There is something about Zappos that intrigues people. Maybe it’s the radical transparency. Perhaps it’s just a cult of personality. Or it could just be that people love to order shoes and have them on their doorsteps the very next day. There’s a lot to admire, for sure.
But I think it has something to do with the kind of common decency that is awfully uncommon these days. It’s the respect for the average person—Zappos employees aren’t given customer service scripts to abide by—and trusting that ordinary people will act like decent people. It’s having a cultural habit of treating people with dignity—even when you’re laying them off. That’s just plain admirable.
You’re probably wondering what on earth this has to do with Pittsburgh.
An uncommon decency
I grew up in Pittsburgh, and I’ve lived in other places for the better part of a decade. In that time, I’ve come to realize how much basic decency I grew up around—and took for granted.
You see, in Pittsburgh just about everyone recognizes that regular people work in all sorts of jobs.
Oh, sure, you’ll always have the odd person who is nasty to the bartender or short with the guy who’s putting the chipped ham and hoagies in your buggy at Giant Eagle. But it’s so unusual that Pittsburghers have a word for them—jagoffs—and we’ll probably tell you you’re being one, especially if we’ve been fueled by a few beers.
What you don’t see much in Pittsburgh is the distantly polite-but-patronizing sort of attitude (common in many other parts of the country) toward people who work in the service industry.
In the old Steel City, just about every job is a respectable one. It’s the kind of place where friends and neighbors and family go off to work in different places—in an office, at a shop, or on a roof—and still get together on Sundays to eat ham barbecues and watch the Steelers game.
Whether they’re representing you in court or pouring your coffee, people expect to be treated the same familiar way you’d treat your neighbor or cousin (and you know I don’t mean that nebby-nose one you’re always avoiding anymore).
You may think I’m exaggerating about the goodness of Pittsburghers. You would be mistaken.
(One of my first culture-shock moments came during my first grocery store trip in Raleigh. I was stunned at how fast the checkout lines moved, because nobody seems compelled to chat with the cashier about whether the black-and-gold thumbprints needed sprinkled with more jimmies like they always did at the Potomac Bakery.)
Now don’t misunderstand me: the only connection to Zappos is the everyday decency. Working in a typical Pittsburgh firm bears very little resemblance to working at Zappos. Innovative workplaces have been slow to take hold in Pittsburgh. When Google opened its first office there in 2006, it seemed to many Pittsburghers that alien engineers wielding Nerf guns had descended upon the city. The solidarity among Pittsburghers will always find its roots solidly in blue collar living.
But it’s the same kind of everyday Pittsburgh decency that makes Zappos so appealing as a company. What other large company gives its employees permission to do whatever seems right? Where else can you find the CEO tweeting alongside entry-level workers? What other company offers new hires several thousand dollars to quit—and most of them turn down the money?
Everyday decency means you don’t hire police escorts to usher faithful employees out the door.
Everyday decency means you don’t cut people off in mid-sentence—or in traffic.
Everyday decency means you treat people like you’d want them to treat your family.
I’ll grant that my memories are probably rose-colored, what with being an expatriate for all these years. And I have no doubt that the Zappos legend is, like all, at least somewhat inflated and partly hype.
Regardless, an increasing number of business thinkers are telling us that we need to be actively working to humanize business. From where I’m sitting, it looks like we need to start somewhere a little less esoteric. Maybe we start by taking a good look at how we’re talking to ordinary people every day.