Business IS Personal

woman on the phone at a conference table

I hear it a lot – “it’s business, not personal”. I used to say it probably more than most. That can happen when part of your job is firing people. But one day I realized that business IS personal. That thought made me pay more attention, and I think people say that phrase most often when their personal feelings, morals, or ethics don’t align with what they are doing in the moment.

Don’t get me wrong – sometimes we have to make hard choices and we must take stock of the situation, evaluate it from all angles, and make the right call. And sometimes that means there is a person on the losing end. But to me, that’s still personal.

Once I realized that business is personal, I got a lot better at my job. Rather than using that statement as a defense for my actions and choices, I can make good decisions that are aligned with my values and goals, and sleep at night. I can sit at the dinner table with my family, proud of what I’ve done that day. Even on the hard days – where I have to let an employee go or deliver bad news to someone, I go to bed knowing that I treated people like human beings. Why? Because to me, it’s all personal.

I recently had an employee miss work. No call, didn’t show up. We tried to call him, and the number went straight to voicemail. The next day, he missed another shift. On the third day, he missed yet again. This is grounds for termination for job abandonment. We attempted to call him again and the phone number was no longer working. It would be very easy to terminate him in our system, take him off the schedule and move on, but something felt strange about the situation. He’d been a good employee and then he just quit showing up. Then his most recent paycheck came back to us in the mail. We asked around a bit and we were finally able to get him on the phone via one of his friends. Turns out, he and his family had been evicted and he was living in a car. The policy says he abandoned his job – but the human being says not this time.

My entire job revolves around how personal it is. My firm serves as the HR department for our clients. In order to do this well, we can’t just be a department that shuffles paperwork and processes payroll. We must align ourselves with what our clients want as a business and as a person. I can design the HR role a million and one different ways, but when I know about the person behind the business, I can really get to work. When I first sit down with a client, I often ask, “what are you trying to accomplish”. The answer is often a big picture business goal, like, “I want to operate at 20% net profit”. Ok, that’s awesome. But why? There’s still more information under there. So, let’s cut the business isn’t personal stuff out and say, “No, what do YOU want to accomplish?”. Now the answers I get are more along the lines of, “I want to be able to go to my daughter’s volleyball games” or, “I want to pay for my son’s grad school” or, “I want to retire in Fiji”. I can do something with that! That information helps me know how to support the business owner so as we develop a plan, I know where we’re going.

The same is true for employees. We’re silly to think that anyone is working because they just really want to. Even if that were the case, why this particular job? There’s always a personal reason. We can ignore that and believe that employees should work because we said so. But if we do a better job of understanding what’s personal to an employee, we are investing in that person. It helps us know how to communicate and motivate. It builds trust and a relationship. And when it comes to a business like mine, this is especially important.

Mixing business and personal doesn’t mean that you’d allow one to be compromised for the other. For example, I have hired friends on multiple occasions. Often, that works out beautifully. Sometimes, you realize that you’re great friends but terrible coworkers. Terminating a friend is a prime opportunity to say, “it’s business, not personal”. But that’s not really what’s going on. When I’ve had to let a friend go, I think about business and personal. It’s still personal because I care for that person. It’s still personal because that person is sad that she lost her job. It’s still personal because I want to retain the friendship. You can’t ignore one for the other – you can’t keep a terrible employee around forever or it will hurt your business. And you can’t just claim that it’s business and expect to have a friendly cup of coffee in an hour. Instead, it means that you look at the big picture and consider all facets of the situation and make the best decision you can based on the information you have. Then you sit down with your friend and have a human conversation about what’s working or not working. If you’ve addressed the personal parts of this relationship along the way, your friend shouldn’t be surprised that things aren’t working out the way you’d hoped.

It’s almost as if the idea that you can separate business from personal is a cop out. It’s a way to blame some non-descript concept for a situation or decision – absolving us of any accountability. But business affects us personally. For example, a problem with a client might keep us up at night. Or we spent a few extra hours on a project just to make sure the final presentation is rock solid. When you take that kind of pride in your work, it’s personal. It’s because we want recognition, compensation, satisfaction, or something.

Even if you wanted to separate business from personal as a business owner or leader, you cannot force your employees to do the same. People are social beings by nature. When you have people working for you, you’ve hired all their opinions, feelings, thoughts, desires, and personalities. These are people who have good days and bad days. They have fights with spouses, birthdays, flat tires, and bills to pay.  That’s a lot of moving parts to account for in your workforce, and ones that you will never see if you don’t consider the personal side of business. If you want to trust that your employees are representing you and your interests, it needs to be personal. You cannot buy that trust. You earn it by sharing beliefs, collaborating, being authentic. That’s pretty personal.

I think we need to replace the idea that business and personal somehow are like oil and water. Instead, consider author Simon Sinek’s statement, “if you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business”.