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What Does “People First” Mean in Business and Why Does It Matter?

By now, you’ve seen it on company websites and heard it used to describe corporate culture. But what does “people first” mean? And why does it matter in business?

When we launched People First Productivity Solutions in 2006, the phrase “people first” was still a novelty. It wasn’t widely circulating and hadn’t yet been adopted as a corporate value. These days, the “people first” concept is wildly popular and is a stated value for many global organization including Marriott, American Express, Apple, McDonald’s, Ford, the US Army, Pushpay, issuu, and Capita. Iterations like “We Care for People So They Can Be Their Best” (Hyatt), the conscious culture focus at Cisco, “Customers First,” and “Team First,” are also abundant. 519 - people first-1

But why?

Why are so many large organizations declaring this value and making operational choices to display it? 

Why Putting PEOPLE First Is Smart Business Strategy

Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group, has attributed his success to people. He says “When it comes to business success, it is all about people, people, people.” He explained that creating success starts with bringing people together… that it’s the people who will define the vision and deliver the results. 

Marriott’s philosophy is “If we take care of our people, they will take care of our customers, and the customers will come back.” 

The United States Army built “people first” into its strategy, officially adopting this philosophy in 2020. They wrote that “By prioritizing people first, the Army is signaling that investing resources in our people initiatives is the most effective way to accomplish our mission.” 

A Forbes article examining people first organizations summed it up this way: “The leaders of people-centric organizations understand that it’s people who make their company successful. These companies realize that when people feel valued and cared for, they do their work with stronger intrinsic motivation, a deeper sense of meaning, and a greater level of engagement. They go the extra mile simply because they want to contribute to an organization that cares about them.” 

In short, putting people first drives business results from start to finish. Today’s philosophy translates into long-term success. It gives people a reason to work for and buy from your organization. 

People includes employees, co-workers, customers and vendors. It may also include your community at large. 

Here are just some of the benefits of putting people first in each of these groups:

Employees: Putting people first boosts employee engagement. Improved employee engagement drives improvements in retention rates, job satisfaction, output, quality, productivity, customer satisfaction, top line revenue, and bottom line profits.  

Colleagues: Employees are far less likely to leave a workplace when they feel a sense of belonging and report having friends at work. People also report working harder, caring more, and doing a better job when they have friends at work. 

Customers: Providing great service and competitive prices isn’t good enough anymore. In the experience economy, we’re all looking for intangible “it” factors that give us a good experience and feeling when we make a purchase. If you’re not showing customers that you genuinely care, their experiences will be negatively affected. To remain competitive, you’ve got to provide superior customer experiences. 

Vendors: Sellers are people, too! What’s more, every seller is also a potential customer and has relationships with others who might be your employees or customers. Treating vendors disrespectfully isn’t necessary and could result in blemishing your company’s image. 

Community: Whether you see yourself as a local employer or a global citizen, what you do has a ripple effect on others. When you give back to your community of interest, local community, or philanthropic cause, you’re letting employees and customers know that you care about community. Caring is contagious and causes others to see you a different light (e.g. not just about making money!). 

In various ways, when you put people first, you reap rewards that are financial. You set your business up to succeed. You “pay it forward” in ways that will pay you back. And it feels good, too! 

BUT… if you’re really putting people first, you’ll need to back up that ideal with actions.  

What Does “People First” Mean When It Comes to Actions? 

The people first philosophy drives actions demonstrating that people are your top priority. The foundation of this philosophy can be summarized with 5 E’s: 

  1. Enablement: You’re equipping people with the education, processes, resources, and autonomy needed to do their jobs. You’re making it easy for customers to reach you and get answers to any questions/problems they may have. 
  2. Engagement: You engage with people in all parts of your business. You’re asking vendors for their opinions and tap into their networks. You enlist customers in evaluating product quality or new product designs. You genuinely value, appreciate and seek employee input. 
  3. Ennoblement: You make people feel worthy and important. You do this because you believe every person is worthy and important. You’re not impatient, brusque, or dismissive because you want to hear what employees, colleagues, customers, vendors, and community members can offer.
  4. Entelechy: You look for ways to unleash hidden potential. You support personal and professional development, and you challenge people to step outside their comfort zone in pursuit of their passions and potential.  
  5. Empathy: You care enough to empathize with others. You listen and care. You see people as people… imperfect, not always “on”, and just trying to do their best with what they’ve got. You seek to understand and meet them where they are.   

More specifically, these are 10 actions consistently and clearly demonstrate that you are serious about putting people first:

  • Leaders and managers take time to know others and allow themselves to be knowable. You interact with people human-to-human vs. boss-to-subordinate. 
  • You value input from others and actively seek diverse points of view. You avoid making unilateral decisions and show genuine interest in each individual’s opinions and ideas. You listen well, ask probing questions, and mine for more. 
  • People development is a priority and learning opportunities include stretch assignments, candid feedback, job shadowing, mentoring, training for next-level roles and transferable skills, and frequent discussions about career progression. You help people find these opportunities and take advantage of the ones that fit their development needs. 
  • You proactively conduct stay interviews (rather than merely reacting to too-late exit interviews). You also have regular 1:1 meetings that center on employee development and goals vs. project updates and work tasks alone. 
  • Expectations are clearly set and consistently applied. You’ve provided the what, why, and how related to work you’ve assigned to others. 
  • Success is celebrated, effort is encouraged, and achievement is acknowledged. You take time to notice and recognize people’s contributions. 
  • People are united by a common purpose that is bigger than the work tasks they do. You provide context that helps connect the dots rather than barking out orders for tasks that seem meaningless and mundane. 
  • You take time to explain changes, policies, decisions, and assignments. You understand that accelerating change requires understanding people’s emotional responses to it. 
  • You think about the impact of your words and actions on others BEFORE you speak or act. You put yourself in the other person’s shoes and consider how they will be impacted (mentally, physically, and emotionally) by choices you make. You value the happiness and well-being of people, and you take it into account when making decisions. 
  • Despite job titles and positional power dynamics, you view everyone as a leader in their own right. You set aside ego, hierarchy, and expedience to engage others and involve them in decisions that will affect them. You believe in leadership at every level and remove real and perceived barriers that would keep people from stepping into their full potential as leaders. 

