I have spent the majority of my life since graduating high school, “at work”. My college “experience” consisted of riding a bus into San Francisco, coming home and studying in my parents' two bedroom apartment, while working in the paint department at Sears (Yes, that Easy Living semi-gloss paint will work great in the bathroom Mrs. Smith.) Since graduating college, the past 35 years have been a journey through corporate America, Wall Street and startup ventures. All requiring an obscene amount of hours and energy. Don’t cue up the violins. I am a hard headed German with a streak of Irish stubbornness. In many cases, I made my journey harder than it should have, or could have been.
Reflecting on those 35 years, and trying to put my experiences into some kind of context, I occasionally think about some of the things that strike me as odd about working in companies.
One of the oddest things is the meaningless statement in business that, “It’s not personal.” I have been on both sides of that statement. I have had it said to me, and I have said it. I will never say it again.
Business “speak” has an annoying amount of sayings people use..."I’ll 'reach out' for him"..."Are we 'circled' on the document?"..."Did we 'vet' that properly?"
These pale in comparison to, "It’s not personal.” In the history of empty things said in business, this may be the emptiest of them all.
Here are some of the ridiculous examples for “It’s not personal” scenarios:
Letting People Go
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have heard, “It’s not personal” when letting someone go. What a stupid statement. It’s always personal. It’s certainly personal for the individual being let go. Even if they were a terrible employee, it’s still personal. Families are affected, financial lives can be put in jeopardy, long term careers can be ruined...so yeah, it’s personal.
That does not mean letting an employee go based on their performance or the performance of the company isn’t warranted, or necessary. However, don’t think for a minute it’s not personal. It is very, very personal. In fact, it has gotten much more personal for me as I have gotten older. I understand the pain of losing a job. I understand the embarrassment. I understand the anger. I understand the disappointment. I understand the blow to your self-worth.
When I was younger, the world was far more black and white. Most of the time when I let people go, I used the, “It’s not personal” line and would speak only to performance. I was more concerned that the performance and/or issue warranted the termination and it was done legally. All that aside, it’s still personal. It still effects many lives. I don’t try to absolve myself anymore by thinking it’s not personal, I know it is.
Companies sometimes have a nauseating way of buying into the “it’s not personal” absolution mentality when there needs to be terminations due to poor company performance and downsizing. The worst instance of this I have ever experienced was with a company at the end of the millennium. The company's financial performance was poor, downsizing needed to happen. It was a brutal pill for people to swallow that had worked hard to get this company off the ground and had little to do with the combination of bad decisions and unfortunate economic timing that caused the financial problems.
The people who owned the company and developed the company culture were extremely “New Age”...more in word than deed. They were very preachy about “values.” Instead of honesty admitting to themselves and the employees that circumstances (some of their own making) were the reason terminations had to be made, they convinced themselves that it wasn’t really a termination. They were simply, “setting people free to find their real destiny.” Pardon me, but what a load of crap. Perhaps a little honesty about the bad decisions and crummy timing would have made the people feel slightly better than, “This is really good for you. You can find your true destiny now." I marveled at the ability of these people to believe their own bullshit.
Companies have become very timid about honest communications with employees over the last 30 years. This is based on some very real fears having wrongful termination lawsuits filed against them by former employees. How many of these could be avoided, if employers considered how employees would be affected by decisions? Or at least take them into account. That would be very novel indeed.
Sometimes decisions have to be made that negatively affect individual employees. Those decisions are usually complicated and always gut wrenching. They are also…always personal.
How many times have you been down to the last few candidates for a job and gotten the consolation call? Did the person calling with the news go to the, “it’s not personal” card?
If every candidate has met the basic position requirements, you can be 100% sure it was personal. How could it not be? And you know what, there’s nothing wrong with that. I would prefer to know that the other candidates had personality traits that fit the existing employees and corporate culture better than mine. The funny thing is that no one really knows if one candidate will fit in with the company than others. It’s all an educated guess. Maybe I’m wrong, but 35 years of being in lots of companies tells me I’m right.
In any event…it’s personal.
Losing A Competitive Bid
If you have ever lost a bid for a job or a service, it’s likely the, "it’s not personal” comment didn’t specifically come up. It was probably replaced by its cousin, “Not a good fit.” I have found when people can’t specifically tell you why the bid was lost, they go to the “fit” card. What exactly does “fit” mean. It’s another empty business speak word.
I don’t mind losing. Well, actually I do mind. However, I mind it less when someone gives me factual feedback as to why. I always learn something on those phone calls. I struggle to understand what “fit” ever means.
Conversely, when I have to make the telephone call to someone that has lost the bid, I am specific as to why. I am always interested in the “losing” discussion. If the other party is sincerely interested in the “why”, I usually wind up doing business with them on other projects.
The realities of business sometimes require us to make decisions that are not pleasant or sometimes fair to individuals. Don’t kid yourself that these decisions aren’t personal. As some of my hipper friends in high school would say…Dude, it’s all personal.