Pleasing Customers Or Protecting Employees—What's More Important In Your Organization?

By Mark C. Perna, Contributor

“Employers need to look to the future by how they are treating and supporting their employees in the present.”

The paradigm of the future values employees above all other stakeholder groups getty

Employers will often bend over backwards to meet the needs of their clientele—but tend to display much less flexibility when it comes to their employees. If it’s a question of pleasing the customer or protecting the employee, the vast majority of companies will almost invariably choose the former. After all, the customer’s always right—right?

Not anymore. The pandemic gave us all pause to rethink what we want out of our lives and careers. Many employees concluded that the old way of doing things isn’t good enough anymore. Workers, especially those in younger generations, want more flexibility, more autonomy and yes, more protection from adverse working conditions.

And if they don’t get it, they’re out—and not coming back.

Author Dr. Toby A. Travis, who sees the current workforce crisis as a trust issue, believes that many people aren’t in a hurry to return to work because they feel that their needs will be trampled in the mad rush to serve the customer. “Valuing customers or clients over employees breeds a lack of trust,” says Dr. Travis.

Consistent feelings of being undervalued and even downtrodden are in turn fostering the rise of the “rage quit,” a term that originated to describe a player exiting a game in frustration, but has now broadened to include stomping out on the job.

With the record talent shortage plaguing America’s businesses, it’s clear that something needs to change. And it starts with an organization-wide paradigm shift.

Ranking stakeholders

To reduce turnover and attract new talent, Dr. Travis believes that employers must operate from a core belief that values employees above all other stakeholder groups. The ideal ranking looks like this: 

  • Priority Group #1: Employees. Highly supported employees result in higher productivity and client satisfaction. 
  • Priority Group #2: Clients. Greater client satisfaction results in greater sales and market share, attracting new clients. 
  • Priority Group #3: New Clients. Expanding client base results in increased revenues for owners. 
  • Priority Group #4: Owners. Increased revenue results in opportunities for continual improvement.  

When business leaders fail to maintain the order of these stakeholder priorities, a lack of trust ensues. “For example, when leaders, in an effort to build and expand the business, place the needs and wants of new clients (Priority Group #3) over the wellbeing, success and support of their employees (Priority Group #1) it breeds distrust of company leadership,” says Dr. Travis. “A lack of trust in corporate leadership reduces employee engagement and higher turnover rates and negatively impacts corporate objectives.”  

At a philosophical level, leaders must believe that employees are the lifeblood of the company and value them as such. Then, they need to put their money where their mouth is by crafting policies, procedures and protocols grounded in this belief to protect employees from overwork and burnout.  

One example Dr. Travis points to is that of restaurant owners who are reducing hours of service or are removing tables to allow more social distancing to protect staff. “They may, in fact, experience a temporary financial loss,” he says. “But the long-lasting and residual positives gained in supporting staff will pay dividends to them in loyalty and productivity for potentially years to come.

“Employees will remember how they were protected and valued during this crisis, which shall pass. Employers need to look to the future by how they are treating and supporting their employees in the present.”

Assessing your culture

Dr. Travis warns that putting employees first may require a complete paradigm shift in organizational management. “This means employers have to set priorities when meeting the needs of their organizational stakeholders—employees, owners, customers and potential customers.”

To assess your organizational priorities, ask these questions:

  • Which of those groups (employees, owners, customers and potential customers) and their associated desires should we most highly value and support to best meet the mission of the organization?
  • How well are we meeting the needs and wants of the customers?
  • Is the financial reward to the owners or investors our number-one priority?
  • Or, do we genuinely value the well-being and success of the employees? If so, how do we show it? 

Dr. Travis asserts that when management places their needs or those of customers above the needs of employees, they diminish the organization’s quality and environment. But when employees are valued above all other stakeholders, the result is a vibrant and positive work environment. “In addition, leaders experience a significantly increased level of trust in their leadership,” says Dr. Travis. 

Employees first

Valuing customers over employees may get the company by for a short period of time, but it will backfire eventually. In our post-pandemic workplace, employers who throw their employees under the bus to meet customer demands will soon have neither. Word gets around, and there are plenty of opportunities elsewhere. Prize and invest in your people now—before you don’t have any.

When employees come first, everything else will follow.


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