Ask the Staffing Doctor: Cases in Point

Addressing and dealing with an assistant's unauthorized purchase.

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Staffing DoctorR. B. FROM NEW YORK…

I’m a purchasing director at a large, full-service hotel in the northeast. I recently went on vacation for a week and left the purchasing duties to my assistant, who has been with me for about a year. When I returned, I noticed two mystery skids of alcohol in our storeroom. One had several cases of blackberry brandy; the other was piled high with cases of Lambrusco. Neither item is on any menu at the hotel. When I asked my assistant what happened, he said our liquor salesperson had a great deal for us and that he’d give us a deep discount if we purchased them immediately. Now I’m stuck with inventory I can’t move, my asset manager is furious, and I’m pondering whether I should fire my assistant. What’s the best way to correct this situation?

THE STAFF ING DOCTOR ANSWERS…

You will have to sort out three parts to this situation. No matter what the liquor salesperson has said, clearly they leveraged your absence to their advantage. So, what is your history with this distributor? Are they usually on the up and up with you? If the answer is yes, then you must connect with the owner/manager of the distributorship and negotiate a return of the unwanted items or work out a trade for product that you normally use. Most reputable distributors that I have dealt with would not risk the entire future of my business over a one-off shipment of anything.

However, even if your distributor is being reasonable about product returns, I would still ask for the salesperson to be replaced. Someone who had pulled a fast one like that while I was off property would see my trust in them drop to nil. Now, if the distributor is always trying to pull the wool over your eyes, I’d do everything possible to realign my inventory away from their products. Snake oil sales is, as snake oil sales does.

Secondly, if the distributor is usually a solid partner but takes a hard line on these returns, or you have some obscure liquor law that prevents trades in kind, and you find yourself stuck with this brandy and Lambrusco quandary, it is time to get creative. You did not mention if the Lambrusco in question is dry or sweet, but you could easily come up with tasty mimosa, sangria, spritzer, or fizz recipes that, if featured, could help you move some cases.

As far as the blackberry brandy goes, I’d try to get your entire kitchen team involved in developing some novel ways to introduce blackberry brandy-sauced center plate menu items or featured desserts. All on its own, blackberry brandy isn’t really a headliner for cocktails, but a quick jump online will provide you with a long list of famous and infamous cocktails where blackberry brandy is a key addition. Historically speaking, Rum Runners, Bee Stingers, grape sodas, or Tequila Sunsets have all been well received, and you could benefit by featuring them throughout the hotel.

Finally and least complex is the response over your assistant’s actions. As it has been known to happen, if there is any evidence of your assistant participating in an over-ordering and kickback scam, he has to go. However, if you take into consideration that a year isn’t much time for anyone to learn their chops and if your assistant has previously been on the right track, I would consider the following scenario as a useful guide: Years ago, IBM CEO Tom Watson called an executive into his office after his business deal lost the company $10 million dollars. The man assumed he was being fired. Watson told him, “Fired? I spent $10 million educating you. I just want to be sure you learned the right lessons.”

Chase LeBlanc
Chase LeBlanc is the founder and CEO of Leadagers, LLC, and is a hospitality management performance coach with more than 25 years of experience. He is also the author of High Impact Hospitality: Upgrade Your Purpose, Performance and Profits!