my employee times her bathroom breaks to avoid the tasks she doesn’t want to do

A reader writes:

I own a business and have noticed recently that my receptionist, Lisa, has been going to the bathroom at really inconvenient — and suspicious — times. We have people coming in by appointment, and especially in the last several weeks, she has gotten up to go to the bathroom right before a difficult customer is scheduled to come in, or right before she’d have to have a difficult conversation (for instance, collecting no-show appointment fees), or when someone has to make another appointment but the person they need to make an appointment with is pretty solidly booked — sometimes even when the phone rings and the caller ID shows someone that I have reason to think she doesn’t want to deal with. She makes sure to announce that she cannot wait any longer to use the bathroom. This leaves my back-end person to pick up the slack, which is interfering with his job duties.

Lisa already works shortened hours so she can be home when her kids get home from school, so my back-end person and I are already picking up some extra work and trying to fit in our jobs in fewer hours (which we both knew when I hired her), and this is putting more strain on us.

Everything on your site says you can’t police someone’s bathroom habits, which I totally agree with. Lisa isn’t going to the bathroom an excessive number of times, or for long periods of time, just at really inconvenient times that feels like she’s skipping out on the hard parts of the job.

I’ve had the conversation a few times about looking at the schedule before doing things like going to lunch, or getting a snack, or grabbing more envelopes from the storage room, or whatever. Is this a “name the pattern conversation”? How do I bring this up without sounding like I’m policing her bathroom habits? And if she says that she can’t change this pattern, do I just have to drop it and put these things on the back-end employee and myself? I don’t want to be “that boss,” but come on!

Yeah, that sounds like a pattern. It’s not about policing her bathroom habits; it’s that she appears to be deliberately avoiding the less desirable parts of her job.

Of course — and this is important — that assumes the tasks Lisa wants to avoid are occasional enough that the pattern of avoidance is obvious. If, though, her job has her dealing with difficult customers all day long, of course she would end up being away from the desk for some of them, because she has normal human bathroom needs. But for the rest of this answer, I’m going to assume that’s not the case.

One way you might be able to address it is by talking to Lisa each morning and naming anything you want her to be sure to be available for that day — like, “Can you make sure you’re available at your desk at two specific times today: first when Tangerina Stewpot comes in at 11 since she often has questions, as well as at 12:15 when Apollo Mongoose checks out so you can flag the late fees he has accumulated?”

But that sounds like that will only get at parts of the problem; it won’t address the ducking out when she sees a particular person on the Caller ID, for example.

So it’s okay to address the pattern itself. You could say something like: “I’ve noticed you’re taking your breaks right as a difficult task is coming up — like right as a difficult customer calls or is scheduled to come in, or when you’d need to have a difficult conversation like X or Y. Of course you can’t be glued to your desk all day, but it’s happening frequently enough that the pattern concerns me. So I wanted to talk about what would solve it. One option is that we could look at the day’s schedule each morning and make sure we’re aligned on which appointments you should make sure to be available at the desk for. I also wondered if you’d like more help with how to handle some of those difficult conversations so they start to feel easier, or if there’s something else going on that’s making you uneasy about those tasks.”

The idea with this conversation isn’t necessarily to come up with a foolproof plan that will solve 100% of the problem, but being candid about what you’re seeing might go a long way toward changing things. And if there is context that better explains what Lisa is doing (like if she does need more training, or if Apollo Mongoose treated her horribly last time he was in, or there’s a medical thing in play), this creates an opportunity for her to raise it.

You asked what to do if she says she can’t change the pattern. There’s a good chance that this conversation will change things, but if she says she can’t, try implementing some of those solutions yourself: give her more training on tough customer interactions (including role-playing some of them and also letting her observe you handling them) and start doing that daily schedule-aligning. If there’s still no change and the avoidance pattern is unmistakeable, then you’d need to look at whether she’s well suited for the job, especially in combination with her already shortened hours — but hopefully this can steer things away from that point.

{ 157 comments… read them below }

  1. BellyButton*

    I would tell her when she got back “I checked in Difficult Client while you were away, but I need you to collect the outstanding fees.”, “Difficult client 2, is expecting your call back in the next 10 minutes.” This ensures she is still doing the parts of the job she is avoiding, and this allows you to observe how she is handling those tasks and to assess if she does need coaching.

    1. tinaturner*

      Re: Collecting back fees — having her back or even joining her to deal w/the person might help. A receptionist might not feel good w/”Collections.” I can see that. Also with “difficult” people. Just casually helping her. It sounds like her job has some tough tasks.

      1. Lea*

        I like this thought honestly maybe there are some structural issues in the system that can be worked out here, are they ways to collect fees upfront

        Particularly scheduling sounds like an issue she is expected to deal with but is not something she has control over and that’s always rough

      2. irritable vowel*

        That was my thought as well – I don’t manage people any more, thank Zeus, but when I did, I would definitely offer to do something together that I sensed a person wasn’t comfortable handling on their own or wasn’t “getting” yet, until it seemed like they had the hang of it and felt confident doing by themself. This could be dealing with unpleasant people, doing something complicated or unfamiliar, opening/closing routines, whatever. While the OP no doubt hired this person in order to have someone else take care of these interactions, it sounds like maybe they need to be a little more present for this employee.

    2. JustAClarifier*

      It really sounds to me like she’s not being impacted by these decisions, so she’s ‘getting away’ with doing this. I like this suggestion, specifically the second one: do not keep putting this off on your back-end employee. She has to handle this and keeps pulling it (if she is actually doing so) because there are zero consequences and only upsides for her. If she is held to task and is shown that she can’t just put them off, she’ll stop the pattern. Right now she’s learned that she’s rewarded for avoidant behavior.

    3. LCH*

      my thought too. don’t just do the task for her because she isn’t at her desk for a couple minutes. she should still do it when she gets back.

    4. Purpleshark*

      I do wonder, however, just how difficult these customer interactions are. If the people are verbally aggressive – shall we say- and she is left to deal with that with no recourse perhaps OP needs to look at providing the training. Since a large part of my job is dealing with the public people can be especially brutal these days. I have done this for a long time but it wears on the soul when people get personally nasty.

      1. Lea*

        Maybe op could give criteria or difficulty level that would allow for sending up the chain?

        It is unfortunate that the lowest level employee in most orgs ends up dealing
        With the most difficult clients

        1. sparkle emoji*

          Yes, it helps to have parameters to know when you can call in backup. In retail jobs, I’ve had to deal with some tense situations and I always appreciated managers who would come in and shut down the truly unreasonable customers.

      2. Tinkerbell*

        Absolutely! I feel like there are a lot of people who would be willing to do basic “work with the public” jobs for $X/hour but would require ($X+a lot)/hour if their job requires them to deal with customer hissy fits, collecting payment from people who are justifiably angry about being asked to pay, verbal abuse, etc. There’s a reason call centers have such high turnover!

      3. Chirpy*

        Yes, this. Give her clear directions on when to call in backup. I really appreciated hearing my manager tell me that I was, in fact, allowed to hang up on abusive customers because prior to that conversation, I was always worried about getting in trouble for providing poor customer service if I did. (To be clear, in my case, we’re talking about screaming, swearing customers who are clearly beyond wanting help and are just taking out their frustration on a “lowly peon”, and who aren’t letting me bump them up to a manager.)

      4. Reluctant Mezzo*

        Yes, at times that dear Mr. Mongoose may need to have a little chat with Manager Igor or Igorina just to make sure the receptionist is treated properly.

