The Macroeconomics of Being Nice


Photo by Headway | Unsplash

Photo by Headway | Unsplash

It hit me while listening to a caller to the Smerconish radio show two weeks ago. The caller was a general manager at a hotel, and she had done everything that she thought that she could to attract and retain quality employees. She had raised wages and increased flexibility, but there was one thing she couldn’t change: the customers. Her patrons had gotten meaner, and at some point, workers would have enough and would just quit.


We all know the customers she is talking about – the rude drunk at the bar or the “restaurateur” complaining about the slow service. Perhaps my favorite one is the guy at the gas station that gets mad at the clerk for the price of gas. They make the situation worse for everyone, including themselves. 


I am guilty of this as well. The labor shortage has been hard on everyone and causes even the best of us to lash out. One morning I stopped at a truck stop with a Hardee’s for a breakfast burrito. With the restaurant closed, I had to settle for a coffee and a roller hot dog. That isn’t exactly the breakfast that I looked forward to, so I was a bit gruff with the man at the counter. He politely told me that they couldn’t get enough workers.

There was no point to me even asking, but I felt compelled to register my frustration. Still, I felt a little guilty about it. That manager has probably answered that same stupid question a thousand times.


Not being nice to strangers pre-existed the pandemic, but COVID-19 has exacerbated things. I am 62 now, and after spending 32 years in the trucking industry, I have come across my fair share of rude customers. I remember a dock receiver once calling me a “fucking moron” for asking him the bay that I need to pull in. I still joke that somewhere between 65 and 67 some customer is going to place that last straw on my back and I am just going to go home and stay there.


I wonder about how many professional drivers – or really a professional in any job – have left their industry because of guys like that receiver.  There is only so much an industry can do to fix such behavior, and personally, I think society needs make a shift.


Richard Branson, the billionaire who recently flew into space, has it right. The client doesn’t come first, the employee does. People should suffer the consequence of their actions, and too often management will bend over backwards to appease a customer who is clearly in the wrong. How does this correct the problem? It doesn’t. It encourages bad behavior.


Right now, the American labor market is adjusting to a post-pandemic future. Many workspaces are mandating vaccines and making employees return to the office. However, many people are not returning to work as quickly as economics predicted, especially among women. To me, one reason is completely obvious: the pandemic made workers realize that they no longer have to tolerate toxic customers and office cultures. We are rage quitting in record numbers.


Of course, this can be reversed. Management and ownership need to stand up to unruly customers and unwelcoming office environments. That hotel manager keeps coming to mind. If she witnesses a customer treating an employee poorly, take the employee’s side. She should use her own judgment to diffuse the situation, require the customer apologize to the employee, or tell the customer to take their business elsewhere.


Managers and executives should see that taking an employee’s side and investing in their happiness is not just an optional courtesy but a long-term investment that will pay dividends in the end. Profitability and civility are not mutually exclusive, and it is amazing what can grow from that bare minimum. It is no wonder that the some of the most successful companies in the world – like Apple, Facebook, and Google – also have the happiest employees.


Imagine the macroeconomic benefits of being nice. The world would have less turnover, and our entry level employees would not dread coming to work. Proactive measures to help our employees are far cheaper than solving problems when they would happen. For my industry, we would save money and lives not constantly hiring and training new truck drivers.


But think of the wider implications as well. The world would be so much better for everyone.

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