Common Misunderstandings: What People First Is NOT  

This is where a lot of well-meaning folks get it wrong. These common misunderstandings about putting people first cause them to execute poorly or to expect something different than what’s intended. 

People First Is NOT person first

Inside an organization, individuals will initially believe that putting people first means “me first.” They’ll be inclined to think that this philosophy gives them liberties to take advantage of an employer’s good nature. They’ll ask for extra time off, for example, and lash out with “that’s not putting people first” when the answer is “no.”

The distinction you need to make for them is that “people first” is not about individuals. While there will be some benefits for all individuals, this is about taking a Spock-like approach: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.”

People First Is NOT about doing other people’s work for them

A common misunderstanding of people first (and of servant leadership) is that doing work for people is a kindness. For example, a manager takes back delegated work when an individual seems to be struggling with it. The manager, meaning to be kind and wanting to serve others, does not realize that this signals impatience and a lack of faith in the individual. It’s like saying “well, I guess you can’t do this after all.” 

Putting people first is about empowerment and giving people opportunities to grow, not about depriving them of learning and growth opportunities. 

People First Is NOT fiscally irresponsible  

Since it’s not profit first, many misunderstand and think “people first” suggests profit is not important.

On the contrary!

To put people first, you’ve got to be profitable. And to be profitable, you’ve got to put people first. 

Healthy, profitable organizations are better able to provide training and development opportunities. They’re more likely to invest time in considering people’s input and in explaining the how’s and why’s of whatever they’re asking people to do. 

People First Is NOT something you can fake

You can’t fake putting people first. Your actions will betray you. 

That’s why “people first” shouldn’t be a buzz phrase in your values. It shouldn’t be a platitude in big, bold words on your website or wall. It shouldn’t be a part of your business at all unless it’s a core, driving force for your business. 

People First Is NOT about emotions 

People first business still have to make business decisions. They still use logic, critical thinking, analysis and common sense to operate day-to-day. They don’t allow emotions to interfere with good decision making and planning. 

Taking people into account is a logical process. Emotions and personal connections are considered alongside the business needs and greater good. 

This isn’t about putting everything to a popular vote. It’s not about caving to others’ demands when those demands are bad for the business (or for other people groups). Sometimes, people won’t like what’s been decided. But, having been a part of the decision, they will be more likely to support it. 

Finally, People First Is NOT meant to stand alone

People first is not measured by a single event, interaction, or decision. People first organizations sometimes have to take actions that don’t feel much like putting people first… but business realities (for the good of all vs. the good of the few) may necessitate shifting the benefits plan, laying people off, discontinuing a popular product, or making changes that disrupt routines. 

Even people first organizations sometimes disappoint some people. Doing it transparently, after other options have been exhausted, is the people first way to proceed at these times. 

A Personal Note about People First Productivity Solutions

When we opened for business in 2006, our founder had first-hand experience with a Fortune 500 company that truly did put PEOPLE first. She also had first-hand experience with an organization that did just the opposite, focusing exclusively and brutally on profit (no matter what the impact on people would be in pursuit of that profit). Sadly, both examples were within the same company. Once it put itself on the auction block, that company abandoned all its people-centric efforts. Shareholder pressures for profit overrode everything else. 

The sharp contrast provided clarity about the importance and impact of putting people first. That’s why it became the mission, purpose, guiding value, and name of People First Productivity Solutions

Over the years, we’ve worked with companies in all sectors who want to build organizational strength by putting people first. 

For some, their desire to do so was not backed up by their actions. They were not willing to change in ways that would consistently demonstrate this professed value. As you’d imagine, it creates a credibility issue for leadership to send the mixed message of saying “people first” but doing things that disproved their commitment. For the ones that made real behavioral changes, improved employee engagement, retention, productivity, and profits were the outcomes 100% of the time (within 2 years). Sometimes the changes also required leadership or management changes – the old change the people or change the people maxim. 

For some of our clients, “people first” has been a long-held value (whether directly stated or not). They were attracted to our organization because our values and approach resonated with them. As we helped them with people practices (leadership development, team effectiveness, sales productivity), we solidified and expanded on their foundation. 

A smaller number of our clients have started out being “people first” but waned in that commitment due to new leadership/ownership. As with our founder’s 2005 experience, the abandonment of people first practices swiftly resulted in dramatic declines in employee engagement, retention, productivity, and profits. Note: the profit problem is typically masked in the first few months of a change like this as “low hanging fruit” like easy expense reductions are implemented. But those kinds of changes do not yield long-term profits and losses are later realized. 

Finally, we’ve done quite a bit of work to rehabilitate organizations that were formerly focused on putting people first but learned, the hard way, the impacts of abandoning that commitment.

Where is your organization when it comes to putting PEOPLE first? Is it actual, aspirational, or not yet on the radar?

If you’re an individual who wants to put people first, don’t wait for organizational approval. You can do this in your everyday exchanges with others. If you’d like to learn more about the mechanics of managing with a people first mentality, check out our self-paced eLearning course Workplace Conversations

If you’d like to see your organization become more people-centric, the Workplace Conversations course is also available to management teams. It’s a great place to begin your culture reset. People First Productivity Solutions also works with leadership teams to build and implement people first practices. To learn more about this option, visit our website.

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