      5. GythaOgden*

        After being a receptionist for ten years, you have to be able to do that part of the job, just like you have to be butt in seat until 4pm even on a Friday. Yup, there are some people who get on your case, but there are ways and means to de-escalate those situations (by being a bit sympathetic while holding the line and take the wind out of their sails in my case. Even the person convinced the chief exec was a lizard person got that treatment; thankfully he only bothered us a couple of times and was not a live threat to anyone). If you’re in customer service for any length of time, the worst thing you can do is try to avoid it. I had to handle a stroppy ex-Cabinet minister once who was angry at me because the chief exec didn’t have a direct phone line I could magically put him through to. It was a moment of personal pride for me that I didn’t burst into tears and stayed calm and professional. I’ve also been called a lot of different names by someone angry that we can’t wave a magic wand and cure her mental health issues, but again, it was essentially part of the job to handle it.

        There have been times when there’s been a need for help with a seriously difficult customer who got his priest to phone in and ask why we weren’t putting him through to the administration so he could beg for treatment. I was struggling with personal stuff at that point and explained to the person who was actually prepared to listen firstly, that the administration were just that — they count the beans and make contracts to provide services and aren’t actually case workers for patients or a complaints bureau, which I’d been repeatedly telling the guy to talk to if he had a problem with his treatment, as the ladies who run it are amazing at getting people sorted out. So they weren’t equipped to speak to him directly about his treatment issues. Secondly, his behaviour towards me had been so bad I was stressed about talking to him and — because this guy was a priest and decent at communication, and trained in the way of mercy — I was having to watch my husband get increasingly sick from cancer and therefore I was struggling to deal with his client who was being an arsehole to me when I had no power to do anything for him and was mentally questionable myself. The priest listened, talked to my supervisor — I offered that — and we heard nothing more. Meanwhile the health and safety department got involved and came over to see if I was ok after the event. But after that the experience of dealing with the miscommunications I got a grip on things and while there were tricky situations later on the one thing that I took ownership of was dealing with that occasional nuisance call and fighting fire with water — holding an angry customer at arm’s length until they calmed down, knowing that none of it was personal, knowing management had my back in a crisis but that they were employing me to do this, and learning how to effectively handle people in considerable distress and maybe not thinking straight without it penetrating too far into my own vulnerabilities.

        The problem here is that the receptionist here is actively avoiding chances to get experience handling these things herself. OP can coach her behind the scenes, but really, painful and stressful as it no doubt is, you only get used to handling difficult people by dealing directly with them, and it gets better the longer you do it. Meanwhile, OP and the back-up person have their own jobs that are being disrupted by the receptionist’s issues here. In a lot of situations here, people seem to be asking managers to be omniscient (but at the same time not involving themselves in the employee’s business). The problem is that it sounds like it’s not really OP’s job to be coaching the receptionist on a basic part of her job, and that she has stuff she needs to be doing that isn’t getting done because the receptionist isn’t facing up to the challenges of being on the front desk. Managers generally can’t expend so much effort on one person that they neglect others and/or parts of their own contributor jobs. The employee can’t use the manager as a crutch any more than she can continue to use the back-up person as a crutch; she really has to use the encounters she has in her job as training opportunities or look for something else that doesn’t involve directly dealing with the front desk.

        It absolutely stinks but ultimately it’s part of the job. It took a while to get up to speed and we had conflict avoidance training (and a ridiculous page-long script provided by an admin department upstairs that was totally useless because no person in the kind of mindset in which they’re phoning us would listen to a whole spiel like that). But if she’s going to carry on being a receptionist, she does need to take responsibility for her own training and toughen up a bit. OP can give her all the coaching she needs, but I get the sense that OP also can’t be there to handhold her through this, and that she herself needs to take some ownership of the situation as well.

  2. Teekanne Aus Schokolade*

    A reason naming the pattern is so important is that if she’s having enough anxiety to avoid a situation, it presents her with the chance to make that anxiety known if she needs accomodations. But in the scenarios mentioned, more training helps and there are a lot of great resources available for training these type of customer service tasks to build her confidence. If the anxiety is too much then you’ll need to reevaluate whether she can fit in this role.

    1. Self Employed Employee*

      I agree with this. Anxiety can lead to the need for bathroom breaks, which also has the result of her avoiding the source of the anxiety, so it becomes a perfect solution.

      I’m wondering if actual scripts/practicing the conversations will help her feel more confident?

    2. kiki*

      Yeah, I also wanted to mention that this could be an unintentional/ subconscious response to difficult tasks. For a while in high school, I would come down with severe stomach bugs on the days of major exams. I was lucky that my teachers all liked me and knew me to be a reliable student so their first thought wasn’t that I was intentionally avoiding tests, but that something was wrong. It turns out I had developed pretty severe anxiety.

      It might be helpful to ask if she’d like to shadow you or the other employee for a few rounds of these difficult interactions. If Lisa struggles with people-pleasing and disappointing people, it may be helpful for her to see that her boss, the business owner, can’t even make everyone happy sometimes and that’s okay.

      1. Smithy*

        This is a good shout out about the physical response being tied to anxiety or stress without it being immediately conscious or self-aware.

        I think it’s also worth adding that whether or not this is part of a larger clinical diagnosis, that having elevated anxiety or stress around an area where you don’t feel confident or well-trained doesn’t have to be immediately tied to a larger mental health picture. One of my very first jobs as a teen was as a receptionist at a newly opened, private restaurant. This was a new fine dining place, but without any kind of celeb chef even by local standards – so they were willing to hire local high school students with no restaurant experience. The training involved was light based on what I would have needed, and due to inexperience and uncertainty – my stress response was to get super shy. Which is the last thing a new restaurant is looking for from a receptionist.

        Needless to say, I didn’t last long there – but a year or so later I got a job at Starbucks, which definitely has a process for training new hires, and didn’t have any of the issues flagged at that first job are shyness or hesitancy.

  3. Renee' Jones*

    She really ought to be taking a comfort break in preparation for meeting with clients, etc. Sure, needs can present themselves at inopportune times, but that’s usually not a pattern that goes unmentioned.

    1. The Taking of Official Notice*

      My read as well. I take brief water/tea refill breaks before potentially overwhelming tasks. I consider my schedule and deadlines when I do.

    2. SometimesCharlotte*

      I was thinking this same thing. It’s similar to having a meeting a particular time, I run to the bathroom and refill my coffee so I’m ready for my meeting. It’s not policing someone’s bathroom habits to expect that they plan ahead to be available at required times.

    3. Quill*

      It sounds like at least some of these tasks are semi-unpredictable (people calling in) and others aren’t. So biological readiness won’t take care of the whole problem, which appears to be if there is a chance someone is going to be a bad customer / have a bad customer conversation, Lisa bounces, whether intentionally or not.

  4. Juicebox Hero*

    Reminds me of when I worked retail, when we had a few regular customers who were nightmares to deal with and suddenly everyone else decided it was time for lunch or a potty break or they had something Very Important to do in the stockroom and I’d get stuck with the nightmare. Not that I’m still bitter 20 years later or anything.

    1. zelavie*

      Yep – I still remember a very specific one of those years later. After an especially nightmare-ish interaction with this customer, I got permission from my manager to run as soon as I saw him enter the building (while also notifying him that the person was there, so he could come deal with them).

      1. I forgot my user name again*

        I had one crazy customer who I was always stuck with as a manager. Everytime I finished up were her she would tell me how much nicer I was than the old manager that helped her last time. It was me…Everytime!

        1. Arglebarglor*

          This is a tiny bit off topic, but my aunt has dementia. She ended up having to go to assisted living, and my uncle drove her there to live. They stopped overnight for a break in the drive and the second day, she told him “I like you a lot more than that jerk who was driving yesterday!”

