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Pitfalls of Business Travel

These and many other expressions are used in the circles in which we travel, whether it is retail or not, whether we are young or old, new to the management ranks or a C-level executive. Everyone should understand what these expressions mean. But living up to those expectations, is entirely something else.

This article is intended for the loss prevention professional, whether you are a single unit manager, district or regional level, or corporate executive. Regardless of whether you have two years experience, or 32, this is a subject we all need to think about.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written by a senior loss prevention executive in one of the top 100 retailers in the United States. Because of the nature of the topic, getting corporate approval to publish this article under his or her name would be impossible. However, we believe the topic is important to the LP industry and, therefore, have chosen to publish this article anonymously

Issues of Perception

In our first experience in management, no matter where we started, we quickly encounter hypocrisy and issues of perception. Not that we are running for political office, but we might as well be.

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Excessive drinking, rich foods, and who knows what else. This can be life on the road when there is nothing better to do except work…and that can be done tomorrow or the next day, not tonight.

One of our primary priorities in loss prevention is to identify employees who are doing things dishonestly or unethically, bring the behavior to light, and, in some cases, see that the employee is terminated. Then, how often do we leave work and engage in behaviors that make the employee we fired earlier that day look like a choirboy?

Essentially, we are role model by day and hypocrite by night.

Ask yourself this question. Have you ever read the newspaper headlines about a sports hero who does something stupid, says the wrong thing, or goes to the wrong place, damaging his career, and we mutter under our breath, “That idiot.” In fact, we may engage in similar behavior, not get caught or identified, and be completely oblivious to our own conduct…and the hypocrisy rolls on.

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The First-Time Manager

Now that I have sufficiently and unfairly lumped all good LP professionals in with the bad, let’s start from the beginning and set a course for behavior awareness and modification.

The loss prevention executive most frequently starts his career in a single unit with a five- to six-day work week, basic store hours, a few nights here and there, a couple of overnight surveillances, and that’s about it. But soon, here comes the company traveler with news from far away places. This guy is an investigator, district or regional director, or from headquarters. He has a company credit card, a daily allocation for meals, and complete freedom to come and go as he pleases. To the store-level executive, he is “the man”—a real player.

The store guy, from hereon referred to as Joey, soon starts to emulate him, talk like him, act like him, and treat him as a role model. The next thing you know they are having a beer after work, talking about life on the road, and all the stuff that has very little to do with loss prevention or the company that they work for.

Soon, Joey starts imagining himself in that role. He figures a couple of good inventory results, the right connections, a good presentation or two, a handful of quality employee interviews, and the resume is complete. Time for a spin in the company car.

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So our guy lands the job. He is promoted in the organization, or maybe to a new company. Armed with nothing other than a briefcase and a questionable sense for prioritization, he begins his multistore career—and here is where the real story begins

Lessons of the Road

The first thing that he realizes is that it is not all that it’s cracked up to be. It can be a lonely place on the road. But he has a solution for that, he calls his wife, girlfriend, or significant other 27 times on his first day. But that starts to wear off once they have exhausted topics that range from what they ate for lunch to who was on Oprah.

The next thing he discovers is that nobody is monitoring him, and he does, in fact, have the freedom that he anticipated. But is that freedom a good thing? It differs from the structured life of a single-unit manager. When are the meetings? Who to have lunch with? Conference calls? These things happen on the road, but far less frequently.

He notices that his boss calls once or twice a week, checking on mostly surface issues. It soon becomes apparent that he is responsible for his own actions and that he will have to establish his own disciplines. However, he is not at that point yet. He is still searching, exploring, and learning.

One of the first things he discovers is extra sleep. Most of his stores open at 10:00 a.m. He used to report for work to his single unit at 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. How else do you use those two extra hours, but for sleep?

Then he learns the timing issues. Always plan and execute early checkout of the hotel. You want no checkout receipts with a 9:30 a.m. time on them. No breakfast receipts like that either. He finds that he can take advantage of the free breakfast to avoid the receipt issue entirely as well as save his allowed meal money for dinner. It is kind of like Rachel Ray’sBest Eats in Town for $40 a Day.

He also learns that his boss rarely calls him on the cell or at the hotel in the early morning hours. Why? Who knows? It just doesn’t happen.

All of this thought, planning, and behavior to get a couple of extra hours sleep and avoid sending emails, answering voice mails, prepping for the day, and setting priorities. Why? Because nobody told him any differently

The Work Day

Joey arrives at his first location promptly at 10:30 a.m. Nobody notices. Nobody says anything. His boss doesn’t know. All is good. The plan works to perfection.

Joey soon considers that an equal amount of planning for the end of the day should work as well, if not better. Depending on where the corporate office is located, or where his boss is headquartered, East or West Coast, dictates how long the working day will last.

If Joey is based in the West with his boss in the East, Joey will be hard to find or track by cell after 3:00 p.m. Pacific time. This aspect of the home office work ethic develops due to the lack of phone calls or emails requiring an immediate response in the late afternoon. This turns into a habit that causes him to become increasingly less productive as he is left to his own devices. He wants to be managed. He wants some structure. But he just doesn’t know it yet.

