My wife and I went to dinner with someone who was repeatedly rude to our waiter. They ordered without eye contact, never uttered a please, and made demands rather than requests. After the meal, we talked to the person and said that we would never go out with them again unless they behaved differently. Alarmingly, the person had no idea what we were talking about. The waiter was essentially non-existent to them. It was the essence of dehumanization.

I often think about the ways people treat those who have less position or power. When it comes to running a business like ours, we all know how our clients would like to be treated, but are we thinking as much about how we treat our co-workers? I certainly don’t do everything right, but I try to follow some principles for myself and set them for the firm. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like that waiter.

My co-workers are colleagues. This doesn’t mean our organization chart is flat or that people aren’t reporting to others. But I try to see people for who they are and not what they do. We try to have one-on-one meetings or small group meetings with every new hire, and I try to meet one-on-one with them myself, because I may not have much interaction with them in the course of their regular work. I want to know about them and their interests and their family. I want to remember as much as I can about them. I want to notice the things they’re interested in and engage with them when I can. Our firm is like a pond, and every person in it impacts our ecosystem. Not everyone will succeed here, and not everyone will be a fit, but everyone is important. It’s important that they know, because we want people working at our firm to have a career, not a job.

I didn’t have much to do with creating our hiring process, but it’s long and comprehensive. Besides meeting with the people in the company, new employees sit down with HR to go through benefits, get their space set up by our technologist, and meet with their manager-mentors. In addition, new employees get a training manual where they see how the first six weeks are laid out for them. We want people to understand the way we do things at Accredited Investors Wealth Management, which thrives on collaboration. It’s a team concept, which requires spending time learning from team members. It also means new staff members feel less alone. Job transitions are difficult, even when the new job is a good one, and we don’t want our new hires to feel buyer’s remorse.

Work From Home
Consider how people are working these days. After two years of battling the pandemic, employees today are feeling more stretched than ever. In our firm, we have addressed this by launching a program in which our staff members can work from home at least 50% of the time, though we ask them to be available for client meetings. We refer to this process as “service from anywhere.” But we also believe there are disadvantages to working from home. Those who do it all the time never really have the closure that a drive home gives them. They are also constantly getting emails requiring immediate responses. And we have found that our clients want both virtual interactions and in-person meetings, not one or the other. I’ve had clients ask for a real meeting during a virtual session that I thought would suffice.

Seeing People
When we talk about valuing people, we mean seeing them. And when you really see someone, it’s likely you will think twice about running over them roughshod. Because if you do, it’s likely you don’t value people so much as you value your own power. That’s something that will come out in your behavior.

Client work can be stressful. There will be times when tempers flare—when somebody missed something or made a mistake. How will you respond when it happens? Will you try to understand why the person missed something? Or will you use the opportunity to get something off your chest? We have a right to set expectations about how our colleagues will perform, and to clearly articulate these expectations and when they’re not being met. But we can do this respectfully. We can’t manage someone else’s anxiety—for instance, when the requirements of their job can feel overwhelming to them—but we can still talk to people like people.

Sometimes I speak to someone about their performance, assuming I’m being respectful, but then get a negative reaction. That forces me to explore whether my delivery was poor or whether a high achiever had difficulty discussing an issue with their work. It probably was a bit of both. The only thing we can control, though, is ourselves.

Frankly, I don’t think I thank people or recognize their efforts enough. I am grateful for the work they do, but I don’t tell them directly as much as I could. I say thank you every time a stranger opens their door for me, but maybe I don’t thank my colleagues after every client meeting. I appreciate them, but I miss many of the numerous chances to tell them.

There’s a famous parable about British architect Christopher Wren. The tale goes that he was reviewing work on his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, during the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire in 1666. He came across three bricklayers and asked them what they were doing. The first bricklayer said he was working to feed his family and the second one said he was simply building a wall. The third said he was making a cathedral. In other words, he saw the big picture.

Regardless of their positions in the firm, we want our staff to make their work as meaningful as possible. We want them to feel like they are building cathedrals, too—and that means everyone contributes to the success of the firm.

At our monthly staff meetings, people are encouraged to share a story about how one of their colleagues made their life easier that month. We also tell them about the new clients coming to the firm. That way, every staff meeting is a chance to reinforce that what we are doing is important and that what they are doing matters. While we have operational things we have to cover, we try to connect the firm’s objectives with the staff’s. We also offer firm-wide profit-sharing as a recognition of the team effort.

Aligning the staff’s objectives with the firm’s is not always easy, nor does it always work for everyone. If there are problems, we try to clearly communicate the issues we are having to prevent surprises if it turns out we must part ways with the employee. But we have also increased our success by improving our hiring process: We invest a lot of money in hires before we offer them a job by sending candidates to an industrial psychologist to screen for a fit in their skills and values. They also get to sit down with the psychologist to go through their results.

This process has allowed us to limit (if not eliminate) any difficult departures. We want to hire thoughtfully, not cross our fingers and hope.

Most firms recognize the huge responsibility they have in serving our clients. But don’t we have the same responsibility in serving our colleagues?

Ross Levin is co-founder of Accredited Investors Wealth Management in Edina, Minn.