Is Business “Just Business”?

Michael Scott of “The Office”

I wrote a blog recently about my reaction to a letter from my landscaper Guillermo’s daughter, which put a face on her father to his clients. I received two comments asking why Guillermo’s daughter wrote the letter.

I didn’t answer for a few reasons. First, I don’t know why the letter was written. Ostensibly it was to announce that Guillermo was again taking a week off so his clients should not expect him to come and mow the lawn.

But after a friend queried me on the topic yesterday, I started thinking more about the issue and my own response.

I am conflicted about how much one should reveal to his clients or employees.

My father believed that “business was business,” and you did not get involved personally with the people you work with, your vendors or customers. He told me a story numerous times over the years about an early incident in his business career. He owned a screw machine shop during World War II and decided to have a Christmas party. To him, the party was a disaster. People got drunk and rowdy, but worst of all for him, a few days after the party the employees tried to unionize. He vowed never to throw a party again and to keep formal and distant relationships with his people.

I always have that story resonating in my head and try to maintain a don’t know, don’t tell relationship with the people who work for me.

Yet I publish this blog and before that the magazine, in which I reveal a lot about my feelings to the 60,000 people who receive it. Inconsistent, I suppose. The blog I wrote recently about my feelings after the breakup of Graff-Pinkert with my brother was honest, yet also guarded, to honor my brother’s emotions, which I did not feel comfortable discussing.

Returning to the letter, I wrote about it because it sparked emotion in me about a hardworking faceless immigrant entrepreneur carving out a life in America. Maybe I’m a sucker for these stories, but it made me want to do more business with him, and that was something I take with me into my own business relationships.

I have learned through the years that business is more than “just business.” Relationships are at the core of business, but navigating the shoals of how close to be with employees and clients is a never-ending mystery. My father’s admonition to keep your distance will always live in my head, but my love of connection usually wins out.

Perhaps Guillermo’s daughter did what Guillermo would not do for himself. Maybe the letter was written to get a Christmas bonus for Guillermo, but that was not my point in writing about the letter.

I contract with a “service” to clean our offices every Friday. Frankly, I do not really care to know the life story of my floor mopper. But if I had the same floor mopper for years and his daughter wrote me a letter about his life, I would start to care about him more. Guillermo’s daughter may have understood this human desire for both distance and connection a little better than most.

Question: Do you try to keep your distance on a personal level from your employees, co-workers and clients?

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15 thoughts on “Is Business “Just Business”?

  1. Jeffrey Kopp

    That’s a tough question; I guess if I understand your fathers point of view it would be better to guard yourself from possible repercussions of an act of kindness; as I waited for the story page to load I thought maybe someone close to him got drunk and crashed; and maybe he felt guilty about that situation; I think in sales there is a fine line not to be crossed in relationships in the workplace; but with clients each is different, some will reveal themselves quickly others will be more guarded; the more information you know about a client helps in assisting them to a successful transaction which in the end is the key to the deal and hopefully subsequent deals; and it’s my belief that while no good deed goes unpunished the happiness spread as a result of an act of kindness is worth it!

  2. Horst

    As a Christian professional, you can keep respect and commitment even knowing more about the life of your employees, suppliers or clients. We need to consider that we have the same problems as humans and it is important when you feel that your colleagues or partners care about you and that you have a face to them.

  3. Randy

    Just as Guillermo’s daughter created customer engagement with you by writing the letter, the same can go with an owner and team members. Little snippets about family, and truly listening and caring about the team members in the organization create the same engagement on an employee level. It lowers the distance from the ivory tower that can be percieved.

  4. Jon

    My father told me the same story after an employee was in an accident after a company party and a law suit was threatened. Also one was angry that they “had to spend money for dresses etc. for the party”. So now we have company parties (Christmas, retirement, summer cook outs) during company hours (they get paid) but with out alcohol. We stress in our newsletter that this is so everyone can attend and we realize the many time demands on families, especially at holiday time. It seems to work out well. We understand we cannot make everyone happy.

    Never the less, I want to know my employees (many whom have been with the company for 30+ years) and them to know me so I practice MBWA- everyday, asking about their kids, where they are going on vacation next week, etc. It’s a fine line but an important one.

  5. Dallas Cook

    I want my customers to know I am on their side and am there to help them. Its easy to realize when you are getting too close personally to them. But they must always have trust and faith in you as a business partner that they need and can rely upon.

  6. Frank O'Neil

    You said it yourself: “Relationships are the core of business” and business is both external & internal. I just finished Sully’s recent book”Making a Difference” & one of the characteristics that is apparent in many of the leaders he interviewed is the relationships the leaders had with their employees or as one called “crews”. There are some great examples of organizations that are successful in highly competitive fields; Southwest Airlines, Fed X, Costco to name a few; that treat their external and internal customers well, have low employee turnover and provide great products.
    I vote for good relationships, both external & internal; it is still a people to people business.

  7. Michael Goldman

    Personal relationships and trust in you subordinates and coleagues will give you a huge business advantage over the contrary.

    Would you loan a small amount of money to a subordinate ($10.00 for lunch)?
    I would.