      2. EvilQueenRegina*

        If it wasn’t for the fact that he’s no longer with us, I would be wondering if you were my grandad, who once climbed out of the office window to escape an irate man. From what the friend who told the story at his funeral said, the usual receptionist did try to screen this person, but that day there was a temp who hadn’t been briefed and said he was in.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          Abraham Lincoln once climbed out a window to avoid a certain vote (he had to decide whether to come down in favor of the railroad who was also paying him at the time, or please his actual constituents, many of whom were the same size he was and apt to be Unhappy if he voted with the railroad).

    2. Pam Adams*

      My 20+ year remembrance is the time at McDonald’s when another manager answered the phone, realized it was a complaint, and then told me the call was for me. Yes, I am still bitter!

      In my current job, we have a few students who are ‘must speak to me,’ but we’re agreed on who they are.

    3. Barb*

      When I was working retail and was the manager on duty, I assumed it was part of my job to deal with the nightmare customers. That’s why I was paid the big bucks (snort!).

    4. Honestly, some people’s children!*

      These comments remind me of a part time job I had during college. One semester I had no classes on Friday so I worked all day. There was a regular customer who was a nightmare to deal with and acted like she had a crush on the one male employee. He loved my being there Friday so “isn’t working today” while he hid in the back room. (She very predictably came in from 1115 to 1145 every Friday.) Years later I worked as a dispatcher in public safety and guess who also called the cops with soul numbing regularity? Her poor neighbors!

    5. Kristen K*

      Me too. I worked at Wally Hell in Electronics, right next to Photo so we helped out a lot. I had a coworker who seemed to “have to pee” before a customer who she knew was trying to print professional pictures without a release from the photographer was going to come pick up the pics ALL THE TIME. I get not wanting to be yelled at, but do you think I do?!? I told her to start calling management if the customers are difficult but because she did that too many times they were telling her no. I finally had to just run to a different department every time I saw her because I was sick of it. Not cool.

      1. Quill*

        I feel like a lot of these things can’t be solved if there’s no institutional will to be rid of bad customers. Which is a thing you can’t necessarily do in health care, but 100% can if you’re a less lifesaving retail department who has the same person come in to be unpleasant or try and pull one over on the staff repeatedly.

        1. Chirpy*

          I truly wish my managers would tell the problem customers to knock it off or don’t come back. The known ones I’ve been told to call the manager so I don’t have to deal with them, but my managers will absolutely just give in to them every time.

          (They have no problems confronting known shoplifters, I don’t know why they can’t tell the regular customers who harass people and refuse to pay full price on pet food that they aren’t buying anywhere near enough to qualify for a bulk discount.)

    6. goddessoftransitory*

      Oh yeah; those customers.

      I remember reading a story, like in Reader’s Digest, about this woman who was a nightmare on wheels–every time she’d come in the store the entire staff would scatter. Once she latched onto the manager and demanded “Why is it I can never get what I need in this store?”

      The manager looked right at her and said “Perhaps because we are too polite.”

  5. Sloanicota*

    It seems to me that you can ask someone to plan their breaks to avoid disruption, or ask if that’s possible and how to make it possible, without telling her she can’t use the bathroom at all.

    1. Its Margaret*

      Yup, “controlling employees bathroom habits” isn’t what this is. Its ensuring adequete coverage and maintaining staffing during critical moments. OP doesnt need to talk about bathroom trips at all, just breaks/being away from the desk.

      Assuming every client isn’t categorized as critical and there is plenty of downtime where taking a break is feasible, that is.

  6. Elizabeth West*

    Oof, this is a toughie. I mean, it could just be a coincidence but it definitely sounds like she’s avoiding certain things and the other employee shouldn’t have to pick up that slack. Regardless of the reason, Lisa being away from her desk so much is a problem and it does need to be addressed.

    OP please let us know how it goes.

    1. Ellen Ripley*

      They specifically state in the letter that Lisa isn’t away from the desk too much.

      “Lisa isn’t going to the bathroom an excessive number of times, or for long periods of time, just at really inconvenient times”

      1. Elizabeth West*

        At times when she needs to be there, I meant.
        If it’s impacting the other person’s work, then it’s a problem. Difficult clients often take more time to deal with.

  7. Storm in a teacup*

    Just came here to say if anyone wants to write a cosy fantasy with Tangerina Stewpot and Apollo Mongoose I would totally read it!

      1. Myrin*

        Apollo Mongoose has made a few appearances before but I reckon this is our first encounter with a Stewpot – or Tangerina Warbleworth changed her name!

        1. College Career Counselor*

          Well, after that frightful business (you know), I don’t blame her one iota for changing her name!

  8. Dust Bunny*

    I’m sure you are, but just double-check: Is she appropriately backed up when clients get unreasonable?

    I worked at two different places in the same industry. The first place, if clients got out of line, we knew our boss would step in and either rein them in or fire them. The second, we were left to take the brunt of it (for $9 an hour and no benefits).

    If you have clients who are habitually difficult, sometimes someone with more authority needs to put them in check. It’s fine to say, “It’s part of the job,” up to a point–collecting no-show fees seems like a not-fun but entirely reasonable part of the job–but it’s not fair to just let people who don’t have much clout keep being the red cape for bully patrons.

    1. pope suburban*

      Came here to ask this. A lack of support can really erode someone’s morale and put them in a place where they just can’t force themselves to take any more abuse. I worked at a job for three years where I had zero support or backing, but was routinely expected to handle people screaming at me, making unreasonable demands, or sexually harassing me. I really needed the pittance I got, though, so I absolutely brutalized myself and made myself deal with it. But there were absolutely days where my flight response kicked in and I couldn’t force myself to deal with someone I knew was going to abuse me. So I do wonder what “difficult” means, how much of the day it takes up, and what power Lisa has been given to deal with it. It’s entirely possible that she’s just slacking, sure, but my own experience makes me want a little more information here.

    2. Lacey*

      Good point. The OP sounds like a thoughtful boss who is probably not intentionally doing this sort of thing, but even thoughtful people have blind spots.

      Another issue I’ve sometimes run into is that employees are supposed to handle the situation one way, but if the clients get the owner on the phone the owner handles it a totally different way. Which means that some clients will be nasty until they can get the owner on the phone and get the solution they prefer.

      1. pope suburban*

        Or they won’t speak to the owner the way they’ll speak to a front-desk person. Too many people don’t fully register front-line or low-level staff as fully human. I spent way too much time as a clearinghouse for people’s frustrations or power-trip fantasies. They didn’t think I knew, which was salt in the wound, but I did, and frankly I wouldn’t have needed to be aware for it to be unacceptable. Another facet of this is that an owner or executive *has* that clout and power, which they may not be thinking of all the time (And why would you; we all become immune to our circumstances). This leads them to think, “Oh, that’s simple, Lisa can just X, Y, Z,” when in fact it is not that simple, because someone without clout *cannot* simply do X, Y, Z, because they don’t think it’s an option or they don’t have the necessary tools. A conversation or two about Lisa having backing or a certain amount of authority could go a long way toward improving their mutual understanding and strengthening the working relationship.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          Both of these: Bosses undermine front-desk staff by not enforcing the procedures that they’ve told staff to enforce, or bosses get suckered by clients who would never speak to them the way they speak to staff.

          The first place I worked, the boss didn’t fall for it. The second, the bosses caved every time. (I left the first place because I had some family stuff going on and couldn’t do the hours any more, but I was sorry to leave. I hated the second place.)

          This LW seems pretty thoughtful and I don’t really think this is the issue here, but it’s work making sure.

