After several minutes searching the stock room, the assistant returned to the shop floor with the particular porcelain cat that the customer had requested. "Oh, you are sweet," said the old lady. "How very kind of you, how very caring."
"That's quite all right," replied the young girl. "In this department store we like to help the customer. It is, after all, our shop."
The idea of staff in large organisations owning a share of their company is not new. It's been around in the retail industry for a long time, with the John Lewis "partnership" paving the way and motivating shop assistants to hunt for porcelain cats in the storeroom whenever the situation arises.
The partnership dividend takes the form of an annual profit-related bonus. And it works well in helping to retain good personnel.
On the face of it, allowing staff to purchase shares in the company they work for looks as if it can only be advantageous to all concerned.
It provides (hopefully) a beneficial savings opportunity; it generates staff loyalty, increasing longevity of tenure in jobs; and it creates conditions of customer care through a culture of ownership - they are my customers, so they matter.
Like "golden handcuffs", however, share ownership by employees has only recently become accepted business procedure in the hospitality trade (see News Analysis, page 16). As usual, the change is being wrought by attempts to solve a difficulty, rather than by an enlightened leap of imagination for the sake of good employment practice. Good staff are leaving: better do something to keep them.
And so, hotel and restaurant groups are beginning to offer their executives salary packages that include share-purchase options.
This is where the policy begins to fall down, however. By and large, the schemes are being applied to "executives" only.
In other words, the trained managers are deemed to be of value; other staff, as one restaurant management representative says, are "free to move on when they want".
Shame. Isn't that what the skills shortage is all about? If staff at the lower end of the skills spectrum were offered the same incentives to remain loyal to a company, chances are many of them could be trained and developed into better, more worthwhile and, therefore, more valuable operatives.
What's more, if staff in the "action zone", the ones with an interface with customers, were motivated in the same way as backroom executives, there might be more searching for porcelain cats going on.
On the other hand, perhaps the staff who feel "less of an incentive" to buy company shares - the lower-paid, for example - would just like more money.
That will be the next revolutionary step in retaining good staff - paying a decent wage for the job done.
Caterer & Hotelkeeper