  8. Randy Lusk

    I know that for me I have a working relationship with all of our employees, but there are definately some where I know much more about personnal lives and family. These are people I spend 50 hours a week or more with and have for 20-30 years in some cases. None however are generally personnal friends that I interact with away from the shop. That being said I do have a brother that works with me and has for 25 of those years and we are engaged in each other’s family all the time.

    However, we have discussed quite a lot with people that we have promoted to a managerial or supervisory position that it is hard to have real friendships outside of work if you will be successful at critiquing and showing objectivity to others in the same department. Recently we had an issue where a new employee had a major problem with a younger employee and feeling that he was disrespected. The problem was that the supervisor and the younger employee got along really well, did go dirt bike riding and camping together. Also was his trainer, so the issue can have implications from other employees who believe there is a clique culture and feel slighted.

    Most people want to be recognized and humanized at some level to feel important and appreciated. The level and line you have to draw has to do with being able to be effective as a manager in challenging, critiquing and in some cases disciplining employees. Coworkers not BFF’s.

  9. Seth Emerson

    Well – It is at least a third of your life – for most of us. I try to follow the lead with both employees and customers. Sometimes employees might try to take “advantage” of a personal relationship. You have to be aware of that possibility. As far as the customer “relationship” goes, often the personal relationship will help you perform better for them. This might result in retaining a customer in tight times. I never managed in the times of your father, but he was the one who had to deal with that situation. I guess he felt comfortable with the “hands off” approach. You seem to have adjusted a bit better. At least you have become more comfortable with your approach.

  10. Emily Halgrimson

    I agree with Jon’s comment wholeheartedly:

    “Never the less, I want to know my employees (many whom have been with the company for 30+ years) and them to know me so I practice MBWA- everyday, asking about their kids, where they are going on vacation next week, etc. It’s a fine line but an important one.”

    As an employee, even receiving a small inquiry into something going on in my life, or remembering something personal that was said strengthens the commitment I feel to my employer. Of course a boss shouldn’t go too far, but a small act of showing you care or think about your employees can go a long way towards the employee feeling loyal and happy at work. Bosses know that relationships with clients aren’t all about money. It’s the same with employees, I think. Connection is very important.

    I’m 31 and have worked for Lloyd for over five years now – that’s not an accident.

  11. Mike Gibson

    I own a small business that employees teenagers and older workers. I try to get to know them and they know me so they realized when they don’t charge the right amount, it comes out of my pockets not a big corporation. I have heard stories from teenagers about “Johhny” who is working the drive thru and giving away free fries.

    I also find as a small business owner, I can do a better job praising and encouraging my workers when I get to know them. Some need more supervising than others and if I know them, I can use the right technique to motivate and encourage.

  12. John "Jack" Frost

    Lloyd for your father’s generation that was probably good advice. Many of the facilities and opportunities that exist today, weren’t available then. Before 1939 most of the owners/bosses went around with a wad of cash to pay on the spot any obligations. If an employee needed money between pay days he could approach the boss for help. It wasn’t a good idea and caused many work traumas. Today we have Credit Unions for small to moderate transactions. Todays boss would familiar him/herself with the local Credit Union Office and provide this information to the employees. It is a great way of limiting personal problems. Business, since the Industrial Revolution has acquired a social/business obligation. Long ago we would call it “Noblesse Oblige” that is: the responsibility of the leader to his subordinates. In business we might call it the means to earn a reasonable remuneration for work performed, in an environment conducive to productive action. Today that has expanded to cover life style standards as well as a contributor to the community welfare. That said:
    Good management demands professional relations boss/employee. Friendly greeting are always in order. Non-invasive info of the employee and family. You must know the level of impact when there is illness or disablement in the family. You need it for planning your own work schedule. Hold yourself of grievances. Form a committee if possible. Non-work social activities should always start at the bottom. Bullying and similar activities are not to be tolerated. All of these practices contributes to the bottom line. Good luck.

  13. Albert B. Albrecht

    Lloyd – we have lost the art of face-to-face relationships. We e-mail a quote, fax a price, twitter a reply, and it is sad. I come from the generation in which you called on your customers and build relationships – I wish I had every order I lost because the salesperson in the area did not have as close a relationship as our comptitior. There is something lost when machines are bought on e-bay – and we depend upon digital means to communicate – It is sad – and unfortunately it will not improve

  14. rob klauber

    Everyone is different. Some people have a need to interact with others, to connect as you will more than others. I think that one could be his or herself, let their hair down so to speak in everyday interactions as long as they are achieving the goals of the company by doing excellent work. Bosses or supervisors do have to be a little more careful not to get too close to their workers outside of work, but as long as there is an understanding of what one has to accomplish, that their job description is thoroughly understood and there is accountability, even then, closeness can be fine. Of course, people’s circumstances change, their skills change and things change so it is an ever challenging dynamic. There is also room for sympathy and understanding when expectations are not met at any given time until of course that becomes a rule and not an exception. I have had to fire people that I felt a good personal connection with, even a few who I had gotten together with outside of work. When they no longer performed to the level that they needed to or were expected to, I had no choice. And actually, they understood.

  15. Anna

    Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Keep it simple. Follow your gut. Don’t shut people out just because someone else told you to. The more love I give to our employees, the better I feel and the more they feel appreciated and this doesn’t mean enabling. Customer/client appreciation is very important as well. The employees and customers make it possible for us.


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