The Challenge of Fairness

I struggle with the idea of fairness. Fairness is important to me. It bothers me, deeply, when I see things that are unfair. As a kid, I hated it when people would say, “The world isn’t always fair!” It was always just a transparent excuse for people treat others unfairly. Just because the world isn’t fair doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be.

Most libraries have a Patron Code of Conduct: a document laying out behavioral and usage expectations for people who use the library. Fairness is essential when it comes to these codes of conduct and especially when it comes to disciplinary actions in response to infractions.

Fairness requires us to apply our codes of conduct equally to all patrons. That seems obvious, right?

Maybe not.

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Theory vs. Practice

Or: My Last Thoughts on the Controversial Update to the Interpretation of the Meeting Room Policy of the Library Bill of Rights

I’m happiest when exploring the realm of ideas, big picture theory. As a kid, I would spend hours sitting in my room thinking about the nature of reality and existence, our minds and souls and bodies, perception, the Universe and time. As an undergraduate in college, I took enough philosophy classes to qualify for a minor in philosophy. A good intellectual debate is one of my favorite things.

I love delving into theory. But there’s one thing about this world which I know to be true:

Nothing ever works in practice the way it works in theory. Reality never matches the model.

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The Problem of Neutrality

I’ve written before about my misgivings regarding the ideal of neutrality in public libraries. I recently read an excellent post by Dr. Donna Lanclos titled, “Maybe We Shouldn’t Talk About Diversity Anymore.” There’s a quote in this piece which echoes the argument I’ve made about why neutrality is a problematic concept:

What about notions of ‘neutrality’ and ‘nice’ that talk about the importance of ‘all voices’ when we really should be protecting voices that historically have no platform. Let’s end false equivalencies, and recognize that people who have traditionally had power and influence (especially white men) don’t ever really lose their opportunity to participate just because we make sure that people and especially women of color get to take up space and have their say.”

(http://www.donnalanclos.com/maybe-we-shouldnt-talk-about-diversity-anymore/, posted June 30, 2018)

I want to explain a bit more about why neutrality makes me uncomfortable.

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Onward & Upward

I’ve written three posts over the past few weeks exploring lessons I’ve learned about customer service through a variety of past jobs and experiences, as well as from my more recent years as a public librarian. I’ve spent a lot of time lately looking back over my working life and mining it for all the wisdom I can.

There’s a reason for this retrospection:

On June 11th, I begin a new job. I’m leaving the Kansas City Public Library—today is my last day, actually.

I’ve accepted a position with the Johnson County Library system in Johnson County, Kansas (the Kansas side of the KC metro area). I’ll be the Branch Manager for three of their locations: Gardner, Edgerton, and Spring Hill.

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I Hate Saying “I’m Sorry”

I’ve done customer service in a lot of different jobs and in every one, a typical exchange goes like this:

Angry Customer: I need you to do [something completely unreasonable]!

Customer Service Rep: I’m sorry but I can’t do that.
*or*
I’m sorry but that’s against policy.

For a long time, every time I heard a customer service rep say, “I’m sorry but…,” I cringed. I hated hearing it. I tried never to say those words. Why?

Because I’m not sorry. Because I haven’t done anything wrong. Because my employer hasn’t done anything wrong. We’re not at fault.

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My Customer Service Philosophy: Lessons from a Ten Year Old

I was asked recently what my customer service philosophy is. I responded with this:

The customer isn’t always right but they’re usually not wrong.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that some behavior is simply unacceptable. Customers don’t have the right to abuse staff, to expect preferential treatment, to demand we make exceptions just for them. Basic human decency and respect are still required. I won’t tolerate threats to the safety of staff members.

However, in my experience, when someone is acting out there’s usually a reason for it. There’s usually a need or a want that isn’t being met—and that need or want is usually legitimate. Problematic behavior arises when someone can’t figure out how to get what they need or want. And while the behavior may be a problem, this underlying reason can be productively addressed.

A ten year old boy taught me this lesson.

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Experience & Context

Some years ago, when I was still doing theater work in Chicago, I had gotten off a job late one night and found myself craving a pint of ice cream. So I stopped by a corner market on my way home. Another gentleman—a complete stranger to me—arrived at the same time I did. We approached the door just in time to see the proprietor throw the lock and change the sign to “Closed”. He shrugged at us, pointed to the sign listing the store’s hours, and walked off.

I was disappointed and somewhat miffed. The other guy proceeded to throw a spectacular tantrum.

I stood there nonplussed, unsure what to do. Once this strange man had stopped yelling and stomping around, I asked him, “Are you OK?” (Inane question, I know—clearly he wasn’t—but it was late and I was tired and hungry.)

He proceeded to tell me a Tale of Woe for the Ages. All about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, very bad week, very bad month. Everything that could go wrong in this guy’s life had gone wrong. All he wanted now was some potato chips—crunchy bites of salty comfort. Is that too much to ask?

So I took him to a local bar and bought him a beer.

He apologized for making such a scene. He knew it was a ridiculous overreaction. I assured him I totally understood. And I did understand: for me, having the door locked in my face was annoying. For him, it was ONE MORE THING in a long line of crappy things that had happened to him lately.

For him, it was the one thing too many.

This experience taught me something important:

Context matters.

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