Is your receptionist a good reflection of your culture?

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A very quick disclaimer.

At no point am I intending to disparage the amazing receptionists and front desk personnel whom I have been acquainted with, over many years, from hundreds of companies.

Their job is not an easy one.

They are the gatekeepers for the company.

Customers and clients face them first whenever they enter a building or office.

And they, like all employees hired for the various job responsibilities at a company, are a reflection of the culture and hiring process that recruited them.

Let me explain why I am asking if your receptionists are a good reflection of your company culture.

I believe they are like the coal miners’ canary test for you to know if you have a vibrant workplace or a toxic one. You can almost tell the very minute you walk through the door or enter the reception area.

Great, Good or Bad

I will give you an example of what I mean.

A few years ago, my wife Irene accompanied me as I traveled to Europe to conduct training for managers on the art and science of giving effective recognition to employees.

We flew to 9 different European countries in just under two weeks while I held half-day training sessions with managers from the same company. Human resource leaders provided me with employee engagement scores for each office location along with their specific employee recognition question responses.

My wife sometimes had to wait in the front office area within eyeshot of each receptionist because we would leave immediately for the airport after my sessions.

On each occasion I asked her how she was treated in my absence.

She related to me the different scenarios she encountered.

Some receptionists offered her refreshments. Others took care of mailing postcards she’d written while waiting. There were those who made time to converse with her and recommended where she should go to eat nearby. A receptionist or two would bring her reading material.

And then there were the offices where the receptionist gave only a momentary glance, minimal to no conversation, made no show of caring concern, or at worse, simply ignored her completely.

Each time I asked Irene to describe the reception experience and to label it as great, good or bad.

A Reflection of the Culture

Remember I said I had the engagement scores for each office location?

I looked at the scores for each office location and was able to assign a descriptor of high, medium or low employee engagement based on the engagement percentages. Every leader had been debriefed on their engagement scores months before.

I recall meeting the leader of the lowest engagement score location. He said to me, “We have pretty good engagement scores, don’t we?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him he had the lowest. So I quickly replied, “Your scores may not be as high as you think they are.”

And here is the litmus test of my wife sitting in the front offices while I was in boardrooms or training rooms presenting on employee recognition.

To a tee, every one of her great, good or bad receptionist evaluations correlated with my high, medium or low appraisal of employee engagement levels.

Now this was not the receptionists’ fault.

They, like everyone else, had assimilated their organizational culture into their lives. Beliefs, values, ways of doing things, treating others as they were probably treated, became all who they were.

And it showed.

Interestingly, I once experienced a receptionist at a completely different organization in North America who was extremely helpful and positive every time I visited the company. Based on what I have shared above you would think the organization was super engaged.

However, there were definite leadership and cultural issues present in the company so I was confused about the receptionist.

I pursued this with the receptionist by questioning her one day. She acknowledged the problems and was self-motivated to live up to her personal values and give her best service to everyone who arrived at her desk.

She quit her job a few months later.

Canaries need to be where they can breathe and have the freedom to fly.

This article first appeared on Appreciation Blog.