          1. pope suburban*

            Yes, my impression is that if it’s anything on LW’s end, it’s not being cognizant of the way people might treat Lisa differently (How could they know, if they haven’t seen/heard it?), or not remembering how limiting lower-level jobs can be or feel in terms of options to address problems. These are natural things not to be thinking of or remembering, and if Lisa has not worked in environments where she was backed and/or given authority to resolve certain problems, I can see things mixing in a way that would lead to Lisa feeling like she has less support than she actually does. I think a check-in would go a long way to clearing things up, and would at least tell LW whether Lisa is operating under some misconceptions, or is just slacking off.

        2. the cat ears*

          this is an example of an “asshole filter”

          > An asshole filter is a situation one creates that causes non-assholes to reduce contact with you at a disproportionate rate (like at all) than assholes.

          > The simplest way to do this is to ask politely.

          > An asshole filter happens when you publicly promulgate a straitened contact boundary and then don’t enforce it; or worse, reward the people who transgress it.

          i.e. if you have a policy that people should contact or interact with you one way, but then cave when pushy or aggressive people ignore that policy and give them what they want, you are effectively rewarding the pushy, aggressive people while punishing the respectful ones.

          1. pope suburban*

            Oh lord, this was my boss in my worst job ever. He had absolutely no backbone and would leave me to be berated and kicked around by the nastiest people, while denying me any amount of power to hold a line or enforce a policy. Then he’d swoop in, Mr. Good Guy, let’s throw policy out the window, sure sure whatever you demand, let’s all enjoy how nice I am and how much I’m giving you! So I’d be undermined, people would treat me even worse because they’d get the impression I was disobedient or incompetent, and the boss would get to play the wonderful savior. Meanwhile our good clients were, as you said, punished for being decent people and abiding by the terms of our contract. That place was a total nightmare for this and many other reasons.

          2. ZugTheMegasaurus*

            It reminds me of one time I was telling a therapist that I didn’t need or want friends because they all eventually screw you over sooner or later. She took a deep breath, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “Have you ever considered that you’re just attracting assholes?”

          3. Dust Bunny*

            I dated a guy who needed to learn this. All the sensible, non-manipulative, emotionally-stable women he dated quickly realized they would have to be the spine for both of them for the next (however long they stayed together) and ducked out, leaving him with the ones who could and would jerk him around.

            I did feel badly for him but I also didn’t want to be responsible for him for the next forty years.

            1. Healthy Boundaries Prevent Slippery Slopes*

              I have an acquaintance like your guy. We’re in a peer support group together and because I live the closest to her, another member of the group is pressuring me to befriend her and protect her from people who take advantage of her. This is especially ironic, because we are supposed to be creating healthy boundaries and I’m being pushed to ignore my boundaries. I do feel sorry for the acquaintance but she would over rely on me and I would never get free.

    3. monan*

      This is what I was thinking too. As a part of naming the pattern, I wonder if it’s not worth also asking her is she needs some support to deal with difficult customers, and what she would find helpful.

    4. Busy Middle Manager*

      It’s probably a little of this a little of that.

      I have a fee that everyone complains about but when I mention it to my manager, it’s just “collect it” and “add it to the bill” even though people then call to complain and get it removed. So I sort of understand that part.

      But I’ve also managed people who don’t have a good sense of perspective. Routine events are huge things in their heads, they’re still talking about minor issues from 6 years ago and I was there and I helped with the solution and it was pretty standard. I’m wondering if OP is catastrophizing routine work and so no one else is registering they need to help or provide backup because the task or whatever is so normal

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I wondered if the employee was catastrophizing routine work by letting herself get really wound up over very normal and reasonable, though not super pleasant, things and taking them more personally than she needs to.

    5. morethantired*

      Yes, good point. I was coming in here to say that I think it’s worth just having a conversation with her about difficult clients and conversations. E.g. “I wanted to ask how you’re feeling about dealing with difficult clients and conversations as I know that’s the hardest, but essential, part of your job.” rather than bringing up the breaks immediately. It might be that she feels ill-equipped or needs more support in this area.

    6. New Senior Mgr*

      I was thinking this as I read the letter. Does she need help that’s not being addressed or offered?

  9. Rinn*

    This reminds me of when I was a brand new nurse (100 years ago) and a specific surgeon would arrive on the floor. Everyone would disappear! Suddenly everyone needed the bathroom or to go see a patient or step into a broom closet (not kidding!)

    1. Juicebox Hero*

      I had a professor like that in college. He was actually very nice, but he never shut up and once he got a victim he’d talk both of their ears off and keep going. Students especially were afraid to interrupt him so we’d scramble for offices, classrooms, and even hide under benches when we saw him coming.

      1. violin squeaks*

        Oh, yes. I’d rather be yelled at than have to try and escape an over-talker. (Midwesterner, if it makes a difference)

        1. Quill*

          Midwesterner but I failed out of the socialization course, I’m much better at “Oh my god look at the time bye!” than the boss who shows up to yell at you.

          (Same principle applies to Chatty Professor as it does to the three hour goodbye relative. Gotta lay the groundwork for escape from the conversation early. Gotta tend the science, or make sure to drive home before it starts raining, or submit the recipts to that person who is not here gets them on time, etc..)

      2. goddessoftransitory*

        Oh, that’s my mom, bless her. She can pleasantly ramble around the world for 80 days unless you cut her off. She just starts on a topic she finds interesting and off she goes.

        1. Bast*

          My grandmother will do this. You have one foot in the car while she is still telling her story, and then she cuts herself off to remember she wants to give you some “nice cookies I just bought from the store” (just bought = usually quite stale) totters back to get the cookies, you get in the car and take them through the window hoping she gets the hint that you’re ready to go BUT now she remembers when she bought the cookies at the store there was a really rude woman who wouldn’t let her bring her dog in the store, and why wouldn’t they let her bring the dog in? And this starts a whole NEW 20 minute story.

    2. Renee' Jones*

      “or step into a broom closet (not kidding!)”

      I am sorry for the circumstances but geez that’s funny!

    3. jellied brains*

      There was a client at my last job who would suck you into listening to her cutrent conspiracy theories. I remember seeing her at the grocery store and bodily hauling my then partner in the opposite direction to avoid talking to her.

      1. Bast*

        I have met a few people like this that I try to actively avoid when I can, as I don’t have the energy for them. I realize at work this isn’t entirely possible, but in my personal life I don’t want to have even the most innocuous comment (“such nice weather we’ve been having”) somehow tied to politics/a conspiracy.

    4. Warrior Princess Xena*

      Oh yes. I was at a BnB a few weeks back and we were all sitting around the table having breakfast (me and 3-4 other guests that were there – it was a big bnb). One of the women started talking in great detail about her feet, the podiatrist she had gone to, and how her most recent medical procedure had gone wrong. Our whole group of apparently very Midwestern people did the quickest possible subject change at the first opportunity. I was not bold enough to run shrieking out the door but that was what my hindbrain wanted me to be doing.

    1. Michelle*

      Yes, and appropriate back-up if someone really gets upset. Many people are afraid of having difficult conversations because everyone can whip out a phone, take a video for social media, edit it just so and ruin people’s lives. There are many people who need to be called out, but someone just doing their job (such as collecting fees or another task they are required to do) have been assigned these tasks and should not be subjected to verbal abuse.

  10. Madre del becchino*

    My mother used to refer to this as “dishpan diarrhea” — the sudden urge to use the bathroom when asked to do a household chore (like washing dishes.)

