Don't treat businesses like people

Photo: Philip Brewer

When you fall short of meeting your obligations, it's natural to feel bad.  In fact, it's natural to want to not only meet the letter of your obligation, but also the spirit:  to do what it takes to make the other person feel fairly treated.  These feelings are very human, and they work well when you're interacting with humans acting as individuals.  When you're dealing with businesses, though, they work against you--and businesses will take advantage of that.

Nobody is much surprised when a corporation meets its legal obligations but goes no further.  People like to suggest that going beyond is often good business--a reputation for providing good service is worth something--but they don't think it's a moral failure when a corporation does only the legal minimum, because everybody knows that corporations are not moral entities.

With people, though, the rules seem different.

You see this distinction especially starkly with bankruptcy.  A person will often feel shame at the idea of bankruptcy.  Obviously, a corporation does not.  (The owner of a very small corporation might, but that's just another example of confusing the person with the business.)  When a corporation files for chapter 11 and the court tells it that it doesn't need to honor its gift cards or its pension obligations, no one imagines that they'll be able to get better treatment by making the corporation feel bad.

Corporations, on the other hand, use this sort of moral suasion to try to control people all the time.  You see it, for example, with debt collectors--they try to establish something that seems like a personal relationship, so that the borrower feels bad about being unable to meet his obligation.

You see it most often with employees, because the constant interactions between employee and manager create a circumstance where it's natural to feel a personal relationship.

When a friend of mine quit one job to take another, his old employer offered a large raise and said a lot of nice things about how important he was and how highly valued his work was.  My friend was feeling bad about leaving and seriously considering changing his mind, because he wanted to do right by his moral obligation to his old employer, but then remembered that he'd had a salary review just a few months before, where the focus had been on his shortcomings and where the employer had put a dollar figure on the value of his work that was quite a bit lower.  Neither those critical statements nor the new complimentary ones were a reflection of what the corporation actually thought--after all, corporations don't think.  Rather, both were an attempt by management to get what they wanted--my friend's work at the lowest possible cost.

Another friend was hesitating to move to a much better job, because when she'd been hired, her boss had asked her to "commit" to stay until the end of a project and she'd done so.  I pointed out that there were many things her boss might have done to give her incentives to stay--most obviously, he might have given her a contract with a completion bonus.  Not only had he not done that, he hadn't given her a contract at all--and I'm sure he wouldn't have "committed" to keep paying her until the end of the project even if business turned down.  He had asked for a commitment because such a request costs nothing, and just might work.

Corporations would rather not do expensive things like paying competitive salaries, giving regular raises, and offering a pension to reward long-term service.  That costs money, and corporations would rather not spend money.  So, they usually start by trying to use a sense of personal obligation to get people to do whatever will help the business.  That's why they ask people to "commit" to the company--they do it because they know people will feel obliged to stand by their word, and because guilt is much cheaper than paying a project completion bonus.

This is true for relationships besides just that of employee--customers, borrowers, clients, and venders are all subjected to similar efforts, where the corporation tries to structure things so that people feel (and behave) as if they were in a personal relationship with the business.  They do this because it works.  It works because people have trouble distinguishing between their legal obligations and their moral obligations, they allow their feelings to push them into making poorer choices.

Because this is all a deliberate effort by corporations to control you, it's sometimes not quite clear what kind of relationship you're in.  After all, even though your counterpart is a corporation, your interface with it--boss, loan officer, salesperson--is a person.  The whole thing is structured to make you feel uncomfortable if you leave him or her in the lurch.  Don't be fooled.

None of this is to say that you're not stuck with your legal obligations.  I'm not suggesting that you cheat or steal or even engage in sharp practices or take advantage.  But don't imagine that you have a moral obligation to a business.  Your moral obligations are to people.

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Lynn Truong's picture

I've always told my friends that they shouldn't feel bad about quitting a job to pursue something bigger and better, no matter how much they love their boss. There is no job loyalty, because for the most part, the company won't be loyal to you. (Think about whether your boss would ever stay at a job just to keep you happy.)

I left the corporate world because of the terrible office politics they played (boss will say, "Lynn, I fought tooth and nail for your super-duper raise, because you deserve it" -- when they gave everyone the exact same raise, and they did that because that caused less problems than giving more to people who deserved more).

