Employees and Customers Aren’t First


One of two business philosophies dominate organizations today, “customers first” or “employees first.” Both are useful.

Neither reflect reality.

Employees first:

Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, Ltd., is committed to employees first. Harvard Business Review published his book, “Employees First, Customers Second.”

The employees first movement even reaches into health care. Spiegelman and Berrett wrote, “Patients Come Second.”

Customers first:

Stew Leonard’s best expresses the customer first philosophy. They have two rules.

Rule number one: The customer is always right.

Rule number two: When the customer is wrong, refer to rule number one.


In reality, “employees first” or “customers first,” both work. But, they aren’t the real “first” in any organization.

Both camps justify their position by showing how successful their organizations are by adopting their preferred approach. “Look how much money we made putting customers first,” for example.

Organizations come first. The real question is, “What’s good for the organization.”

The real issue is how you express organizational self-interest. Do you believe it’s best for your organization to put employees first or customers first?

A sign in the front window saying, “We put ourselves first,” just doesn’t sell.


None of the philosophies are absolutes. Leaders navigate competing interests between employees, customers, stakeholders, communities, stockholders, and organizations.

I’m not suggesting we abandon values and ethics. But, lets get real. When push comes to shove, organizational self-interest drives organizations – within the confines of law, regulation, values, and ethics.

Successful organizations do what’s good for others
in ways that are good for themselves.

The conversation feels like a dog chasing it’s tail. Customers or employees or organizations? Yes, yes, and yes.

For the record: I’m an employees first guy.

Are you a “customer first” or “employee first” leader?

What guiding principles help leaders navigate the competing interests of their constituents?