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Naughty or Nice: What Pays off at Work?

Naughty or Nice: What Pays off at Work?

A colleague recently asked me. “Do you think it’s important to be nice at work?” The question perplexed me because my immediate response was, “Yes! Of course!” But when I was asked why I felt that way it caused me to think about my answer and to come up with defensible facts to prove my point (rather than just my Pollyanna belief that we should all be nice as often as possible).

The most obvious fact is that we are all in business to make money, and to do so we must satisfy our customers (internal and external), vendors and employees alike. I’m sure we can all think of examples of a time when we chose to use a certain vendor or do business with a certain company because we really “liked” the contact we dealt with at that organization. Barring any large difference in service or price, we tend to do business with people that treat us well. 

Conversely, I believe we can all think of examples when we were not treated well and we chose to discontinue working with a certain salesperson or vendor, or decided to exclude a difficult colleague from projects. The bottom line is that people do business with people, not companies, and if you are representing your organization, and we all are, you need to ensure that you give them respect and work with them in a professional manner, i.e., be nice to them.

Let me give you some examples from my experience as an HR professional. Take Sam; he was in the accounting department for one of the large companies I provided Career Transition counseling for. Every day when he came into work he made the time to say hello to the security guards and cleaning crew, when the rest of the employees were walking right past these fellow workers, Sam took the time to thank them for their hard work and learn their names. When we had to do major layoffs, which he was a causality of, Sam was devastated. But, unlike some of the other individuals who were laid off, Sam maintained his usual friendly and professional demeanor, thanking his supervisors and co-workers for working with him for the last 20 years. As a consequence of Sam’s behavior, his managers asked him to stay on as a consultant to help with various projects. Additionally, while other employees were scrambling to find boxes to take home their personal belongings, Sam had the unsolicited help of the security team to help him carry his out of the building.

[Related: Nice Women Win: Why Being Nice is a Business Strength]

Let’s now talk about John, who unfortunately did not get the memo that being nice at work pays off. He was the “rainmaker” at a major financial institution and thus upper management put up with his poor behavior (for a while at least). Every morning, he asked (or barked at) his secretary to sharpen all his pencils. As the day progressed and John got exceedingly frustrated, he would throw the pencils at his ceiling and occasionally at the employee that angered him. Needless to say, he kept me very busy recruiting for new secretaries and his subordinates! But as you can predict, as soon as John no longer brought in the business, the company terminated him (and no one helped him out of the building).

One more example is a very common one in the talent acquisition space. When recruiting for an IT provider with a challenging list of skills and core competencies, I finally found a qualified candidate. I did notice that during the interview with this candidate, let’s call her Julie, she was not particularly polite or friendly. But, she did have all the requirements detailed in the job description and was advanced in her field, so I sent her on to the company for an interview. Not only did the president of the company call to tell me to never send anyone so rude again, but the secretary also called me to reiterate that even though a candidate may have all the required skills, if they are not nice people they will not fit into their company.

Today, many companies are working hard to create positive cultures and employment brands to attract the best candidates and engage their current employees.Job applicants who are not positive, professional and yes – nice, are frankly not considered as good candidates; many times regardless of their skill set.

[Related: The 5 Personality Types You Don't Want on Your Team]

As an employee, vendor, applicant or representative of a company I think it is obvious that what our parents and teachers told us when we were kids is true; we should be nice to others if we hope to gain their respect and trust. In the workplace I believe that treating others with dignity and a positive attitude is not only the right thing to do but the profitable way to act.


Mary Simmons is Director of HR Consulting at Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl and Associates, Inc and an adjunct professor at New York Institute of Technology. As an HR Consultant, she has worked closely with company representatives to develop clear Employee Handbooks and minimize legal issues. She also assists downsized employees with resume creation and interviewing skills to help them regain employment, thus minimizing retaliation and unemployment insurance costs.

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