Surviving a Black Friday work shift

If you have to work on Black Friday (or worse, on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday), you're probably already bracing yourself the longest, most stressful day of the year. Americans love a good bargain, but they sometimes lose their manners in pursuit of it.

To help you survive, I asked Laura MacLeod, creator of From the Inside Out Program, which helps hourly employees increase their skills, for some advice on handling Black Friday.

MoneyWatch: What things should you do before Black Friday hits? Are there any conversations you should have with your manager?

Laura MacLeod: You should absolutely request that management review all Black Friday protocols and procedures with you and your co-workers. Everyone needs to be on the same page to ensure this very hectic day runs smoothly (or as smoothly as possible!). Specific information on these topics should be covered: How lines will be managed; how many people will be allowed in the store at once; return, exchange and discount policies; and how to handle complaints. Know your responsibilities, what decisions you're authorized to make and how to get management assistance.

If you have a question or concern, ask. Chances are, if you're unclear, your co-workers are, too. If you have a suggestion, speak up. You know the job, and your opinion is valuable. Give management a chance to hear and respond to your needs. Explain why an extra coffee pot in the break room or a backup person at the register is important.

Be sure you know who your "relief" person is so you can schedule much-needed breaks. Check in with your relief before the day begins to set up a plan. Agree on break times and signals to communicate effectively. Be pleasant and helpful -- you'll need each other! Learn the names (if you don't already know) of all employees working on Black Friday. This includes porters, managers, supply personnel (shelf-stockers, inventory, back-of-store workers), security, greeters, cashiers, sales. You never know who or what you may need. Get to know everyone, so you can help each other.

MW: Customers can be crazy on Friday. Can you give some tips for defusing tense situations?

MacLeod: Customers will definitely be "crazy" on Black Friday. Knowing how to manage the insanity and defuse tense situations is a crucial skill for employees. Here's how:

  1. Take a deep breath and assess the situation. This will clear your mind and buy you some time! You'll need to think before you act, so take a minute for yourself. You need to remain in control, so use the time to establish calm and prepare to address the customer.
  2. Recognize the customer's feelings. Before attempting to solve the problem, you need to acknowledge the customer's rant. "I see you're frustrated." "You've really had a rough time." "You're clearly angry." This shows you are aware and helps establish a rapport with the customer.
  3. Get the facts. You'll need to understand exactly what the problem is -- the facts, not the emotions. So, statements and questions are needed to clarify: "It sounds like you're saying... Is that right?" "I'm not sure I understand. Could you repeat that last part?"
  4. Be clear and direct. Now you have the facts. Determine what (if anything) you can do to solve the problem and tell the customer clearly and succinctly. So, you might say: "I can certainly help with this. Here are the steps I will take..." or "I'm not able to help you with this. You'll need to speak to a manager at the desk by the entrance."
  5. Use your smile. You will most certainly encounter resistance (or more!) at any point during this interaction. Use your smile to your advantage. When you say, "I'll need you to step back in line" or "I'm not going to argue with you" with a smile, you'll stay in control. Your true emotions -- frustration, anger, disgust -- are covered beautifully with a smile.
  6. Know when to call for help. Even if you follow all these steps, you may encounter an unruly customer you can't manage. Recognize your triggers, and signal your co-worker or a manager for help when you start to feel overwhelmed. Tell the customer -- with a smile on your face -- "Someone will be with you as soon as possible."

MW: What about co-workers? How can you help them if they're stressed-out, tired or overworked?

MacLeod: The best way to help a stressed-out co-worker is to check in when you notice something is amiss. Saying "You look out of it" lets the worker know you're aware. Then, "Let me know if you need anything" shows your willingness to help. If your co-worker clearly needs immediate assistance, you might skip straight to offering to step in for 10 minutes and pick up the workload. A 10-minute break could be just what your co-worker needs to get back on track, and your help will be appreciated. If you see a disagreement between a co-worker and a customer getting a little too hot, take the initiative to signal or call for a manager.

MW: Black Friday shifts are typically long. Any tips for not getting completely exhausted?

MacLeod: Know your schedule inside out and upside down before beginning your Black Friday workday. This includes all break times and length of each break. Be sure you know who will relieve you, and how to signal for relief at an unscheduled time. You never know when you might feel overwhelmed, and you'll need to know how to get off the floor as quickly as possible.

Get a good night's sleep and eat a hearty breakfast. Know your nutritional needs -- you may want to bring snacks and/or lunch and stay hydrated, drinking lots of water. If you bring snacks, be sure to share with your co-workers. They'll be grateful and well fed, and that benefits everyone.