    1. Arglebarglor*

      There was a refrain in my family about my mother (sung in a singsong voice): “Dish time is toilet time for Sheila!” (and considering in those days the “toilet” was an outhouse, she REALLY didn’t like doing dishes…)

    2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      My children have noticed that my spouse always needs the bathroom when we’re all supposed to be starting work on a household chore (eg tidying up in preparation for his family coming over).

      I’m not sure he even knows he’s doing it. He certainly doesn’t know we know.

      1. Healthy Boundaries Prevent Slippery Slopes*

        My ex always had a sudden need to go in the garage and repot plants when we were getting ready for his family to visit. It was an unheated garage in the middle of winter.

    3. Emmy Noether*

      In my household, chores wait until the person comes back from the bathroom. Not many chores that can’t wait 10 minutes (except cooking once it’s started).

  11. AnonInCanada*

    Perhaps you can approach Lisa this way: “I noticed you’ve been needing to take a washroom break whenever [Karen McCrabby] just happens to call. It seems rather coincidental this happens right there, almost as if you’re trying to avoid dealing with her. Can you let me know if there’s a problem I need to address with her? Let me assure you I much rather keep a good employee than a difficult client.”

    Be on Lisa’s side throughout this conversation, and see what she says. If it’s a matter of having to deal with collecting late fees and Lisa’s simply uncomfortable with that aspect of the job, then you need to address that as being part of the job. If Lisa gives off example after example as to how difficult Ms. McCrabby is, then that’s where you step in and either find out what’s causing this difficulty (is it a matter of how Lisa handles clients in general, or is it simple Ms. McCrabby wanting the world to revolve around her?) and act accordingly.

    1. HonorBox*

      I was thinking the same thing. If there are a few specific people who Lisa is avoiding, there may be a little more to the story. Then again, there may not be, but if your approach is from Lisa’s side, you’re likely to find out more. Is Karen McCrabby more McCrabby with Lisa than with the owner or back end person? Is it something challenging in the client responses to the collection of late fees?

      Not only are you going to get a more accurate picture of Lisa’s motivations, you’re going to have a better sense of how to open doors to more training/support for Lisa.

  12. cardigarden*

    Yeah this definitely needs a “name the pattern” conversation. I might also want to listen for the particular ways the customers are being difficult. It’s one thing to have to deal with a run-of-the-mill curmudgeon, but if difficult = abuse or harassment, you should be stepping in to put a stop to it.

  13. zelavie*

    This is a totally personal experience question – does she simply not like that part of the job? I’ve found myself in a job before where there were some unpleasant parts that weren’t presented to me up-front, and were bad enough that I would avoid them if I could (like, we had a phone that rang to about 10 people, and if a certain name showed up on Caller ID, I’d always let someone else get it… until everyone started doing it for specific callers).

    Hopefully it’s just a lack of training, but it’s worth having a fully transparent conversation where she feels comfortable enough to let you know if she feels like she just can’t handle that part of the job.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Eh . . . there is a difference between “I just can’t handle” an abusive patron that a boss needs to step in and put on notice, and “I just can’t handle” something squirmy like late fees. She needs to be able to handle the late fees. That’s not unreasonable. I hated going over estimates with clients at my vet job but it was part of the deal and my choices were to do it or not be in that line of work, not to foist it off onto my coworkers (who didn’t love it, either. Nobody liked it, but it was part of the job).

      1. also a former vet hospital worker*

        Respectfully, going over an estimate is vastly different than having to tell someone they’re delinquent on payment. It can be incredibly difficult and awkward. People don’t take kindly to those types of conversations.

        I don’t disagree that she needs to do, but it sucks a LOT more than going over an estimate.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          You can’t know that, though. We routinely had people bring pets in for “minor” problems that turned out to need hundreds of dollars in treatment, because veterinary medicine is inherently expensive and people have this idea that it should be cheap because it’s just animals. Unless these no-show fees are $500 a pop I doubt that collecting them is more stressful than telling someone their Christmas puppy needs $1500 (20 year ago) in parvovirus treatment and, by the way, their whole yard is now contagious.

          1. jellied brains*

            I do though? I literally used to go over estimates and call people about outstanding bills/turn them away because of their unpaid bill.

        2. hbc*

          It probably depends on individual personality and hangups. With late fees or reminders about overdue payments, I feel like it’s exactly as transactional as the original bill. I’m not calling you a deadbeat, and if the customer gets angry about the facts, it doesn’t really affect me.

          But in the estimate scenario, I *do* feel like I’m saying something bad. “Hey, if you want your beloved pet to live, here’s a huge amount of money you need to spend that may well cripple you financially. Your choice.” That kind of thing wrecks me.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      Well every job has stuff like that. At OldExjob, they started making me do collection calls. I hated it because 1) it took me away from my own work, 2) I didn’t know anything about the accounts so if someone asked me a question, I couldn’t answer it, and 3) I resented it because BossWife had dumped HER duty on me even though she had very little to do anyway. I still did it because it was part of the job. I had to.

      All the points above about checking to see if Lisa has support re difficult clients, needs training, etc. are valid, but if this is part of the job (and she intends on sticking around), then it just is.

  14. Kay*

    Is it possible that the OP could help out during such stressful visits? There are truly customers and visitors who are ‘armed’ to challenge the most conscientious workers beyond what they could imagine in terms of reasonable resistance. Are these customers truly worth the effort? If so, maybe just arrange to help her out on those?

  15. CubeFarmer*

    It sounds like what LW needs to do is not let a bathroom break exempt Lisa from dealing with the task. “Apollo Mongoose called while you were away from your desk. I have his contact information here so you can call him back today.” Then follow through to make sure call happened, and if it hasn’t happened, why not.

    1. Despachito*


      Don’t let Lisa get away with it so easily.

      I like the suggestions to check whether Lisa needs help or support, but I see it as Lisa’s fault that she avoids the situations instead of asking for help. Lisa is an adult but is not behaving like one.

    2. StarTrek Nutcase*

      Yes, this needs done for every possible instance. Her bathroom avoidance is similar to deliberate incompetence where another coworker (Bea) takes a task cause Sandy just doesn’t feel confident/ skilled enough or whatever. I’ve pointed out who’s the “loser”: Sandy who is relaxing or Bea who’s now doing the task? And don’t get me started on supervisors who won’t kick Sandy to the curb but will push work onto good ole’ dependable Bea (and then are amazed when Bea leaves for a better job).

  16. ClaireW*

    LW, is it possible for you to hear the calls (if they’re being recorded) and/or listen to some of the other conversations she’s trying to avoid? Partly so that you know exactly where the issue is/if she’s struggling to handle these customers. But also – you’re the business owner, you have a male employee and then this receptionist. Unfortunately in my experience, a lot of folks can be nasty/rude/etc to receptionists (especially female receptionists) in a way that they would not be to a male employee or to the business owner, and so recording or otherwise listening to these conversations without the customer being aware might show you if these customers are being more unreasonable than you realise or if your receptionist needs stronger tools/more visible backup from yourself with these particular folks.

    1. Generic Name*

      This is a good idea. I think it’s important to distinguish “difficult” as in awkward or uncomfortable, or “difficult” as in abusive. If it’s the first, then I think you could coach her how to handle tough conversations. If it’s the latter, then I think you need to put in place procedures of how she can handle those clients, up to, and including ending the call and even firing those clients if they continue to abuse staff after a warning.

  17. Michelle*

    lol, reminds me of when I worked in the 90s as a “typesetter” (digital though, I’m not THAT old) for a newspaper that was our county’s official legal organ paper, meaning we published the county’s legal notices, like for corporate name changes, or bankruptcies, or foreclosures. There was one day per week that these ran, but for some kind of statutorily required reason that I don’t remember anymore, one week of the month had A TON of them.

