Your way through the maze when 'business' and 'personal' conflict

How many movies have you watched in which a shady character utters the immortal line: “this is business, it’s not personal”? Probably hundreds, no doubt. It’s a great phrase which loosely translated means: “I’m going to rob you, physically injure, kill you or put you in a very difficult situation, but I am not doing this because I don’t like you as a person – it’s just business.”

So, exactly what is personal and what is business? Where can we draw the line between what is considered our personal life, and what is considered our business or professional life? And ultimately should what happens in either of those parts of our lives impact on the other?

There have been incidents recently that have thrust the spotlight onto this very subject and the question that has been asked of late is should what a person does in their personal life have any bearing whatsoever on their professional life?

This particular question was debated on a number of industry websites recently after Alistair Sim returned to the industry, joining The Chase after being forced to resign from the agency he co-founded, Love Creative, due to a personal issue back in November 2008.

The business/personal line was blurred even further last month after The Drum posted a video interview with Scottish-based creative director Don Smith online. The video received over 100 comments in its first few days with many of them straying away from what could be considered professional and constructive comments into personal slurs; so much so, that other members of the Scottish community came quickly rallying to Smith’s defence.

James Allan, managing partner, planning at RBH in Meriden near Birmingham, has strong opinions on this subject. When asked the question, should personal lives impact on business lives he says: “It’s often accepted that our life or personality outside work is perhaps inappropriate for the workplace, therefore we need to modify our behaviour when in work. Become businesslike. Meet an acceptable ‘norm’. I’d argue that a business situation is simply another social setting that varies. A smart business person is one who instinctively knows how to quickly adapt.

“In the agency business, pretty much all we have to sell is ourselves. Our clients pay for our time, expertise and hopefully our enthusiasm for their business. So it’s all about the type of people we employ and how adaptable they are. Of course to keep a client for long enough to actually get paid, you have to avoid being deeply revolting as an individual, especially in front of the client. If you’re secretly a bully at home then it won’t take long to reveal your true colours in the workplace – certainly in an agency.

“Nothing loses business faster than an agency person with a repellent personality.

“Robert Sutton is a professor from Stanford University. His book ‘The No Asshole Rule: A Civilised Workplace And Surviving One That Isn’t’ proves exactly this point. An asshole in the workplace will cost you a fortune.”

One of Scotland’s most passionate agency heads is Ian McAteer, co-founder of The Union. It is no secret that The Union has also been derided in online comment sections and much of that has strayed into personal insults and slurs.

When asked whether an individual’s personal life should have an impact on their business life, McAteer says: “In most cases, yes. Business requires constant judgements about people and companies, often to do with issues such as integrity, reliability, trustworthiness and so on. Behaviours in private life thus can often affect how one is viewed in business.

“However, there may be issues in private life that have no bearing on a person’s business performance, in which case one should be able to separate the two. Sadly human beings are quick to judge and slow to forgive, especially in today’s media-fuelled environment, and it is rare that the two are separated.”

McAteer was one of the people who defended his former employee Don Smith against some of the comments made on The Drum’s website and he has never been backward in staunchly defending his agency from personal attacks. So, does he take business too personally? He says: “Experience and getting older has helped me not to get too emotional about business life. There are far too many more important things in life, like health, family and friends. If the agency is attacked then I will defend it if the attack is unfair. I don’t take it personally, the agency is not the personification of myself. But I am more concerned about defending my colleagues, clients and agency staff if they are attacked. And the same applies to friends and colleagues outside the agency. Unfairness and injustice in any form upsets me.

“I found some of the anonymous personal comments about Don Smith distasteful. These would not be tolerated in a workplace, so I don’t see why they are OK on the web. Anonymous bullies are the lowest of the low.”

In Leeds, An Agency Called England boss Tony Stanton also feels that the line between personal and business is becoming increasingly confused.

“The problem is that sometimes people re-draw the line too often to suit themselves,” he says. “For example, in people businesses such as ours, we often want to get ‘up close and personal’ with our clients. We take them to dinner, we play golf with them, watch cricket or take them to football matches. We wine them and dine them to let them get to know us as people, our personalities, our sense of humour. We want to bond with them on a personal level. We can’t then complain if our conduct ‘off the field’ gets noticed, just because it might burst the virtuous bubble we’ve been trying to create.”

So, what about when business does become too personal and a personal attack is launched against his agency. How does Stanton react?

“There is a big difference between genuine criticism or a proper grievance, and a personal attack that is malicious, unfounded and destructive. Criticism can be very hurtful, particularly if it is unwarranted and I used to take anything like that to heart. Less so these days because I can now differentiate between a genuine grievance and malice.

We learn little from praise, but can learn a lot from balanced criticism, so I’m always open to have what I do under the microscope. I also know that people with a genuine grievance do not usually lash out nor use dirty tricks to make their point. I have realised that there is a lot of truth in ‘empty vessels make the most noise’ cliche too.

“Other than our Nigel Hunter episode, which was very damaging at the time, we have almost always had great relationships with the team, clients and suppliers and few other problems of this nature before or since.”

As Stanton states, in this industry it often suits people to become quite intimately involved in a person’s private life and to build quite personal relationships. So, does that mean that business has indeed become personal?

Simon Wharton, managing director of Manchester-based agency Push On, commented in an online forum on Alistair Sim’s return to the industry and offered one reason why business could now be considered personal. He commented online: “Surely the nature of this very medium [digital] and this conversation suggests that business is personal. Do you Google, Facebook and Linked-in new hires, suppliers and clients? I certainly do. Are any of your clients/suppliers friends on Facebook? I reckon the boundaries are increasingly blurred.”

Wharton raises a good point and when asked to expand on the increased interest in people’s personal lives as a barometer of them as business associates, he adds: “We’re making an enormous shift right now. Both the devices we use to communicate with and what we communicate are changing rapidly. The simple fact is that anyone who I deal with, I can and do find online. Whether that is a good thing or bad is immaterial, publicly available and self publicised data are freely available, those are the facts on the ground.

“In many ways I like this approach, it gives you a better view of the person as a whole and how they do business. I’ve never been interested in bland faceless business. Doing business with people who you have a feel for is so much more enjoyable.”

Allan at RBH adds that in the agency business “the rivalry is often fierce – perhaps because we only have ourselves and our ideas to sell. So it’s not just business. It really is personal.”

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