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How Do I Write a Glowing Reference for a Terrific Employee? This and More of Your Questions Answered for September

Plus, pointers for sparking your staff to show more initiative.

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What’s the best way to tell a customer you’d really rather not take their American Express card?

To be sure, there are reasons to wish they just would leave home without it. AMEX’s extra charges and reputation for slow payment are annoying, but once you make it clear through store signage that you accept all major cards, you don’t have much of choice but to take their American Express card with a smile. “Don’t ever, ever, ever, ask your customer, ‘Oh, do you have another card?’ In terms of customer service, that’s just plain lame,” says Rick Segel, author of Retail Business Kit for Dummies. Remember, your customer might be saving up points for a reward, or may be close to their limit on their other card, and your hesitancy to take their card puts them in an awkward position, he says.

One of our employees is leaving to start her own print shop. What should I do?

“We’ve had employees who have started their own printing businesses that are not in direct competition with us, and we’ve helped them grow,” says Carmen Rad, founderpreneur, CR&A Custom. “Relationships with former employees can be beneficial, as it establishes how we should treat each other as we part ways. Relationships are never broken at the beginning. It’s when changes occur that one’s true colors and values are exposed.”

I’ll admit I’m a helicopter manager, but if I didn’t keep an eye on everything and intervene, nothing would get done properly. How can I get my staff to show more initiative and responsibility?

It sounds as if you’ve micromanaged your staff into drones. Basically, you’ve got two options: Go big picture, where you give them ownership of their responsibilities on a day-to-day basis, or go small, where every procedure and system is mapped out in detail. The first requires employees with the right personality and experience who will know what to do when you say, “Ok, our goal is to wow every person who comes in. Go to it!” The second requires a lot of work from you in putting systems in place and providing the necessary training. In such cases, one approach is to imagine that you’re planning to open another business 3000 miles away and put in writing everything you’d want the remote employees to know, from how to run the POS system to how to make deposits to whom to call if there’s a problem with the building. With such a reference, you’d be able to step aside and, in theory, be confident your staff would be equipped to tackle most situations. Keep in mind, though, that these situations often reflect as much about the manager as the staff. Taking action is how micromanagers deal with anxiety – just as surrendering control is how under-functioning staff deal with challenges. Breaking the pattern is tough, because the manager needs to step back and do less, which means potentially letting bad things happen and tolerating the resulting anxiety. Can you handle that?

One of our staff members, a terrific employee, is leaving for the West Coast. How do I write her a reference?

Think about the references that have impressed you as a boss. Make it personal. Don’t just repeat her qualifications or you flub the chance to extol her character traits – something a résumé can’t convey. Think of a story when she went beyond the call of duty and how your business benefited. That’s really what a prospective employer is looking for. But don’t go on too long – one page should be enough. As with all writing, the shorter it is, the greater impact it will have.

An employer has asked me to comment on a former staff member’s performance. He wasn’t great. Should I be honest?

Unlike the above question, this is an area where it’s often best to keep your mouth shut. Unless he signed a release protecting you from legal action, a simple “It’s our policy not to comment” may save you from a lawsuit.

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