    So those of us whose job included typing these up in our publishing system (which was some kind of green-screen terminal system that all connected to a server room with these giant computers running on 8-inch floppy disks—ok maybe I’m pretty old—the point here is, it wasn’t like we were able to cut and paste the text of these notices from our email or whatever, they came in via snail mail and the job was to hand-retype them) would always have to come in the last Sunday of the month to tackle what we called “big legal week,” despite the job being otherwise 9-5 M-F. Anyway! Damnedest thing: one of us typesetters somehow always got her period on the last Sunday of the month. Regardless of whether that month or had 4 or 5 Sundays. Which meant, conveniently for her, that the rest of us would have to pick up her slack in typing up hundreds of the longest, driest legal documents in the world, such as this example, which I just randomly looked up and has now given me trauma flashbacks to 30 years ago:

    We all knew what she was doing. It wasn’t exactly subtle. But not even in that time and that place was anyone willing to police this woman’s alleged menstrual cramps. So we were just stuck with this. For $4.50 per hour ($9.58 inflation-adjusted).

  18. VP of Monitoring Employees' LinkedIn Profiles**

    This leaves my back-end person to pick up the slack, which is interfering with his job duties.

    Maybe instruct the back-end person to focus on his own duties and not pick up Lisa’s slack.

    1. Evan Þ*

      That doesn’t sound possible. When people are coming in for appointments, someone probably does need to be at the reception desk.

      1. Elle Woods*

        I would have the back end person to tell the customer that Lisa stepped away but will be back in just a moment. He can feign ignorance (I am so sorry, I do not know how to put an appointment in the system, you will have to wait for Lisa). OP says that the breaks are not long, so it should not be an excessive wait. Same with phone calls. Answer the call and put the customer on hold until Lisa returns.

        She keeps doing this because it has been successful so far. If she realizes that this no longer works, I suspect she will need less breaks.

        1. Despachito*


          If it is possible, just make the client wait for Lisa because she is the one to handle their case. If she were a doctor or a lawyer and needed a bathroom break, I assume the patient/client would have to wait as well.

    2. WorkerDrone*

      Yep, I agree completely except I would make sure to clearly let Lisa know that this is the new policy going forward. OP can both name the pattern and change the response in one conversation.

      “I’ve noticed that when [circumstance] happens, you’ll often need to step away for the restroom and [back-end person] has to step in. Since that’s interfering with [back-end person]’s work, in the future please put up a sign that lets people know you’ve stepped away for a moment and will be returning. The client will have to wait until you’re back, so I’m also going to ask you to please do your best to time your breaks for when you know someone is not about to check in/check out of an appointment. If you miss a call, we’ll let it go to voicemail and you can return it when you’re back at your desk – [back-end person] will no longer be answering the phone.”

      Dealing with a difficult conversation is probably going to be worse after the client has had to wait at the desk for Lisa to return from the restroom, so I think giving her a chance to kind of mentally prepare for the fact that her escape-route has been cut off would be helpful.

  19. jellied brains*

    Echoing all the other commenters wondering how much support you’re giving her.

    I worked reception for years and the cold dread that would flood over me because Cranky McPissyPants was calling or Never Happy Sally just walked in was AWFUL. Our reception team had no support from upper management. So yeah, we’d conveniently find other things to do to avoid them.

    Plus clients talk the the “plebes” much differently than the boss. I’d be very curious to know how these clients speak to you vs her.

    1. Arglebarglor*

      We literally had this happen today. One of our most difficult patients came in and started yelling immediately and calling the front-desk person names (this happens a lot, our population has a high incidence of serious mental illness). Fortunately, the front desk person has been empowered to just involve the clinic director as soon as this happens. If he is in, he takes her in to his office and handles her, if he isn’t (we share him with another clinic), she puts him on the phone with her. This way she doesn’t take the brunt of it and she is available to continue checking in patients.

  20. TitosandCoffee*

    I agree with above. She may dread difficult conversations in general and not feel safe or empowered to have them. She may legitimately HAVE to go to the bathroom from the stress this may cause her. I think in addition to calling out the behavior, see how you can help her tackle these situations, be it via role playing or making sure there is someone else in the area when it happens.

    1. ZugTheMegasaurus*

      > She may legitimately HAVE to go to the bathroom from the stress this may cause her.

      I thought the same thing. While it’s entirely possible she’s just ducking out on purpose, I can also see this sort of thing being subconscious; stress just building up anticipating the unpleasant thing, until it’s close enough that her brain decides it’s time for fight-or-flight mode and is like “PEE AND RUN.”

      1. Fish Microwaver*

        Yes, stress can play havoc with the elimination system. It’s part of the fight or flight response.

  21. Arlo*

    Let Lisa up to play lasertag with the most difficult customers and that should improve things for everyone.

  22. allhailtheboi*

    I used to be an administrator, and the nature of the office meant I also had receptionist-like duties. However my priority (confirmed with my boss) was admin. I must admit, there was a frequent difficult visitor who used to come to me to complain about everything – our service, my employer, the government, etc. As she didn’t NEED to speak to me beyond me letting her into the building, I used to close my office door and be ‘concentrating’ for the rest of her visit. My boss totally supported me because the visitor was so unpleasant she had driven people (including me) to tears. And no, she couldn’t be banned from visiting due to the nature of our service.

  23. Ticotac*

    I’m not entirely sure I understand how is it possible that this is a strategy that actually works?

    Like, I understand how going to the bathroom makes it possible for her to avoid the potentially annoying calls; the phone is ringing *now*, it has to be answered *now*, and if she isn’t there then she’s not the one dealing with the call. I can even kinda see how a bathroom break allows her to avoid the difficult client; I assume this is the kind of service in which you can’t just say “please excuse me, I’ll be back to you in five minutes” to the client, so if the client is here now they presumably are supposed to talk to the receptionist for five minutes at most before going to the person they’re actually there to see, so a ten-minutes-long break does effectively let her avoid the whole thing.

    But isn’t booking another appointment or doing some other awkward work task the sort of thing that you can just… delay for five minutes? Like, if she can’t call someone to collect a no-show appointment fee now because she has to go to the bathroom, why can’t she just do it when she’s back in ten minutes?

    Am I missing something? I am assuming these sort of tasks are to be done via email or something, are they actually happening in person? ‘Cause if what is happening is that she is talking with a person and then, in the middle of the conversation, exactly as the awkward thing comes up, she turns around and goes “oh no I gotta go to the restroom could you take this,” leaving the client behind… then yeah, of course you gotta bring that up. If I, as a client, walked up to a receptionist and they told me “I am terribly sorry, I gotta use the restroom, I will be back in five” I wouldn’t bat an eye and just wait for their return, but if we’re trying to fix a mistake and in the middle of our conversation they go “I’m sorry I gotta go to the restroom but you can continue this conversation with X” and then never return, I would think that’s clearly an excuse and would be incredibly unimpressed.

    1. Lexi Vipond*

      I read it as all in person – that she knew that someone was about to come out of their current appointment and would need to book the next one (by talking at the desk), or whatever, so vanished.

    2. Myrin*

      It’s all in the first paragraph:

      “We have people coming in by appointment, and especially in the last several weeks, she has gotten up to go to the bathroom right before a difficult customer is scheduled to come in, or right before she’d have to have a difficult conversation […], or when someone has to make another appointment but the person they need to make an appointment with is pretty solidly booked”

      She know the Tangerina Stewpot, who is never satisfied with anything and will harshly berate anyone crossing her path, has an appointment at ten, and since she also knows Tangerina is highly punctual, she goes to the bathroom at 9:57, leaving Tangerina with the backend guy.

