Employees: The Other Customer

Peter Seebach

Employees are a crucial part of any company. However, just like your customers, they are people, not just interchangable cogs, and need to be treated that way. I discuss ways in which you, the employer, can do a better job of making employees happy.

Employees are another kind of customer. You're trying to sell them a job. The only thing that's unusual is that they buy money from you, paying in work, rather than the other way around. Apart from that, it's business as usual. Long-term relationships are the most profitable ones. Acquisition is more expensive than maintaining a relationship. And, of course, the better you get along, the better deal you get.

What Employees Want

Employees want you to treat them with respect. You must respect your employees. You can show this respect by respecting their privacy, by respecting their personal lives, and by respecting the work you hire them to do.

Employees Have Personal Lives

Recognize that your employees have, need, and are entitled to, personal space. Their jobs are not their entire lives. A friend of mine was preparing to take the GRE, in the hopes of going back to school for a few years. Her boss had overcommitted wildly, and was trying to get everyone to work on weekends. She said "I can't come in Saturday, I'm taking the GRE." He asked if she could reschedule it. She came very close to leaving the company because of his attitude. She liked the work, she got along well with her coworkers, the salary was good, everything was good - EXCEPT for the boss who didn't respect her right to personal life outside of work.

When you hire someone, you're buying 40 hours a week. Maybe a little more, but you should come to the table with the expectation that overtime is not going to be a standard part of the relationship, unless you discuss it up front and you factor it into the amount you pay. The rest of the time is not yours. You haven't paid for it. How would you feel if you ran a resturaunt, and people just ASSUMED that, having bought dinner, they were entitled to a free dessert of their choice? That's unpaid overtime.

Don't forget to consider the career development of your employees. Encourage them to go to school, to pick up training, to advance themselves. Maybe some unscrupulous types will take advantage of your policies to get educated and go job-hunting. Most will stay, and the training will make them more effective.

Employee Privacy

Employees want a bit of privacy. A local flower shop has an application form for part-time sales staff. To get hired, you have to sign a document promising them access, whenever they want to check on it, to your criminal history. And your credit history. And your medical records. Oh, and they have to be able to do spontaneous drug tests, and you have to furnish any and all samples they may need, including hair, tissue, or bodily fluids. They need more information about you than you might share with your family. And they probably don't pay very well.

That's not okay. You don't need a credit history for an employee. You're paying them. Work history, sure. Criminal history, maybe. But credit history? I should point out that I've never seen that store not have a sign saying they're hiring. Maybe they should take the hint.

Respect the Job

The job is the basis of your relationship with your employee. If you don't respect the job, it doesn't matter how you treat the person holding it today, there's no respect involved. You can have a room full of robed servants bowing deeply to an employee, and if you don't take his job seriously, you still can't make him think you respect him.

If you respect the job, it must be possible to do it. There is nothing so awful as a job that simply cannot be done. Every job should have a defined and understood goal. You should be sure the resources are available. And, most importantly, the entire company needs to be willing to back every employee, if that's what it takes to get a job done. If you don't really think the job is important enough to make sure it gets done, don't waste some poor guy's time trying to hire him to do it.

One of my first "professional" jobs was testing in a "quality assurance" department. The engineers laughed at QA. They thought it was a nuisance. Bugs of the form "system crashes when <...>" would come back with "don't do that then." If it was possible to accomplish something, the system was fine, and QA was supposed to verify that it could be done, not point out that, when actual users tried to do it, it often didn't work. This was an awful job. At the end of the day, I knew that no one cared whether the program ran well, as long as it ran well enough to meet a checklist of customer "requirements". Once.

There was no point in going to work. I was depressed, frustrated, and irritable. I got bug reports back with comments like "this feature has been removed", because it was too hard to fix the bug.

No one will stay at a job like that for long. It's not worth it.

I know a guy who runs an abuse desk for an ISP. When customers spam, these are the people who kill the accounts. A thankless job. You get people yelling at you, people lying to you, and death threats and lawsuit threats by the dozen. Job satisfaction is high. The manager has made a committment to his employees (he calls them "Minions"); he doesn't second-guess them, he doesn't tell them how to do their jobs. They come to each call knowing that, at the end of the call, they will get what they want. If the customer spammed, the Minion can kill the account. If the Minion would rather try to educate the customer, that's okay too. The employees are treated as responsible adults, and RCN's abuse desk is famous for dealing with abuse problems in an effective and reliable manner.

Happy Employees Make For Happy Customers

Okay, so, all your employees are happy. So what? They still work if they aren't happy, because if they don't work, they don't get paid. So, why do we care that the employees are happy?

Even apart from the expenses associated with employee turnover, there's a more fundemental issue. Happy employees do their jobs well. The next time you receive bad service from a company you deal with, think for a moment about the employee you got that bad service from. You'll probably find that the job was dismal, or doomed to failure. Perhaps you got a brush-off from a service rep who doesn't have the authority to do what you want, and isn't allowed to transfer you to someone who does. Maybe the person who gave you a burger with cheese, when you specifically said you didn't want any, was hampered by a defective cash register system, or the cook didn't care. The whole company has to back every employee for you to get the service you want.


You probably hate employers who don't respect your personal time, or your privacy. If you've ever had the misfortune to have a job that simply couldn't be done, you almost certainly hated it. So, when you're the one hiring, and firing, be sure that you're sincere about every job you create. If you don't think you can give the new employee the resources and committment needed to do the job, don't try to squeak by. If the job isn't important enough, don't do it. If your company can't function without that position filled, maybe the job is important enough to merit some real committment.

In short, if you take employees seriously, both as people independant of their jobs, and as people trying to do a job, you will get much, much, better results than people who think their employees are expendable cogs. And, of course, you'll get the satisfaction of a job well done - which is, to most of us, just as important as the salary.

This week's action item: Read your employee handbook. If all the policies were actually enforced, would you be happy?