Why Your Humanity Should Be Your Startup's Boss

Photo by Ben Sweet

Photo by Ben Sweet

When I was a teenager, my mother would tell me stories about her and my father’s business and the day-to-day of running it. One story that stuck with me was that they only had 3 employees amongst a staff of 15 people that left voluntarily in a span of 15 years. Even at a young age, I knew that such a minimal amount of turnover was not normal and that they were doing something special to keep their employees around.

When I asked my mother what they were doing to retain their employees, she said that her secret was following her values and integrating them into the business. To my parents, this meant above-market compensation for their employees, free lunches and dinners, end-of-year bonuses, and a flexible vacation policy.

At the time, my parents had no idea that these values gave them a competitive edge for recruitment until most of the employees that voluntarily quit came back asking for their old jobs back. They told my parents that competing businesses in the city did not pay as much, that they were strict about breaks and time off, and that they missed the free meals. Even though my mom’s values of being a nice, generous person was probably shared by most other business owners who competed with her, she was one of the very few that actually integrated these values into her business.

These small gestures that required a salary cut for my parents left an important impression on their employees, and it paid off for them by producing a stress-free work environment and loyal staff for over 15 years (their employees followed them even after they started a new business at a different location).

My parents just treated their employees how they wanted to be treated at their workplace — with respect and appreciation. To them, their business was the only place where they could control how the world worked, and in their world, they wanted their workplace to be positive and encouraging.

This perspective is an aspect I love about building a startup — you can create a world that follows your rules and values regardless of what the outside world looks like. If you don’t want to do something because you don’t like it, that’s a choice you can make and put into action right away. You can do whatever you want because it’s your business.

This is why I don’t shed an ounce of respect for companies that willingly choose to create unsafe, unfair, and unethical work environments for their employees in pursuit of increasing their bottom line. 

If you had the opportunity to play God, would you willingly choose to create an environment that promotes overworked and unhappy people? Would you choose to create an environment that only financially benefits you or a small group of people?

It’s okay to make decisions that favor your business when it’s appropriate, but the “it’s just business” line should be scrutinized when it begins to compromise the values you’d never violate as a human being. Just because your business is an inanimate entity, it doesn’t mean that it can’t impact someone’s everyday life in a big way. It also leaves a legacy behind of who you are and the mark you chose to leave on the world.

On the flip side, as a consumer, you also have to question the behavior of an unethical company and how that company will eventually treat you once it’s no longer convenient to treat you with respect anymore. If a company is not willing to treat their own team members with respect, it should be no surprise when that company eventually treats their customers the same way. 

The scandals behind Uber and Theranos are terrifying examples of the massive impact unethical companies can have on their employees, investors, and customers. Bad behavior always trickles down and pools in more places than one. Thankfully, disrespect is not a habit customers let run for very long, and they’re very happy to turn away from the companies that aren’t run by nice people. Very simply, no one wants to give their money to an a**hole.

When you’re creating a company, think about the power you hold and the environment you’re about to mold. 

Ask yourself this one question: What does my self-created world look like and what rules do I follow? 

What are your values? How do you want to impact the people who work for you and buy from you?

Your company is an extension of who you are with all of your human values, thoughts and emotions. Don’t let the “business” side of your business override your moral compass. Don’t be the business that trains your employees to live in fear of leaving work early because you want to milk every dollar out of their salaries. Don’t be the business that doesn’t stand up for its customers when your products or employees let them down. 

Build a business that you’re proud to stand behind, and don’t give the reins to an a**hole.


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Sophia Sunwoo