  24. K*

    I think the script here is too long. “I’ve noticed you taking a break in order to avoid doing difficult stuff. Please stop.” Communicates what needs to be communicated.

    1. allathian*

      Only if she has enough support and the authority to ask the owner to deal with the most difficult clients. Who probably won’t be as difficult with her.

  25. okay*

    Lisa already works shortened hours so she can be home when her kids get home from school, so my back-end person and I are already picking up some extra work and trying to fit in our jobs in fewer hours (which we both knew when I hired her), and this is putting more strain on us.

    Maybe you need to considering finding someone who can do this job full time. Or find another part time person to share the job.

  26. Frances*

    A long ago there was this lady who worked in the finance department as an Accounts Payable Clerk. She had a multitude of problems especially health and family problems. When there was some event going on such as an audit or the national convention she would have some excuse as to why she couldn’t show up. Some excuses were legitimate but others made no sense. When we had like holiday days off she would claim she couldn’t get any earlier flights to come home or somebody who was not an immediate friend or family member died. It got to a point reduced her hours to part-time (four days a week) because she barely made it to five. And even when she did show up she would do only minimal work. I didn’t understand it. The boss wouldn’t fire her or even give her warnings.

  27. Alice Dee Carter*

    Before having any conversation, LW should take stock and make sure they haven’t been using their receptionist as a human shield for conversations and tasks they are trying to avoid themselves. With the exception of a membership-based-business like a gym, or a returns desk in retail, I’m having a hard time envisioning “difficult” conversations that should be managed by a receptionist.

    1. Cat Lover*

      I worked admin and front desk at a physical therapy office for years, and most difficult conversation were about billing, collecting no show/cancellation fees, etc. That was absolutely my job- the head clinician would back me up if someone got nasty, but it was my job.

    2. OhGeez*

      Honestly, you should talk to more receptionists about their jobs. Difficult conversations are almost always part of the landscape. I’ve worked admin/front desk/reception in everything from apartment building gyms to large universities, to small social service agencies. Having charged interactions with people/clients when you have limited decision making power is what makes these jobs inherently challenging, and it’s basically a guarantee. There are times when, not only can you not give them what they want, but you can’t let them talk to the person who could give them what they want and is choosing not to.

      1. Alice Dee Carter*

        quite possible. I guess my corporation handles things differently – our hundreds of receptionists are “let me direct you to this place/connect you with this person” roles. They are not the designated difficult conversation/billing, etc people.

    3. Pierrot*

      I feel like this is getting into the territory of not taking the LW for their word. I have a job that’s pretty administrative and involves talking to members of the public, sometimes at the front desk or main phone, and having some uncomfortable conversations. It’s just the nature of the specific work that I do. My supervisor will intervene if there is a genuine emergency or someone is being particularly nasty over an extended period of time, but everything else is part of my job.

      It seems like the receptionist checks people in for their appointments, so it makes sense for her to be the one to call people when they no show. The one caveat I have is that if their are clients who are repeatedly hostile to staff, it might make sense for LW to refuse to work with those clients in the future.

    4. Clare*

      I’ve definitely had some conversations with medical receptionists that they would describe as difficult. The difficulty arose because, while my referring GP, my specialists, and I all agreed my case was urgent, the receptionists weren’t having this information passed on. Every new referral became a massive battle of wills to get them to check with the specialist or read my referral paperwork to understand that I was the 1 in 100 who wasn’t exaggerating. I’m sure they’re very used to patients insisting that they’re special and need fast appointments, but the instant aggression grew very wearing.

  28. Kesnit*

    Is it always the same clients or circumstances?

    My last job was very client-focused. Sometimes, I would have a client who called non-stop and left demanding messages if I did not pick up the phone. There were days when I just could not deal with them. I always took the message and got back to them when I was mentally capable of doing it.

    It’s possible that Lisa is in a similar circumstance. Most of the time she is fine, but every once in a while, it is the latest “client from hell” who has called 10 times today and now she just “can’t any more.”

  29. quiet quitter*

    I just want to mention one possibility I don’t see being discussed here: stress is absolutely a trigger for IBS! For me, semi-predictable, acute stress from unpleasant interactions can absolutely trigger a very urgent and uncomfortable visit to the restroom. It’s horribly embarrassing on several levels, not least of which being that I *know* exactly how suspect it looks and there’s not really anything I can do about it when it happens. So I’d recommend OP just keep that possibility in mind and be gentle and nonjudgmental in asking what’s going on, given that this employee may not be comfortable talking about this.

    And on that note, if these tasks are that stressful for the employee… is OP confident that she is trained and supported adequately to handle these situations? Because it seems like it would be worth reassessing that given this behavior.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      Yeah, I know a few people who are struck with IBS as a stress reaction (it made meeting the in laws a really interesting day for one of my friends!). I also know an IBS sufferer who gets an urgent need to go if they sense they might get trapped and unable to remove themselves; for him he has to avoid traffic, or the kind of trains that may end up siderailed or stuck underground. If these are the kinds of customers who keep the employee occupied for a long time, that might trigger an IBS response. If the OP’s employee does raise a health issue, though it’s still a resolvable problem that the customers are this stressful and the employee doesn’t feel able to deal with it, or able to tag someone in for support.

  30. That wasn't me. . .*

    Might be she tenses up when she hears or see the name of Diffucult Person and that causes her bladder ir colon to spasm, creating a true, urgent need. I don’t know what you can do about that, because it’s cruel not to let her go under those circumstances. But maybe you could schedule mandatory breaks, and tell her she is expected to take care of her needs then, at say 9:30, 11, 12:30(lunch), 2, and 3:30 (assumi g a
    8-5 schedule? (If she needs to go more than every hour and a half, maybe she needs to ask for a medical accommodation?)

  31. I'm just here for the cats!*

    One thing I think that the OP needs to consider is that they are providing support to the employee when there is a dificult customer. And making sure that they feel supported and that they do not have to take verbal abuse. I’m wondering if this is a new behavior and if so what has caused it. And find out what the OP can do to help support her. Maybe its as easy as having a supervisor talk to the customer a few times because they won’t listen to her because she is not in charge.

  32. megatron*

    Just how abusive are these customers? I’ve dealt with some awful ones who come in hot headed, yelling and seemingly enjoying seeing me uncomfortable. My manager at the time didn’t have my back, wouldn’t correct the customers behaviour – I took to hiding whenever I saw them pull up.

  33. justme*

    Allison’s suggestions are all really good. I almost think the one about asking if she’d like some additional help strategizing about difficult calls/people is the one to start with, especially if you bring it up as now that you’ve been in this job a while, you’ve no doubt had to handle some difficult people… maybe even try to get her to open up and give you more details.

    I say this because it’s probably a rare person who enjoys not being able to handle a particular aspect of their job well or enjoys the gymnastics involved in avoiding a task. She might welcome you laying it out on the table (kindly) and giving her guidance and tools to help her be better.

  34. Bast*

    If these are all tasks that make her anxious, is it possible that anxiety is causing Lisa to have some bathroom issues that perhaps she is embarrassed to discuss? I find that sometimes when I am worked up/nervous about a particular task, I have to pee. The nervousness in of itself is enough even if I just went to sometimes make me feel like I have to go again. This can pop up in all kinds of inconvenient situations ie: right before you get called into a job interview, along with the sweating, right before you get on a roller coaster you’ve been waiting an hour for, etc.