My boss was actually a great boss, usually, but he was given the stump speech from upper management. Why would he put his job on the line by being upfront and honest with me? It wasn't personal. It was business. He was just doing his job. I didn't hold it against him personally, but it certainly helped with any guilt I may have had when I finally quit.

In the end, you have to make decisions that are best for you. It's not personal. Just business.

That being said, I totally think there is value in a company that strives to create an environment where employees are truly valued and given fair treatment. That should be a consideration when considering pros/cons of leaving/working for a company. ;)

Guest's picture motivation to move on

Philip Brewer's picture

Businesses should treat people like people--because, you know, they are.

Plus, it's just good sense to behave honestly, treat people with respect, give employees control over their work environment, and so on.  But even when it does all that stuff, a business is not a person.

Guest's picture

watch this movie..

Guest's picture

Very well said.
I learned after being burned a few times during the dot com years that your job is just that and no more. A friend of mine explained his mercenary for hire approach to being an employee. Your there to do a task or service in exchange for money, nothing more. Of course that doesn't mean you steal or otherwise ignore rules of said employment.

I did have one boss that the inability to use the flattery & guilt manipulation on me drove them crazy. I did my job well, did more than was expected and fixed many things that had been in chaos for years. But the ability to be able to manipulate me meant more.

Imagine going into a job interview and telling them you have no emotional stake in the company and are only there to do the requested tasks in trade for the money. They would toss you out the door. But honestly that really is all an employment agreement is.

Guest's picture

I've definitely heard this before and been in that position. Lynn's point about the boss not staying for you if he/she was in the same situation makes the argument even more solid.

Guest's picture

This was a fitting post. I just accepted a new job and telling people at my old job that I was leaving was incredibly hard to do. Of course, we work in a state agency that deals with disaster recovery, so a lot of people are emotionally attached to what they do.

Guest's picture
Kate H

The only thing I really remember from reading a Suze Ormon book years ago was the idea that when you have debts, you pay people back before corporations for several reasons, among them that you have a relationship to preserve with people in a way that you don't with corporations. Using that advice, I paid debts to my parents back long before my credit cards, even though the parental loans were at a lower interest rate (my dad's a bookkeeper and congenitally unable to loan money at 0% interest). I definitely found that paying off those loans removed a layer of stress between me and my family members, and keep the bank of mom and dad available for reasonable requests in the future.

Guest's picture

While I do think that people are sometimes too loyal and get burned by companies, I do think that it's important to treat people like people -- even if they're your coworkers or boss.

While you may leave a company, your actions there will likely leave a lasting impression on people there. And if you leave under bad circumstances, that's sure to stand out.

Remember, you might have to deal with these people again some day. They may join the new company, or others might ask them about you, or you may want to work or the company again, or you may have some other dealings with them.

So, don't burn bridges if you don't have to. That doesn't mean that you can never leave a company, but if you said that you were going to do something, then consider the consequences of going back on your word.

Guest's picture

Learned something essential recently from subscribing to and eventually being able to read their blogs. The good point I want to share is:

"It’s often been said that business success is overwhelmingly dependent on hiring the right people. But you must know that it’s not only hiring the right people that’s important – it’s also knowing what to do with them – what jobs to give them, how they should progress in the company, even how or whether or not they should be given management positions – even after the hiring process is through (and as a matter of fact, you will only really be able to know your people after they’ve been working for your for some time)."

Very nice post! :-)

Guest's picture

The company I work for takes pride in the service we provide, and I have seen higher executives shout at people when the service is bad.

But despite this, there is a very deliberate marketing effort to create these "personal" relationships with our customers. We are collecting more personal info, and linking a customer relationship system into a marketing database to provide targeted offerings to people.

I work for an ethical company, so I don't think we are actually doing anything evil with this, however there is a deliberate attempt to push products and services that you really might not need or even want.

My advice is to don't EVER buy anything from a telemarketer, no matter how nice he is. Think about the offer, and if it really is good, you can call the company back.

Don't ever give money to a charity that calls you, no matter how worthy it is. These calls are often from telemarketing companies that take a percentage of your contribution. There are other ways to donate.

Treat all of your business as if it was grocery shopping: Make a list and stick to it. If a telephone salesperson makes a great offer while your are buying something, say no until you have had a chance to think about it. They'll be happy to take your money if you come back later.

And don't ever accept a companies marketing promotion without fully understanding it. I walked into a bank for an unrelated issue, and the gentleman I spoke with made me the most convoluted, twisted, unintelligible credit card offer that I ever heard. I still don't understand it, but I am absolutely certain that they expect to take my money if I accept it.

