse subjects and the people who managed them.

Jim, the finance manager, was a great guy, very involved with his family and leading thinking at work for the various reporting challenges we had. He was the second employee we’d had in that role, and he brought a great sense of humor along with his technical strength. I was fortunate to have him on the team.

I have no recollection of why I needed to call him in the off-hours, or even if it was an evening or weekend. If I had to call him, though, it must have been important. I don’t remember much of the call, only his comments to me the next time I saw him.

I called his home, and Sue,  his wife answered. “Hi, this is Tim,” I said. “Is Jim there?”

Now most of you reading this can already tell me what’s wrong here, regardless of what you may know about my knowledge of Jim’s wife. It doesn’t take a genius to think about the importance of  recognizing that I was intruding on family time and not even engaging Sue. No “how are you” or even “I’m sorry to call like this”.

I have no excuse for this behavior. I know better. But I just don’t always think that way. I had the message in my head, I knew I needed to speak with him to clarify it, and I was ready to work.

The next work day he stopped in the office and we finished the conversation. Then he said to me “Oh, and by the way. Just calling Sue by her name would have made a big difference in how she views my work. I made some excuses for you, but that won’t really matter. If you call me at home again, try and remember that, OK?”

I was humiliated. I think I am a pretty good team leader, and I missed a fundamentally important aspect to managing the employee relationship: The spouse and family are invested as well, you need to treat them right.

I never make a call to an employee’s home now without first thinking who might answer, and what I might say. I know that comes naturally for a lot of people, but some of us have to rehearse social etiquette. Jim left us shortly after this incident, and whenever someone says that people leave leaders, not companies, I wonder what I may have done to hasten his departure.

A simple two or three sentences might have made a difference.

6 Responses to The Phone Call I Screwed Up

  1. As a fellow introvert, I do the same thing. I hate talking on the phone so I want to say what I have to say and get off the phone as quickly as possible. I loved the line about families being invested – you are so right and chatting them up for even a few seconds can make a big difference. Great post!

    • Hi Sabrina, and thanks for your comment.
      I actually “rehearse” a lot of my planned interactions. I don’t dial the phone without considering who might answer and how I might interact. As we move to where everyone seems to have a personal cell phone, I hardly ever get an unexpected person on a call anymore. But I’m still prepared!

  2. What a great post. As an HR introvert myself I have to sometimes be reminded to take time to ask people how they are and to do the small talk. It’s not because I don’t care or that I’m unfeeling, I’m mostly so focussed on the task in hand that I forget. Easily done, particularly when under pressure 🙂

    • Thanks Emma. I think I look forward to the end of the week because I get re-energized by the time with my family. I’m not a small-talk person really, which isn’t to say that those who ask personal questions aren’t sincere. It just doesn’t always come to me that I should be thinking about that.

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