Years ago I was at a conference in Indonesia, of all places. I had dragged myself down there from Moscow, suffering (as I would later find out) from pneumonia. The semi-tropical climate was nice, and I felt much better – but I was still suffering. I knew that the 24+ hour return flight (Surabaya-Jakarta-Kuala Lumpur-Frankfurt) would be excruciating in my condition. Traveling on Lufthansa on the way to the conference I had been placed in the smoking section, which was – as you can imagine – tortuous for someone suffering from a lung ailment. I dreaded the return flight, and called the partner I was reporting to at my firm to prostrate myself via an international phone connection.
“Please let me upgrade to business class,” I asked. “I am very sick and I’m headed to the doctor the second I get back.”
“It’s not in policy,” he responded. I was a mere manager, and managers traveled coach, and didn’t get to complain when they were shoved in seat 76B of the smoking section. “Take Monday off when you get back. You’ll be fine.”
Of course I was tortured on the return trip by the wafting smoke throughout the plane. My pneumonia tripped and tra-la-la’d into double pneumonia and I passed out at work before being told by my doctor that I was in serious, serious health trouble. The end result? I packed it in, quit the firm and left Moscow.
I had an extremely good relationship with one of the clients of the firm; this client happened to be one of the biggest and most prestigious clients the firm had. They fired the firm soon after I left (not solely because of me, of course, but I’m sure it didn’t help). Other than that, of course, life continued on for both me and the firm.
Companies need to realize that it’s not always just about the “big things” like salary and titles. Little perks can make a big difference, and they aren’t always just perks. It doesn’t even have to be something like upgrading a sick business traveler from coach class. It can be small things like letting employees take time off for doctor’s appointments, or letting people come in a hour later and leave an hour later if that suits their lifestyle better. I think in today’s business world, the idea is that you can treat people like dogs (or worse than dogs – dogs have gourmet organic food these days). You can charge airlines passengers for tap water. And in my opinion soon you’ll see the final “perks” start to go as more and more companies decide that employees have built-in obsolescence: companies should simply squeeze employees as hard as they can for 2 or 3 years before they move on.
Treating people (employees OR customers) like this won’t be sustainable. The human spirit can only take so much abuse. People get tired of feeling like their company’s only recognition of them as human is the biweekly paycheck. Small things don’t cost companies much in comparison to the constant turnover of key employees (or loss of customers). Somehow it all became about the bottom line, but maximizing the bottom line is only going to go so far.
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