Doing Business:
Finding Humanity in the Corporate World

By Adrea Gibbs

Perhaps it is simply the philosophy that only the key messaging matters when it comes to seducing consumers into buying any given product. A singular, dedicated focus on those flashy promotions, special discounts, and the promise of delivering “the” ideal gift, vacation, furnishings, and so forth, as that laundry list goes on and on. When you watch commercials, invariably you will see the faces of shiny, happy employees helping customers find the perfect product, give directions where to find such-and-such, or check folks out in a jiffy, all the time laughing and chatting with customers. Whether on an assembly line or tossing pizza, they, for all intents and purposes, appear to love the work they do. Or so it seems. That may well be true of some. This is most certainly true for the union actors getting paid scale for their portrayal of these jovial employees…they are acting, after all. But compare what you see on television to the actual people who stand on the front lines of any given business. Do you always see the same enthusiasm when it comes to customer service when “real” people are involved? Sometimes you do, but more often you don’t. It may be true that the person you sought out for assistance had a bad morning (fight with the spouse, kids getting out of the house late, some stranger spilling coffee onto a clean pair of pants with no apology) and thoughts were focused on the negative even before you walked up and were shown, grudgingly, where the hammers were located, but often it is something else that permeates throughout the organization and is quietly evident.

“Happy,” is a relative term and means different things to different entities. If the employee has a job and if the employee is receiving a paycheck, the company may believe the employee is happy, because they are employed and getting paid. What more needs to be done? If they are also obtaining benefits, then, certainly, they should be doubly grateful, right? Sadly, this seems to be the mindset of many companies. They see their workforce as a means to a monetary end, and as long as the sales are happening, why bother investing anything beyond the initial training? The lack of on-going interest in the employee as an individual, departments, and the organization as a whole does more to support a culture of apathy than develop one of respect and an honest understanding of company values.

In speaking with employees working in diverse businesses about the companies for whom they work, it more often paints a very different picture. Underneath the marketing glitz and the glamour is a different truth. While many media campaigns feature happy employees as a way to take advantage of the “halo” effect (read: the “good” employees are a reflection of the “good” company), for some organizations, that mirror is severely tarnished.  That seems to be a misstep in some corporate culture; the image delivered to the consumer is only superficial. The false pretense of lollipops and sunshine is only front-facing and does not extend to those who are integral to the company’s success – the employees on the front line who can easily make or break any sale.

To be fair, employee oversight usually isn’t done purposefully. Many businesses have worked hard to demonstrate the significance of their particular kind of magic that is central to all the organization represents an enticement to future employees. This often includes highly interactive interview processes and amazing on-boarding programs for new employees all designed with the intent of getting them to guzzle the corporate Kool-Aid freely. People are excited.  They believe they matter. They believe they have something special to offer. They believe they have the power to grow, affect change, and make a difference in the scheme of things. Sadly, disenchantment often follows for those who think, and may even have been directly told, they were hired to be game changers, of sorts. Those brought in as upper management specifically with the directive to deliver something “different,” have found they, too are shut down, making them question why they were hired in the first place when, clearly, “yes” men and women are preferred.  For any middle manager, supervisor, even front line staffer, innocence, innovation, and optimism may well be a death knell for those with a genuine want, need, and desire to contribute to the greater corporate good. This is not to say that all corporate entities operate in this manner, they don’t, but a larger percentage does and for those there are lost opportunities when it comes to valuing all their employees.

While the reasons behind this may be varied from company to company, there are two factors that seem to drive this wedge that creates a differential between the corporate messaging sent out into the world and the team members who are acting as the messengers. The cost of on-going training and the cost of employee appreciation.  In short, money. Often, after initial training, everything related to the employee stops. They are not refreshed, retrained, or reinvigorated regardless of whether it has to do with processes, procedures, protocols or simply the value their position brings to the company. They are set afloat in the company infrastructure, expected to figure out whatever comes their way and smile while doing so. They are not acknowledged when meeting set goals, for their accomplishments, or celebrated for little things like birthdays, anniversaries, or a new role. People like it when their bosses remember their birthday. For that matter, so does anyone who likes cake. It makes people feel good. A small act can make a difference. But if a company is more concerned about their bottom line than they are the welfare of their employees who, in reality, have more to do with revenue generation than just about any other potential company expense, they may be amazed at what a $12.99 cake from the grocery store will do for employee morale…not to mention the bottom line.

