It’s Not Business; It’s Personal

Bartenders, cabdrivers and hairdressers are our informal therapists. I was reminded of that during a recent haircut as I listened to the woman in the seat beside me complaining about her boss.

Asked about plans for upcoming vacation, she said she needed to “be careful.” As she explained it, her employer, a local university, offers a generous 30 days of paid vacation a year. One month off work is a pretty nice benefit — especially given the fact that 1 in 4 Americans gets zero paid vacation and the average worker only gets 10 days.

Unfortunately, her boss told her she was taking too much time off, even though she was within the limit. That, of course, struck my compatriot in cuts as hypocrisy. Why offer a benefit you have no intention of allowing employees to use?

There’s likely a larger performance problem or interpersonal issue, but that’s beside the point. Pressed to explain why, if all her work is done consistently and to expectations, her boss told her to mind her time off, my neighbor’s answer was emblematic: “My boss is a bad person. I mean, she’s evil.”

Ouch. A dispute over workplace policy took a quick turn for the personal. But that shouldn’t be surprising. The idea that our work and personal lives are somehow distinctly separate looks increasingly tattered, if not completely shredded.

Many of us spend more time with co-workers than we do with our relatives. You’ve likely shared more meals with your fellow cubicle dweller than your aunt whose only visit features Thanksgiving turkey.

Add to that the rise of mobile devices and the 24/7 pace of global business. We’re working nights and weekends like never before. A quick email check before bed can turn into an hours-long frenzy of job-related communication. Even when the decks are cleared, there’s a new batch of messages waiting when we wake. Inboxes never sleep, and, increasingly, neither do workers.

In the movie “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone, the youngest son of a mafia boss shot by gunmen from a rival gang, argues to his older brother that his plan for vengeance won’t hurt the interests of the family’s illicit ventures by saying: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

In today’s world, it’s not strictly business. More often than not it’s personal, driven there by the frenetic pace of business and employer demands on one hand and workers’ heavy emotional and intellectual investment in their jobs on the other.

HR departments may be making the situation worse. In recent years, companies have rolled out a variety of new programs designed to help stressed workers via perks like flex-work, on-site child care and unlimited paid-time-off policies. But those well-intentioned interventions can be counterproductive. The example of my vacation-challenged friend attests to that.

Don’t get me wrong, I like generous vacation policies and wholeheartedly support benefits that encourage healthy physical and emotional lifestyles. And don’t dream of taking away my half-day Fridays in the summer. But policies like these are not nearly enough to make workers feel like the boss cares about them as a person and not just as “business.”

So what’s to be done? Above all, strive for authenticity. Take an honest look at your organization and its culture and resist the temptation to offer benefits you have little or no intention of allowing employees to use. That just makes them annoyed, frustrated and angry. And if you do get creative, make sure managers get the message. Train, explain, re-train and re-explain the purpose so they don’t end up working against the thing you’re trying to encourage.

Business is personal, and employers should acknowledge the investment employees make in organizational success. But it’s more than just respect. Only a quarter of workers say their bosses model sustainable work practices, according to research by author Tony Schwartz and Georgetown University professor Christine Porath.

That’s a real shame because, as the researchers pointed out, employees who work for those bosses are more engaged, healthier and more satisfied at work. They’re also more likely to stay with their company.

I doubt my neighbor is in that group. My guess is there’s more than a few bartenders and hairdressers who could tell you that.