Generational Viewpoints: The upside and downside of ‘nice’

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This edition of Generational Viewpoints features two professionals from McGowen, Hurst, Clark & Smith PC, a 54-person firm with locations in Des Moines and Winterset, Iowa. We asked Generation X director of human resources Cindy Wubben, born in 1972, and millennial senior accountant Katie Fevold, born in 1992, to share their perspectives on the following question:

“Traditionally, CPA firms have fostered a culture of ‘nice.’ What are the pros and cons of a nice culture?”

Wubben’s Gen X viewpoint

“Nice” is defined in the dictionary as “pleasing; agreeable; delightful.” Those words are subjective to me, which means the term “nice” is somewhat subjective also. What’s nice to one person may not be nice to another. In general, we all understand the word to be a positive one, rather than negative. However, in a business setting there are definite pros and cons to a “nice” culture.

One benefit of having a nice culture is that it helps attract and retain talent. Individuals learn that the working environment is positive, encouraging, and strives to lift people up, rather than tear them down. This kind of environment is more likely to trigger endorphins for individuals, which creates an overall sense of “happy” when thinking about work.

Another benefit of a nice culture is that it helps reduce the amount of stress that others feel at work. According to the American Psychological Association, 65 percent of Americans cited work as a top source of stress. The expectations regarding output of work might be the same between a “nice” culture and one that is not, but the method in which deadlines and expectations are communicated often varies greatly. This affects how the employee feels or thinks about getting their work done and can either cause or alleviate work-related stress.

One of the cons of having a nice culture is that being taken advantage of can become common practice. For example, if a firm is hesitant to hold clients accountable to pay their bills on time, or at all, then the nice culture negatively affects best business practices. When the culture is one that fosters pleasant exchanges, it can be uncomfortable to ask clients to pay their bill on time, even though the monies are owed to the firm. A nice culture becomes a negative when it causes a firm to retain clients that don’t pay their bills, don’t value their services, are not nice to their people, or have unrealistic deadlines and expectations. This lack of boundaries erodes trust and respect of staff and can drive turnover if these issues aren’t addressed.

Another con regarding a “nice” culture relates to talent. Often, underperforming employees are allowed to remain at the firm because it feels “mean” to fire them. If the culture is genuinely nice, the employee is probably well-liked on a personal level by many others in the firm. They may hang out with other coworkers and firm leaders socially, and those relationships can cloud the decision-making process around what’s best for the firm. The irony is that keeping an employee in a position where they are a marginal performer not only hurts the firm, it is also hindering the individual’s ability to be truly successful.

Everyone has unique gifts and talents. If an employee is struggling to perform after an appropriate amount of time and adequate resources were given to them to succeed, then it is in that individual’s best interest to help them transition out of the firm where they can better apply their unique gifts.

When I first started my career in HR, it was extremely difficult for me to attend the exit meetings of individuals being fired. After decades of these types of meetings, I now understand that if the process leading up to the termination is handled well, and the end goal is for the firm and the individual to progress, then it is better to release the employee to find a position that is better suited for their strengths.

I often follow up with the individual months or years later and almost always learn that they found something better suited for them that they wouldn’t have pursued on their own. They needed to be let go so they could be pushed to find their true fit.

I think the ideal balance for a firm’s culture is when “nice” is a part of the approach in how business decisions are handled (i.e., the “people” side is considered), but not necessarily the determining factor on whether a decision should be made. Tough decisions still need to be made at the end of the day, but there is a way to make them that elevates the firm and individuals up, rather than bringing them down.

Fevold’s millennial viewpoint

There are both pros and cons to fostering a culture of “nice” in a CPA firm. One of the pros of having a nice culture is that people enjoy coming to work every day. Being around nice people makes your job that much more enjoyable. It may also motivate people to work harder if they enjoy the people they work with, because they don’t want to let them down.

In addition, having a “nice” culture can be very enticing to new hires, whether they are right out of college or have had experience in the field. I believe if a firm has created a nice culture, it will be apparent to outsiders of the firm right away, which attracts more people. Clients also enjoy working with nice people who they feel truly care about them. This allows a firm to build stronger relationships with clients and makes it easier to bring in new clients to the firm. Clients will also be more likely to refer our firm to others if they enjoy working with us and can see the culture that the firm has created.

One downside I see to having a “nice” culture is it can be hard to give and receive feedback or review comments. If someone is too nice, they may be scared to give feedback. If an employee is not given feedback, it could be hurting them if they keep making the same mistakes again. The truly “nice” thing to do is to provide others with constructive feedback so they can improve. This shows others that you care about their long-term well-being, not just what they are feeling today. Millennials, including me, are used to getting instant feedback — whether it’s on social media, on a test, or communicating with friends — and we want feedback at work to know how we are performing. When this feedback is given in a caring way, everyone benefits, and the firm can maintain a “nice” culture that also promotes straight talk. To make this shift occur, everyone in the firm must be on the same page and be willing to give feedback. If only a handful of people give feedback, employees may see those people as difficult to work with, since they aren’t receiving feedback as the norm.

Overall, it’s great to have a nice culture, but it must be one that feels authentic and not like problems are being masked. We must be willing to have open conversations about tough topics. We should always keep others’ long-term well-being in mind by giving feedback in a way that shows you truly care. A huge part of our lives involves interacting with co-workers, and we all want to be around authentically nice people!

This column is facilitated and edited by Brianna Johnson, the millennial consultant, and Jennifer Wilson, the baby boomer co-founder and partner of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting firm that specializes in helping leaders achieve success. To have your firm’s generational viewpoints considered for a future Accounting Tomorrow column, email them at brianna@convergencecoaching.com.

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