Never Underestimate The Value Of A Bottle Of Scotch

Last modified on August 13th, 2008

Wash, rinse, repeat – that’s my life these days. Wake up, work, code, sleep. I eat once and a while, although considering I had a bit of cream cheese at midnight and called it supper, I think I need some drastic improvements in that department.

My thermostat in my apartment shows 27C at 9am, which obviously makes it rather difficult to sleep. Actually, sleep in general is pretty difficult these days. I have a little bottle of Zopiclone that I keep around for special occasions, and even though it helps me sleep, it usually makes me a groggy mess in the morning. So in that department I am sort of screwed regardless of what I do.

Today’s post of the day is about ethics and their place is business. I’ve had this conversation with a few different people in the last few weeks, and it always surprises me what kind of responses I get. You see, I’ve always believed in working ethically. In fact, every time you see a little stainless steel ring on someone’s pinky finger, chances are they are an engineer that actually swore to uphold ethical practices. And while some people think it’s a dated practice, I think the meaning of that gesture is still as relevant today as it was when Rudyard Kipling first envisioned it.

I’ve always believed in a sort of “do the right thing” approach in business. That’s not to say I let people walk on me or abuse me, although having people attempt to exploit you comes with the territory. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a favour for someone, only to have that gesture come back much later in life along with a truck-load of dividends.

One of the other things I’ve always been against is hiring people to work for you without paying them. A lot of industries call these interns, and most places I’ve worked have had a few of them. And while it’s a cheap way to get work done, it just leaves a sour taste in my mouth, since I remember how hard it was making ends meet as a student. The concept of paying someone zero dollars to have them do a job that they would probably have an employee working on had the intern not been there just seems wrong somehow. Many people disagree with me there, but that’s where I stand.

One of my mentors growing up was my high school Business Education teacher. Brennen and I ended up getting to know him, mostly because we were so disruptive in class that we were forced to hang out afterwards as punishment. During that time, we somehow ended up all getting to know each other and ended up being friends. In fact, years later when I was at UBC and seriously thinking about leaving because I couldn’t afford to be there, he called me up and offered to give me whatever cash I needed to help me out. Not many people have stories like that about their high school teachers.

In addition to teaching business in school, that individual also moonlighted as a manager of the old Keg restaurant in Langley. One time he brought Brennen and I out while he was working and showed us how he worked. Something he told me at the time that has always stuck with me is the importance of not underestimating the value of a few free drinks. As an example, he said every night he worked at the Keg he would buy two random people drinks. Maybe it was a couple having some wine over a romantic dinner, or maybe it was two guys sitting at the bar watching the game. But whoever it was, he would simply walk up, comp them a few drinks, and spend a few minutes getting to know them.

You can’t really measure the value of a gesture like that, but that restaurant was always full, and most people in there knew that manager and always went out of their way to say hi to him. Given the amount of shoddy service these days in all sectors, I would think something like that would stick with a lot of people.

Another story that comes to mind is something my dad told me. My dad used to be an electrician, and worked with lots of trades people. One person he knew had worked their whole life at this one company, often working weekends and doing what he could to help the company out. Despite his positive attitude and the obvious positive effect he had on the business and their profitability, that company was quite content to pay him next to nothing, because really, that was the best way in their minds to maximize profit.

One day he was approached by another company and offered a pile more money, a truck, more benefits, and probably more responsibility in the new company. Upon receiving that tentative offer, he went to his current company and told them all about it. His current company immediately countered, offering him more money, a better truck, and all the other bells and whistles he wanted. They told him that he was so integral to their current business in fact that it would be extremely hard to replace him. At that point he asked then, “if I am so important here and you guys need me so much, why is it that you’ve been paying me peanuts for years and working me to the bone?” Of course, they didn’t have a response, and that employee was more than happy to leave. The thing is, it’s really hard to do the right thing retroactively, and in their case, the damage had already been done.

Another real-world story is about a prominent Electrical Engineering company in Burnaby that I once worked at for a few days. The management had built a really successful business and had brought on some of the best guys in the field. The company was rolling in the dough, and getting most of the best jobs that BC had to offer. Unfortunately though, the engineers doing all the work really didn’t see a lot of the money, which given the profitability of the business, just seemed wrong to all of them. So one day they approached the owner, explained the situation, and asked him for a few pieces of the pie. The owner refused.

Not long after, that owner arrived at work only to find that most of the people he had employed weren’t there. They had in fact left, and started their own engineering firm. Last I heard they were probably one of the best, if not the best, electrical engineering firms in BC, doing far more business than the one they left. That owner is probably sitting there wishing he would have shared some of his pie, which had long since gone cold.

Not everything in business is about dollars and cents. A lot of good business is about establishing and keeping relationships. Acquiring a new customer is a great deal of work, but by comparison, keeping an existing customer is fairly simple. So frankly, it’s just good business to treat people how they deserve to be treated. Any business that has a model that fundamentally relies on exploiting people or paying people far less than they are worth is flawed in my mind, and subject to future failure or repercussions. I’ve seen the end result of that time and time again, and it’s simply bad business.