Some managers inadvertently foster this behavior because they are fearful of being labeled a “micro-manager.” So they steer clear of conducting the required and needed check ups, task assignments, and other management interaction that is part of their supervisory role that ensures the person works a full day. The lack of direction further encourages Joey’s behavior.

Ready for the Night

Now that he has managed a typically under-productive business day, it is time to get focused on his social calendar, which continues to grow in importance. You see, Joey has learned to prioritize what is important.

Occasionally these “social get-togethers” will involve a fellow LP staff member, sometimes the local district sales manager, or even store associates are in play. Joey is looking for some company to alleviate the loneliness, and any port in the storm will do. The wife is 500 miles away and suspects nothing. Excessive drinking, rich foods, and who know what else are in the cards. This can be life on the road when there is nothing better to do except work—and that can be done tomorrow or the next day, not tonight.

So, a late night of foolishness develops, full of comments that may come back to haunt him, behaviors that will tarnish his reputation and can not be easily corrected, not to mention the potential damage to his physical well being.

This night is not an isolated incident either. It more than likely becomes a chain of behavior that folds one day over the next, week in, week out, becoming a habit that puts his health, family, and career in jeopardy.

Taking Responsibility

Now, before you think that this article is transitioning to a warm-and-fuzzy self-help piece focusing on nutrition and exercise, it is not. We need to save Joey from himself, and we cannot get there with that as a focus. The focus needs to be on us—the managers and executives responsible for the Joeys in our organization.

We need to help salvage his career before it ends all too quickly. And it will end for one of a variety of reasons. It may be because the abuse is detected by an inquiry of the travel expenses or investigative surveillance by the managers who failed Joey. Sometimes, Joey himself may recognize the abusive behavior and without any will power or ability to change, he is forced to take a dramatic step. He quits, saying the travel is getting to him. What was probably getting to him is the financial trouble for the unreimbursed bar bills and other extravagances. Or his wife forces a change because he inadvertently communicates how much fun he is having away from her and the kids. If that’s the case, Joey can’t confess to the abuse to his boss, so he takes the safer path and quits, takes a lesser job, and rationalizes the reduction in travel as an improvement in the quality of life.

Maybe that is the case, but it didn’t have to be that way. The loss prevention professional on the road needs coaching on how to travel, how to function away from home and office, and what he or she will encounter and how to deal with it. They need planning skills to help them manage both their business and personal life.

They need tips on how to deal with the spouse, girlfriend, or boyfriend, and how to be a good partner and parent who must travel often. For example, if you constantly mention how much you hate the travel or hate being away from them, they will commiserate with you and that is not helpful. Calling from a restaurant at 11:30 p.m. is a bad idea no matter how you put it—“The flight was late,” “Traffic was terrible,” “Bad weather.” It becomes just another excuse, and it wears on them. You see, they, too, are lonely, and they don’t need to hear it.

On the other hand, if you catch a sporting event on the road or enjoy a great dinner, downplay it. No need to lie, just emphasize how you can’t wait to get home, because, hopefully, that is the truth.

It is, however, essential to mention the importance of what you are doing, because your family needs to know that you believe in what you are doing. You are working for both your future and the collective benefit of your family. But don’t over do it. It is not necessary to call multiple times day. And gifts, such as flowers for the wife or knickknacks for the kids, are okay once in a great while, but they are expensive and unnecessary. They are perceived as you are expecting or hoping for forgiveness, and you can not keep it up over time. Once you stop bringing home a gift, they will think something is definitely wrong

Training Young Managers

I said above that those of us in management and executive positions need to be responsible for helping young professionals manage their work life on the road. How do we do that?

In researching this article, I hoped to find training materials or other articles where others who are much smarter than me have compiled all the guidance necessary to help us give our people the direction they need. I found none. Perhaps you have suggestions. However we come up with the information, the loss prevention industry needs to have answers for this situation.

I’ll throw out a few suggestions to start. Hopefully, you will respond with more ideas.

  • To begin with, senior executives need to set an example. Limit alcohol consumption. Don’t dismiss erratic or unprofessional behavior as an isolated incident, and certainly don’t instigate unprofessional behavior yourself. Ensure that you treat your staff members in a business-like way, even in social settings.
  • Dedicate time at your local and regional meetings to discuss travel and expenses and the importance of responsibility and good judgment.
  • Develop procedures for monitoring mileage logs and post-travel expense statements. More importantly, communicate that travel and expenses are monitored for abuses as a standard rule. If travelers know they are monitored, they will develop good spending and behavior habits.
  •   Provide alternative suggestions for promoting healthy, positive behaviors on the road. Good eating and exercise suggestions are available to help travelers maintain their physical and mental health   (see “Fitness Balance at Home and on the Road”).

Living up to Perception

This article was not about being good at the job. Most organizations spend a lot of time, energy, and resources making sure our people are good at what they do. But there are far too many Joeys in our business, and we need to stop the trend. We need to direct them better, monitor them more closely, guide them to avoid the pitfalls that have befallen those who came before them, never assuming that they will get it on their own.

They need to understand that perception is important. After all, the loss prevention industry stands for integrity in the workplace. We need to provide our people with the tools to live up to that perception, not only to those we associate with in the business world, but also those who rely on us at home, those who look up to us as Mom or Dad, and, maybe most importantly, those we look at in the mirror.

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