By Jeff MacDowell | Executive Director


Your employees are drowning in the waters of supply delays and rude customers. Offer them a helping hand and a reason to keep swimming.

RIGHT NOW, besides sourcing product, finding and keeping employees is one of the largest problems we face. We offer a few reasons why this is happening:

  1. THE GOVERNMENT is basically paying people to sit on their asses (my opinion alone).
  2. CONSUMERS emerging from COVID seem to be exceptionally rude, and employees are burning out from dealing with these entitled people. Having to tell them their order will not arrive for weeks and weeks is wearing our employees out.

    Even in the hospitality industry, I have seen a meanness in people in restaurants and hotels, where consumers are demanding perfection in a short-staffed world.

  3. BECAUSE THE WORLD IS EVOLVING to No. 2, employees head to option No. 1.

    The expectation of consumers seems to be that coming out of isolation, they expect everything to be back to normal. While many under-stand the complications of supply chain issues, whether you see it or not, your employees are being worn down from the stresses of supply and demand.

The Richter Rat Experiment

The Richter Rat Experiment

While comparing your employees with rats right now seems odd, work with me on this one. Failure to communicate and give your employees hope will have them turn into rats, similar to the study I discovered while reading the other day.

The study builds on the work of the late Johns Hopkins professor Curt Richter. In the 1950s, he conducted a gruesome experiment with rats. He first took a dozen domesticated rats, put them into jars half-filled with water, and watched them drown. The idea was to measure the amount of time they swam before they gave up and went under.

The first rat, Richter noted, swam around excitedly on the surface for a very short time, then dove to the bottom, where it began to swim around, nosing its way along the glass wall. It died two minutes later.

Two more of the 12 domesticated rats died in much the same way. But, interestingly, the nine remaining rats did not succumb nearly so readily; they swam for days before they eventually gave up and died.

Now came the wild rats, renowned for their swimming ability. The ones Richter used had been recently trapped and were fierce and aggressive. One by one, he dropped them into the water. And one by one, they surprised him: Within minutes of entering the water, all 34 died.


“What kills these rats?” he wondered. “Why do all the fierce, aggressive, wild rats die promptly on immersion and only a small number of the similarly treated, tame, domesticated rats?”

The answer, in a word: hope.

“The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight — it is rather one of hopelessness,” he wrote. “[T]he rats are in a situation against which they have no defense … they seem literally to ‘give up.’”

Richter then changed the experiment: He took other, similar rats and put them in the jar. Just before they were expected to die, however, he picked them up, held them a little while, and then put them back in the water. “In this way,” he wrote, “the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless.”

This small interlude made a huge difference. The rats who experienced a brief reprieve swam much longer and lasted much longer than the rats who were left alone. They also recovered almost immediately. When the rats learned they were not doomed, that the situation was not lost, that there might be a helping hand at the ready — in short, when they had a reason to keep swimming — they did. They did not give up, and they did not go under.

After the elimination of hopelessness, the rats do not die.

Gratitude and Support

Obviously, there are many differ-ences between humans and rats. But one similarity stands out: We all need a reason to keep swimming. In essence, your employees need hope. They need to be told it is going to be alright. They need to be told they matter. My suggestions to you based on this study and common sense:

COMMUNICATE. If you are not meeting with your employees every 30 days, showing you care, and understanding what their personal struggles are, you are already positioned to lose.

SURPRISE AND DELIGHT. Just as your customers expect it, you should use your knowledge of your one-on-one meetings with employees and express your gratitude for what they do with things beyond pay. An extra day off, the permission to leave early on a nice day, unexpected lunch or dinner, a gift card to a local restaurant are all good examples.

HAVE THEIR BACKS. Step in with difficult customers before they de-moralize your team. You can be the bad guy, the buffer and the rock star to keep your employee motivated.

PAY UP. If you have a must-keep employee, the time is now to keep them. I assure you if others see their talent, they will try to take them.

This is a time like none other, and as much as I would like to write about luxury selling or showroom design, it appears we all must hang on for the ride and make sure our teams remain intact.

On that note, as the world changes, when you see a service/retail employee offering exceptional service, have your business card ready. You should be willing and able to offer that person a job on the spot.

Keep in mind that most independent distributors need to up their game in becoming an attractive place to work. You are generally recruiting millennials, who are looking for companies that work toward a cause, have established community initiatives, and are focused on everything from reducing carbon emissions as well as their own personal well-being.

Certainly not the focus when I entered the job market. All things change, and you need to change if you are going to find and keep the talent to move you to the next chapter of your business.