    1. yvve*

      idk how that would change the advice tho. i mean, you still have to say something if it’s causing an issue, and try to work out a solution

      1. Bast*

        It doesn’t so much change the response — you still need to have a conversation — as much as it changes the way it is viewed. There is a difference between, “Lisa is slacking and just trying to hide from tasks she doesn’t like” vs. “Lisa has a stress reaction/medical condition that actually does make her need to use the restroom, and she isn’t just hiding to avoid a task.”

  35. Sunflower*

    No advice, but I also wonder how much training is given on how to deal with difficult customers. I had a job that I loved until it switched to customer based. They trained us on everything (policy, technology, laws, etc.) except on how to deal with abusive or pig-headed customers. I quit after over 10 years with the company. I had thought I’d be working there for my entire career but making us deal with customers blew that plan.

    And yes, sometimes I need to run and hide (and cry).

  36. Lily Potter*

    I hate to be the “mean” one here – but dealing with irritated people is a part of this job . The fact that Lisa is trying to foist off part of her job on other employees is something that LW1 can absolutely call out. I totally get the occasional “I can’t deal with Apollo Mongoose ONE MORE TIME!” But this sounds like something that’s happening far too often. The conversation between LW1 and Lisa can be cordial, and the two can brainstorm on how to make this part of Lisa’s job go more smoothly. But – in the end – if Lisa isn’t willing do a part of her job, it may not be the job for her.

    1. Warrior Princess Xena*

      I think as a general rule it’s useful to approach situations where an employee is not performing required tasks as a conversation initially. It can be an opportunity to run a quick self-assessment on how well you’re training, managing, etc. But ultimately I agree with you: if it’s part of the job, and she’s been given the appropriate resources to do it, then ultimately she needs to do it or consider finding a different job.

  37. Adele*

    How good is she at her job otherwise? Because it kind of sounds like you two are bending over backwards for a mediocre employee and might be better off finding a better fit for the position.

  38. GreenDoor*

    Do all tasks need to be done face-to-face? Can any of these tasks be done within a window of time? I’m thinking of instructing her that, say, “I’d like you to call all of our late payers before 10:00 and remind them of their payments due then confirm with me that you’ve completed the list” Then check in at 10 and if she’s not done it, now she owes you a reason.

  39. Audrey*

    I have a lot of these kinds of tasks at my job. A big part of what makes them tough to deal with is when I don’t have answers to their follow up questions (or) the authority to help them.

    Ex. I’m being told to collect a cancellation fee for Mr. Green because he cancelled with less than 24 hours notice; but I know he cancelled with 23 hours notice and he’s a long time client, and he’s going to argue with me about how he was around 24 hours and why am I collecting this fee when he uses our service all the time?? My choice is to argue with him and eventually it will escalate to my boss who will clear the fee for him. So why am I calling him in the first place?? Why not waive it and just let him know we’re doing so?

    I know this is really specific, but this is something my boss actually helped me with by giving me some agency to make calls on this ahead of time. I can actually go to him and say “hey he gave 23 hours notice and he’s going to argue with me, do you want to waive the fee if so?” and sometimes I get a yes, sometimes I get context I needed– like he has done this 3x with my boss personally and was told the next time he would have to pay, or that Mr. Green already knows that he owes it and is totally fine.

    So OP, does she have everything she needs to handle these tough calls? Does she know what to do if someone argues with her? Utterly refuses to pay?
    Does she have the context and authority to help the difficult customer? Or is stuff constantly being escalated? This might be an issue of someone shirking their work duties, but it might be a sign of deeper resources needed for her.

  40. HowCommonIsIt*

    Are unpaid days off really this much of a thing? I’ve never heard of anyone doing it (except for FMLA since that became a thing) except here. I can’t imagine anyone even thinking it would be okay – companies are already understaffed.

    1. BoredKitty*

      It is a thing… I had to do it because I was denied FMLA despite my disability. I literally could not get out of bed! I am back now, and happy to be! I love my students and don’t want to waste my life in bed! But yeah, I had to take a lot of unpaid time. It was rotten.

  41. Kt*

    I’m not sure why your receptionist is being expected to have difficult client conversations. That feels like a step up the ladder (and pay scale) job function.

    1. GythaOgden*

      Because it’s part of the job. I’ve done it for ten years and yeah, you’re the first point of contact with very little power to do anything, but that’s what the job entails.

  42. BoredKitty*

    My first thought is, why is your receptionist doing collections? I’ve worked reception and none of this sounds like it’s appropriate for her job description. My spouse is a bookkeeper and even he doesn’t do collections, and states it upfront to new clients. If you need a collector, you need to hire someone who does this work specifically. Why is your receptionist having difficult conversations? Now, I am a school counselor and that’s a big part of my job. The school aides do not have master’s degrees. I do. I do not expect them to have difficult conversations with my clients! When I was in my 20s and working as a receptionist I was never expected to do more than reception duties (setting up the conference room, greeting clients, offering water, taking messages, calling maintenance for the restrooms as needed, filing, checking the breakroom for cleanliness and snacks, making and serving coffee, checking the general message box, opening the office and arriving first, ordering the occasional lunch…) And these duties are not NOTHING, they make a significant contribution to the culture of an organization. If I had been told to do collections I would have been like… um, what? No. I’m going home.

    1. This is how it is*

      In medical offices, for instance, this is a very common aspect of the job. If Mr. Smith calls in wanting an appointment, and he owes a collection amount of $X, the receptionist needs to tell him that, and explain that he can pay it when he is making the appointment, or that he will need to pay it when he come in for his appointment. While they cannot refuse to see Mr. Smith because of what he owes (unless they have done specific things prior to that, such as sending a dismissal letter), it is absolutely within the purview of the receptionist to ask for this to be collected. Part and parcel of working for a medical practice. Not sure if this letter pertains to that, but just how it is if it is.

      1. GythaOgden*

        Yup, agreed. In the last six months of my tenure as a receptionist, we had a clinic installed in the empty office space that had just been gathering dust for three years. Thanks to the NHS we’re not in the business of collections (although there are some things that the NHS doesn’t cover and GPs levy a fee on, that is generally handled by actual surgeries rather than hospital clinics, and my mum pays my private dentist fees but the number of times I’ve received a letter saying she hasn’t settled my bill is kind of embarrassing) but there are people who think we’re wizards and can wave magic wands and do things that are unimaginable even now medicine is high tech. The clinic admin was normally there to handle their patients, but unlike our admin desk, didn’t have a stable coverage system, but had a jobshare arrangement where one receptionist handled the morning and one came in in the afternoon, but neither would stay to cover the other like how our own system worked. So there were times when I had to cover for their systems when both admins were off and although I couldn’t access their records, I could go in and out of the clinic and do light clerical work if, for example, a patient turned up on the wrong day. I could have refused but by that time there was so little to do on building reception that it was a welcome break, and doing those odd jobs for others was also a means to an end getting experience dealing with patients, and I’d been rejected from a couple of different jobs by then for lacking direct and consistent patient experience.

        The fact of the matter is that someone working in this field needs to be able to handle the issues faced by the public they serve. There are fewer corporate reception jobs going nowadays as a lot of offices go remote or hybrid, and so it’s a shame the receptionist maybe can’t move on to a place where there’s less stressful encounters, but at some point her job is to handle this situation and by confronting it herself she will get better at it. When I started on reception it was a ‘needs must’ situation — I was desperate for a job and would take anything — and I panicked about picking up the phone, despite actually being quite confident once I was on the line. It’s always a learning curve in any job and no-one is perfect. But at the same time, if you don’t take responsibility for your own learning, other people are much less likely to help you along. There’s only so much that can come from other people — ultimately, the person who has to put the most effort in is your own self.

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