"It's not personal, it's just business," is just wrong.

"It's not personal, it's just business," is just wrong.

I met some people after work Friday night for drinks. A few of them were co-workers from my ad agency, folks I’d been working with on an account we’ve had on our roster for a long time, until about a month ago, actually…when the client decided to leave us and go to another agency. This after we had to “re-pitch” the business we’d been working on, night and day, heart and soul, for over six years; this even after the new campaign we’d recently launched for them, which they reportedly loved, was doing gangbusters.

Oh yeah, and the really fun part was the other people we were having drinks with…? They were from the client that dumped us.

The phrase that was tossed around more than once when this dumping thing happened was, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” The clients sort of said it in a variety of ways while telling us politely that we were fired. We said it back to them, and to other people who asked, as a way of showing we were mature and good sports and professionals.

Because that’s the thing we say in corporate America.

We say it to make ourselves feel better. And to make other people feel better.

Or at least that’s why we tell ourselves we say it.

“It’s not personal. It’s just business.”


I was thinking about this phrase, which some say originated with an organized crime accountant from the 1930s, though of course, was recently made famous by the Donald on The Apprentice, while I was walking to Monk’s Pub, a bar on Lake Street, where we were meeting the ex-clients. This old, dive-y-looking place with a massive craft beer list, has been one of the favorite downtown hangouts of advertising types in Chicago, forever. A place where agency folks have gone, from time immemorial, to bitch about their bosses, complain about their clients, cry about how their ideas have been badmouthed, ripped off, screwed up, researched to death, tossed on the trash heap, bemoan how they aren’t listened to enough, respected enough or paid enough.

It struck me on the way over just how crazy personal it can get in every kind of business, how horrifyingly personal it got this week, in fact, when a former-employee with a gun shot two Virginia news people he used to work with.

I was also thinking of the various co-workers who’ve sat in one of the guest chairs in my office during the past several weeks, who in the midst of discussing work, happened to mention some things they were feeling about their jobs, in a very personal way. Everything from underappreciated to anxious about their future to angry, to confused to royally hurt and annoyed. None of them in any immediate danger of “going postal.” But still, all of them, in various kinds of pain.

Me too, I should probably add. I’ve found myself in the guest chair in someone else’s office, a time or two as well, recently.

Business really can’t help but be personal, because there are persons involved. Humans with stories and fears and all kinds of feelings.

But we say “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” I think, as a way of trying to get around all those messy human feelings. A way to disavow guilt, deny responsibility, discard compassion, and a not-so-subtle way of saying, “If you have any feelings about this, you’re unprofessional, stupid, too sensitive, wrong.”

I’ve been working in advertising for 30 years now, and I have had this phrase used on me, too often to count. But I’ve got to admit, I’ve also used this phrase myself, once or twice. Or, you know…possibly a kazillion times…maybe not actually saying it out loud, but definitely, inside my own head.

I’ve strapped it on like a life vest when, for example, I’ve had to “let people go” because we were “downsizing.”


I’ve grasped it, like the next rung on the monkey bars, when I’ve had to do something that was totally appropriate for me as a manager to do, but painful for someone else to experience… for example, the time I went off to an exotic locale to shoot a big TV commercial that a junior creative team had come up with, while they had to stay at home and do the everyday, crappy, unglamorous work, because the client didn’t trust them to pull off the creative vision.

As you can imagine, the junior team had some feelings about this. But I didn’t want them to. I wanted them to just deal with it, to not take it so personally, to buck up and shut up and be mature enough to get that it was only business. I didn’t have time to get everything done that I needed to get done and deal with their feelings, too, or so I thought, at the time. And because I couldn’t fix things, I hoped trying to gloss over and avoid would do the trick.

It didn’t. And even though I did finally stop running around long enough to ask their forgiveness for not making room for their feelings, it was too late. Things had gotten broken. And could never be fully repaired.

I almost didn’t go out with our former clients Friday night, I have to admit. Because it seemed like it had the potential to be a little awkward, complicated, weird. Full of lots of unspoken, broken stuff.

Thankfully, it wasn’t.

We talked mostly about how our kids are doing, showed back-to-school pictures to each other on our iPhones, talked about our spouses and in-laws and didn’t really talk that much about work. Kind of the opposite of how we used to spend our time when we’d get together for meetings and chat about our “personal lives” for just a few minutes at the beginning, as a way of being “polite,” and then dive headfirst into serious work talk, for the next hour or two or three.

It all felt very human to me, sweet, tender. Even while I was sitting there at the table, a part of me was looking down on all of us from above and thinking, “Well, bless their hearts.”

As I took the el home afterwards, I thought about how I spend so much of my time at work, taking care of business, trying to make things and sell things, wanting to do a good job, do work I’m proud of, feel passionate about. And how personal that is.

I thought about how I try to do all that I do well, so I can keep my job, take care of my family, pay the mortgage and the college bills and make enough to feed us all, including two cats who have incredibly specialized dietary needs and Karl, the turtle, possibly the most high maintenance of us all.

And how personal that is.

I thought about all the people I work with on a daily basis, who are just like me, their real lives of hopes and needs and histories and families, barely hidden behind their business curtains.

How personal it is to every one of us.

And how saying “it’s not personal, it’s just business” is just a big fat lie.

I also think it can be a dangerous lie, the kind of lie that allows us to treat others as things, a lie that encourages us to participate in and get comfortable with the sort of dehumanization that paves the way for all kinds of wrongs.
It’s the type of lie that may not seem like that big a deal on a daily basis, but when taken to its logical conclusion, it makes room for CEOs who take home multi-million dollar paychecks while their workers barely make ends meet, it makes it possible for American companies to justify toxic waste dumping in places like Indonesia and China, makes it easier for Bank of America to sell toxic mortgages, and as John Oliver recently called out, it makes it possible for celebrity pastors who are in the “God business” to take money from people who can barely pay their rent, in order to crowd-fund their corporate jets. And of course, the list could go on and on.

So I’ve decided I want to officially take “it’s not personal, it’s just business” off the list of ridiculous things I agree to say, think or believe, to keep things working at work.

It is business and we live in a capitalist society, which is mostly about making money, so, yes, business needs to get done, and hard, sometimes painful, decisions have to be made.

But it’s also personal.

And balancing those two realities demands a lot from us all.

We won’t always get it right. But we need to try.

Getting it right might start with just doing some very human and personal things. Like asking each other, “How are you feeling about all this?” Saying “I’m sorry” when we screw up. Saying “I don’t know” when we don’t know. As a supervisor saying, “This is happening and I can’t control it and it sucks,” when that is the reality. And also just saying “Thank you” a lot more often. To each other’s faces.

In a recent survey researchers found for 55% of us, hearing the words “thank you” is what gives us the highest sense of satisfaction at work. More than pay raises. Or bonuses. Or gift cards.

(Though, I’ve got to say, a big Thank You along WITH a pay raise, bonus or gift card, would probably also be very much appreciated.)

As I was getting ready to leave the gathering on Friday night, one of the folks from the client, the guy I’d worked with most closely for the past 6 years, said, “Before you go, I want to say something.”

And I thought, uh-oh, here it comes, he’s gonna say it, say: “It wasn’t personal, it was just business.” But instead, he raised his glass and said something to the effect of how much he’d enjoyed working with me, and mostly how much he’d grown to like me as a person.

You didn’t just do good work for us, you were a good person to work with, he said. And I nearly cried. Because it was really good to hear.

Thank you, I said back. You were too.

And it was no lie.

It was the blessed truth.

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