When people are your business, behavior is your product.

Mike Dershowitz
Jul 9 · 6 min read
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Your business needs people. But people are more than cogs in a machine. Like it or not, a person’s history and current situation drives behavior more than you realize. Do you understand why?

Let me tell you about one of my US employees, a customer service representative for one of our e-commerce clients. He is a returning citizen who re-entered the workforce after 14 years of incarceration. As long as I’ve known him, he’s proclaimed his innocence. I tried not get involved, instead focusing on the fact that I was giving him an opportunity. Hiring him is important to our mission and vision as a company. We employ a person whom most employers shun because he has to “check the box.”

Over time, I’ve gotten to know him, and I see how well he performs, despite where he’s come from. As we’ve grown to trust each other, he has shared his full story.

At the time of his trial, he was too poor to afford an attorney, and was represented by a public defender.

You know what happens next. Convicted and sentenced. And then, just one year before his release, he learned that corroborating eye-witness testimony may have been coerced by the prosecuting attorney.

Prior to learning about this testimony, he simply thought he was a victim of the system. But now, one year after being released and two years after learning about this testimony, he believes that he may have been framed, simply to increase the District Attorney’s conviction statistics.

Can you imagine the rage you’d feel upon learning that almost 15 years of your life had been wasted, simply to advance a DA’s career with higher conviction stats?

How can I expect him to come to work and not be affected by what happened to him? The simple fact that he shows up to work every day and is able to perform and not scream at the customers on the other end of the line is amazing, and a testament to his strength.

Are you missing the point?

Even if it’s just you and your laptop with an online store, or a few select graphic design clients, there are always people in your business, in one form or another.

At scale, every business, no matter how automated, needs people. Think about this for a second. If you’re in your office right now, look left and right. If both those people were no longer there, what wouldn’t get done? Which customers would be angry, what projects would be left half finished, and what opportunities would be missed?

Nearly 80% of U.S. private-sector gross domestic product (GDP) and more than 40% of the global trade are from the service sector. What the sector produces is not a physical product, or a raw material. You might think that your company’s product is financial services, healthcare, or customer service, but you are missing the point. In reality, the item of value you produce is a workforce, and the behavior your employees exhibit to customers.

What people do, how they interact with coworkers, customers and vendors, and the work they accomplish is all behavior. Whatever you’re paying them to do, you’re really paying them to behave in a certain way. There’s a lot that goes into that ability to behave the way you want.

Meet basic needs first for employees who last.

Basic human needs come first, according to Abraham Maslow. Only then can Homo sapiens consider other things, like morality and self-actualization.

There’s a sad story about Former US President Bill Clinton and a member of the armed services. On a rope-line one day, Mr. Clinton was handed a letter by a woman who was an enlisted sergeant. She had two kids. Because of her low income level in the Air Force, she qualified for and used food stamps. Think about the cruel economic fact that the richest and most powerful nation on earth does not pay its service members enough to the point that they needed basic food assistance.

Most of you are meeting the basic needs of your employees (but not all of you — see here). If you’re not meeting those basic needs with the pay you’re offering, you may be sowing discontent without knowing it, for very basic, and understandable (from the employee’s perspective) reasons.

Before you can consider if you’re getting the behavior you want out of your agents, look first at your compensation policies and make sure that employees’ basic needs can be met on what you’re paying them. Only then can your employees, and you, focus on how to drive and produce the right behaviors.

Think about physical and mental health.

Employees won’t behave the way you want if they’re always worried about themselves. Once you know that what you pay meets the basic needs of your employees, the next step is to think about their mental and physical health.

I’m living in Berlin, Germany for the summer. Healthcare here is free for all citizens, and some non-citizens. As a business owner with employees in both the US and Asia, I’m familiar with a society that doesn’t provide healthcare to its citizens (the US) and a society where free health care is so bad that we must provide private care or take a risk that when employees get sick, they may not survive the care provided by their country’s system (Philippines).

In most of Europe, employers don’t have to worry about health care costs, and of course taxes are higher to pay for it. Despite its flaws, this system may be preferable. As an employer, you know that the issue of healthcare is not associated with your place of business.

While you’re thinking about health care, also consider mental health. Many people imagine that there’s a personal and professional divide. Come to work, do your job, and go home. But this mentality is short-sighted when you’re trying to get work done through people.

Certainly, most savvy managers and bosses know this. Many companies offer free counseling services at work. This is good, especially for companies who employ people earning above the middle class. But for those like me, where we strive to get our employees into the middle class, the instance of trauma and destabilizing family situations is much higher than in lower-income populations, regardless of geography. As good managers (and good humans), we must think about mental health.

When employees behave against the desired outcome for your business, what is really going on in their lives? For example, in the call center business, when an agent should do “A” in reaction to a caller, but does “B” instead, is the agent doing something amoral, or simply not following their training?

The optimist in all of us wants to believe that all people are good. When you look hard enough, there’s a reason why that employee either forgot their training or made the wrong decision. You will likely find a personal reason that drove the behavior. The mental health of your employees may not be optimal, even if it doesn’t warrant counseling.

Be sensitive to that. Lend a kind ear. Simply ask, “Can I help?” I always say my job as a manager is to put people in a situation where they can perform at their peak. Are you thinking about what gets in the way for your employees?

Conclusion: Repeated behavior from your employees is your product.

As managers and business owners, your job is to elicit the “right” behavior at scale, repeatedly. Not an easy task, as evidenced by the many times you’ve had to coach or discipline an employee. You pay your employees to behave the way you want them to behave. In fact, producing the right behaviors in employees is your chosen profession.

Are your employees satisfied financially? How are they feeling physically and mentally? What happened in their past, like my returning citizen employee, that prevents them from operating at peak?

Try to see the why behind their actions. It will lessen your frustration, temper your reaction, and make you a better manager. It promotes a sense of fairness in your workplace. Your employees know that the boss cares, so they endeavor to react accordingly for your business.

When you take a step back and consider why they’re behaving as they do, it can make all the difference, as long as you also ask yourself if you’re doing all you can to make your employees successful.

Mike Dershowitz

Written by

Mike is the CEO of Rethink Fair Trade Outsourcing, a company that makes use of free markets for good and not evil. Visit www.rethinkstaffing.com for more info.

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