It doesn’t take much, but it does take the realization that those who are front-facing with customers are really and truly the embodiment of the core values of any organization. These are the people who not only make the sales, but are answering questions, assisting getting things from the top shelf, listening to someone describe what they are looking for, and, yes, getting yelled at in public, when things go wrong, even though they most likely had nothing to do with situation…they just happened to be in proximity. A dedicated, appreciated employee with go the extra mile to help make a sticky circumstance become less so. An unengaged employee will show clear disdain and use every opportunity to pop and snap their bubble gum during any conversation, confrontational or not. An employee of the later description will lose sales and their actions will reflect directly on the company reputation. Subsequently, that poor interaction will rear its ugly head in social media rants and, effectively, take more time, effort, and money to scrub away what could have initially been easily resolved all because an employee feels they havelittle or no value. If the company doesn’t care about them, then why should they care about the company?

Too many organizations segregate their teams based on level; front line, supervisor, manager, director, etc. This creates a silo-mentality in which communication between groups can become limited to email and items posted on the bulletin board. No one talks. No one shares. Essentially, no one cares as long as you seem to be doing your job. What is missing is the interaction.  The supervisor who steps in to help get things opened in the morning because an employee called in sick or will be late. The manager who is willing to replace the toilet paper in the employee bathroom because it is a busy day and no one else may have the opportunity. A director, genuinely, wishing an employee a good day. It demonstrates, in an actionable way, those in management “get” what those on the front lines do and stepping up on a busy day to help out at a cash register speaks volumes over telling someone they need to go faster when there is a line out the door.

It really all boils down to treating people like people, regardless of their position within the company. Yes, a manager’s job is very different to someone who is restocking shelves, but the person restocking shelves is more likely to have a customer interaction.  If the manager wants his employee to treat the customers well, the manager is in a position to model that behavior by behaving kindly to his staffer. A “job well done,” and “thank you for what you just did,” goes a long, long way. As businesses grow larger, it seems the human side of business gets lost, but there is always the opportunity to make a change for the better. 

Companies can easily be compared to holiday packages, in that regard. All of them are beautifully wrapped with pretty paper and neatly tied bows. Tearing into them, you get a sense of anticipation, eager to find what is inside. If when it is opened, there is a stunning nesting doll that continues to reveal surprise after surprise, then you have one very happy recipient. However, if the box is empty, all the promise of the outside becoming hollow, there will be a lot of sad faces in the room and those will be the faces customers will see.

Humanity is all about quality of character. Corporations, being run by people and for people, put customers, as they must, at the forefront as their purchasing is critical to the business. However, without hard-working, devoted, and appreciated employees, the very lifeblood of any organization by virtue their actions can drive or divert sales, most businesses would be at a complete loss. 

Picture this scene from Christmas Vacation. Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, has been waiting for his holiday bonus all year long so he can surprise his family with having an in-ground pool put into the backyard. He has gotten anxious as Christmas is only a day away and he still has not received anything from the office. Suddenly, there is a knock, and the courier, apologizing, delivers “the” envelope. Imagine how Chase’s character must have felt. The anticipation mounting as he shares his plan with the entire family in that special moment…only to find instead of his bonus, he has received a “Jelly-of-the-Month” Club subscription.  That, in a comedic nutshell, does not fall far off the “corporate-lack-of-humanity” tree. Investing in employees is an investment in good business. Jam and jelly may stay sweet for a while, but letting employees know they are valued and respected has no expiration date.