Guest's picture
Cindy Rae

I worked for corporate America for 14 years, and this article rings true.

The worst case? A government contractor involved in space exploration.

Yes, the end result of what we did -- launching spacecraft onboard large rockets, parking a spacecraft around another planet, gathering around to hear what scientists learned about the planet from our data -- it was all fascinating.

Yet, like any company, this one was out to get as much as possible from the employees with as little money and benefits paid out as possible.

The situation was made worse by the fact we weren't the bread-and-butter division of the company (the government pays more for military contracts than space exploration contracts!).

What's really sad is that the company capitalizes on people's strong interest in space exploration. Many of the guys really, really believe in the work and sacrificed much.

The dingy building, poor trash collection, barely average raises, the push for mandatory overtime (only a small chunk of which was actually paid overtime!), water leaks, mice running around, cramped offices (if you were there long enough for an office), management not offered good training, little upward career mobility, divorce, heart attack, serious illness...

Yet these guys keep doing what they do, and they do it well. They may not be heralded for it like at a public space agency, but they are a critical backbone in what we do in space.

It's just sad that they have to sacrifice so much.

In my case, I was a fish out of water for my years there. I eventually suffered a serious illness and couldn't take the stresses any longer. I found employment briefly elsewhere before becoming a WAHM.

Anyways, this is a much longer comment than I intended!

Great article.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's not evil for businesses to allow human feelings to grow between workers and managers or between salespeople and customers or between collection agents and borrowers.  In a sense, it's inevitable--people are people, and when they interact such feelings will develop.

For corporations to use these natural feelings in order to hurt people--to get them to buy things they can't afford or forego an opportunity for career advancement--is evil, but I don't expect my saying so (or many people saying so) will change the way business is done.

Mainly, I just think people need to be aware that there's a difference between real relationships between people and the sort of mock relationships that business contacts are prone to engender.  As long as people keep that in mind, they're a lot less vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

Guest's picture

AMEN, Philip.

I am dumbfounded by the people at my office who work 60+ hour weeks constantly just because of their sense of loyalty. It just boggles my mind.

Guest's picture

I recently changed jobs. I felt a little bad about it. I didn't feel too badly towards my old company. I told them what I wanted, they said no, so I left. Nothing personal about it.

What I *do* have, is decent relationship with my new (old) boss. My new boss was an old boss, and I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. He's naturally going to try and get people for the least amount possible. I know this. He's also very *fair*, and rewards people proportional to the work they accomplish.

And he gave me a part time job, which is really what I wanted.

Guest's picture

I remember, when some airline or other was cratering, watching some women tell a newscaster that they were willing to work for less pay to keep the company going "because we're all like family here." I also remember yelling at the TV, telling them they were fools, "It's not a family, it's a business, you idiots!" It was about then that I decided to get out and make some friends, because I was spending too much time watching TV. Of course, the airline went bankrupt and the women lost their jobs and their pensions.

Guest's picture

Great post..
What boggles my mind is..what if, the situation is like this:
A person works for an uncle (family company) and spend most of his time there, even with modest payment only and willing to sacrifice weekends for the company?
Does that mean, that the family (company) is using personal involvement (being part of a family)and emotional ties as a tool for business?
That is how I see it, and has made this person loyal for all these years, feeling very bad about leaving the company, although there are many other better opportunities out there. What's the best advice for this?

Philip Brewer's picture

I'm mostly talking about the sort of mock human relationships that businesses try to create in order to manipulate you.  When there's a real human relationship, such as in a family business, the situation is different.

When you think about it, businesses that aren't family businesses are a modern invention.  The family (whether nuclear or extended) was the basic economic unit from prehistoric time up to just the past few hundred years.  Every human culture has traditions for the obligations than run from family business to individual and vice versa.  I hesitate to step in and suggest that whatever cultural norms apply to your family should be ignored.

The modern Western notion that the individual is the basic economic unit is really quite new.  It does have the advantage of providing the maximum freedom for individuals to do whatever makes them happy, while at the same time providing plenty of room for individuals with big ideas to turn them into big successes.  Those are real advantages, but they don't make the modern Western values better than the traditional values that date back thousands of years in every cultural tradition.

I don't suppose that non-answer helps at all.  Perhaps seeking advice from friends, relatives, and business and cultural leaders in your own community would be useful.