Friday, March 4, 2011

Well Dressed (Almost)

One of my jobs while I was in the corporate world was loss prevention for a national paint retailer.  I was charged with the task of improving the profitability of underperforming stores by identifying control weaknesses and investigating internal theft.  Prior to this position, I had been an internal auditor, and had gained a reputation for my ability to catch people that were stealing from the company.  The most common offenses were stealing cash and selling merchandise “out the back door.”

It was summer in the late 1980’s, way back when we still wore suits and ties to work.  I had a closet full of business suits and power ties, and took great pride in my professional appearance.  It gave me confidence and allowed me to be quietly intimidating.  My boss had asked me to fly to a small town in rural North Carolina to visit a store where the highest paid sales rep in the company worked.  He was selling huge jobs and was making large bonuses each year, but the store he was selling through was losing money.  Their annual inventory always came up short, and my job was to figure out why.

The element of a surprise visit often worked to my advantage.  I stayed overnight at a hotel so I could get to the store before the manager arrived.  I would walk into the store with him when he opened so there would be no opportunity to hide things from me.  As I was getting dressed that morning, I put on my charcoal gray suit, starched white shirt, and red power tie.  But there were no socks in my suitcase!  It was summertime, and I had traveled the previous evening wearing a pair of deck shoes and no socks, and I had forgotten to pack any.  The hotel posted a sign in the rooms that said something like, “Forgot Something?  Check with our front desk for items you may need.”  Well, of course, the sign didn’t mean they would have articles of clothing, and I needed to get going to arrive at the store before the manager got there.  I slipped on my polished Bostonian wingtip loafers, and headed to work.

As employees arrived, word got around that Loss Prevention was there investigating something.  Everyone was nervously working and walking around, doing their best to steer clear of me.  I could see them look twice when they noticed my bare ankles that were exposed as I sat at the desk and worked, or turned around to ask someone a question.

By mid-morning, one of the store office employees had become a little more comfortable with my presence there, and was telling me about her son that wanted to play college football.  As she talked, I absentmindedly crossed my legs, and she just stopped talking and looked at me.  I laughed and told her that I had forgotten to pack my socks, and I was going to buy some when I went to lunch.  Being a true Southern lady, she just said, very kindly, “Well I wasn’t going to say anything.  I just thought it was one of those things you younger guys do these days.”

I bought some socks and caught the culprit who had been stealing.  He was immediately dismissed from the company.  But I was impressed by the kindness of the gracious employee who was willing overlook my fashion faux pas rather than risk embarrassing me.

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