Companies say they value employees. Their earnings calls say they value customers more

Three employees poke their heads out from their cubicles.
While companies often emphasize the importance of their employees, they still have a bias for prioritizing customers over them.
Jose Luis Pelaez

Good morning, everyone! Paolo here.

“Our employees are our greatest asset.” “We value our employees.” These refrains are commonplace in corporate America—they’re certainly ubiquitous among the (deserved) entrants on the Fortune 100 Best Places to Work For list. 

But recent research from Columbia Business School shows that despite all their pro-employee talk, companies prioritize customers over workers. Perhaps, we already knew this to be the case, but seeing it laid bare in empirical, peer-reviewed data is, nonetheless, jarring. 

In an analysis of earnings call transcripts of S&P 500 companies between 2007 and 2019, the authors found that companies mentioned customers 10 times more than employees. In fact, 92% of the more than 31,000 transcripts from 636 total companies mentioned customers, while only 55% mentioned employees, meaning that almost half the time, employees didn’t come up at all. 

A line graph displaying the increase in bias toward customers as opposed to employees, according to research from Columbia Business School.

Even more telling, executives associated customers with opportunities and employees with risks, an unusual characterization for an asset they claim to value. Stephan Meier, the report’s coauthor, says the tendency to consider employees as a cost center rather than a stakeholder inhibits firms’ ability to truly consider workers’ needs.  

“When we think about customer-centricity, nobody would say, ‘Oh, that means lowering the price,’” Meier says. “The notion is that there is some sort of win-win: We can make the customer happier and eventually increase the price. When it comes to employees, there is still a very prevalent either-or and zero-sum mentality.” 

The perception that serving employees hurts the bottom line rather than fuels it, gets inculcated into future managers early on. Management textbooks and scholarly research used in business schools mention customers five times more than employees, according to the report. Moreover, executives without business degrees are more likely to share profits with employees than those with them.

That’s not to say companies shouldn’t prioritize customers. Instead, Meier believes the same skills executives use to service customers can be applied to employees. 

“Employees are the new customers,” Meier says. “When we talk about employees, it’s a lot about compensation and monetary values. Twenty years ago, we did the same for customers. Now, we think about customer experience, and we need to think about employee experience.”

Paolo Confino

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This is the web version of CHRO Daily, a newsletter focusing on helping HR executives navigate the needs of the workplace. Today’s edition was curated by Paolo Confino. Sign up to get it delivered free to your inbox.

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