Politeness


The Economist in an attempt to draw some kind of ‘focus’ has a blog post from an NHS hospital administrator. I have to say, it made me squirm somewhat.

The author seems to be erring on the pernicious side to say the least. S/He is carrying out an important function but seems to have a chip on his/her shoulder about being caught up in the general perception of hatred directed at the public sector.

And the poor admin worker has developed a ‘persecution complex’.

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It’s hard not to be too mean about the author but the Economist obviously picked wisely for someone to say exactly what they wanted him/her to say.

Now, I know this is going to sound twee, but I have an incredible amount of respect for our admin workers. We have a very hard-working team and one of them in particular shows almost inhuman amounts of patience and kindness that I admire beyond anyone else in that office!

We could not work without them and every time an admin hour is cut, about three ‘front line’ hours are taken up by trying to combat systems we have no idea how to work efficiently.

So that aside, the chip on the shoulder of the admin worker that the Economist found, is the size of a Californian Redwood.

S/He seems to defend his/her rudeness to patients

Earlier this week, for example, I had a call from a very angry patient. It wasn’t clear why he was so enraged, but it was pretty clear very soon after picking up the phone that whatever the reason, I wasn’t to blame and probably couldn’t do anything about it. So, after trying to tell him this more than once, and warning him that if he didn’t stop shouting I was going to stop trying to talk to him, I put the phone down on him while he was in mid-rant.

Oh dear.

I attended my ‘customer care’ day as a part of my induction – yes, all social workers go through it. We saw it as a bit of a joke but actually, I took one of my most important lessons from it.

Firstly, if someone is angry, apologies are often useful – even if you are not personally responsible, you can diffuse a lot of anger by apologising for the way that person is feeling or by apologising for the way the organisation is treating them without accepting personal responsibilities.

The last thing in the world you want to hear if you are angry is someone saying ‘It’s nothing to do with me’. A quiet ‘I’m sorry you feel it’s been so difficult.’ goes a long way in diffusing some of the initial rant.

I say this both as an social worker and believe me, NHS administrator, if you have such a giant issue about the way your role is perceived, try a few hours in social services, at least everyone understands the importance of hospitals, but also as someone who has been known to phone up services with complaints and felt fobbed off.

Whatever Trust this employee works for has a job on their hands and clearly hasn’t thought about even the most basic customer fronting training. No, we don’t work in the private sector but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn about how to treat people as human beings and an awareness that just if we aren’t personally responsible for their distress and anger, we can take some kind of corporate front.

The sad thing is that firstly, the comments are full of people saying ‘oh, this is why we need a private healthcare system where employees know their places’! Hrmm.

And that this does a massive disservice to the excellent and thoughtful administrative staff who do fantastic jobs with kindness and politeness.

The cynic in me says the Economist found the perfect stooge to portray the public sector through whatever the opposite of ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ is!

(suggestions welcome!).

4 thoughts on “Politeness

  1. I used to work as a medical receptionist a doctor’s surgery. I’m now a social worker. I feel I come from the priveliged position of having worked as an office admin for 10 years before I finished my professional qualifications.

    I once had a patient bring in a JAM JAR full of urine for her husband’s urine sample. She plonked it down on my counter. I told her I couldn’t accept it in that container (contamination!) and that she needed to decant it into a urine sample tube. She stood her ground and told me to do it. I calmly explained that my job as a receptionist does not extend to dealing with urine samples, that a nurse should do it.

    She got angrier. I thought I was going to end up with her husband’s urine all over me!

    In the end I had to interrupt the staff nurse at the surgery to get her to come out and decant the jam jar into a proper sample tube. She did it.

    That’s just one story of millions I could tell you about how people behave towards admin staff… It means I am ALWAYS nice to the admin staff and always make sure to speak to them. No exceptions. And whaddya know, I always get my work done before anybody else.

  2. I doesn’t resonate with me, reflecting on how things are in my workplace. I spend a lot of time with secretaries and admin (since sorting out/reviewing processes for a whole service can be more important than seeing a handful of patients in a clinc). I know them very well. I’ve been out with them, the worse for drink, more than I have clinic colleagues. The thoughts and behaviours described in that article are far far away from how things seem in my corner.

  3. Thanks for the comments – I think the thing that irritated me about the article is that it is so different from my experiences working with some fantastic, kind and sympathetic admin workers and to be frank, this kind of blog presents such a bad view of them and works exactly into some of the stereotypes..

  4. It does do exactly that. I’ve been going on about the public service ethos latley and how big a thing it is and the comments made in that post turn these arguements on their heade which makes you wonder as you say why it was selected. Almost everyone I worked with in the public sector whether a professional, manager or admin would go the extra mile due to the sheer belief in what they were doing. Regarding the comments on the post the irony is that in my experience the private sector really don’t have a magic formula for great customer service, it can really be variable (exhibiting the same kind of ‘what me? Not my fault, not my problem) mentality and on occasion really, really poor – just look at a privitised utility company!

    Saying all this though. I started out answering the phone at Social Services and lost count of the times I was used as a buffer between an angry caller and the professional who they felt they needed to talk to. It was due to bad systems which did improve, but I felt so powerless caught in this position and it did take its toll on me mentally so I have some empathy with the need to build a wall.

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