Top Priority – Employees or Customers?

by Aaron Hurst | 0 Comments | January 11, 2017

Can you choose between employees or customers as a priority for an organization? Aaron Hurst dives into the issue by stating that one must take care of their employees, but making them the top priority could do more damage than good. Sharing his story of a social enterprise he founded called Taproot Foundation, he learned that the best way to value your employee is by making customers the top priority. Hurst states, “We are best served when we are in service to others.” When you make your organization meaningful and impactful, employees feel their work is appreciated and recognized.


Originally posted on Aaron Hurst’s LinkedIn. Read the full article below.


Customers and employees are both critical to the success of an organization, but when push comes to shove who should be the top priority? Customers? Employees?

Sir Richard Branson, the iconic serial entrepreneur and activist has been widely quoted for his point of view on this issue. “Clients don’t come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees they will take care of your clients.”

Branson’s philosophy is well aligned with Google’s strategy. They have built their brand on their employee first approach. 840 miles north of Google, however, is a company that this thriving by making customers their top priority. Amazon is what their founder, Jeff Bezos, calls “customer-obsessed.”

The Purpose Perspective

As a serial social entrepreneur and student of purpose in the workplace, my experience and research doesn’t align with Branson’s philosophy. We must take care of our employees but making them the top priority may have the inverse impact.

In 2001, I founded the Taproot Foundation, a social enterprise that engaged thousands of business professionals in pro bono service supporting local nonprofit organizations. We disrupted the volunteerism sector by committing one of the greatest heresies of volunteering. As a result, we helped create a $15 billion a year marketplace and had our model replicated around the world.

Taproot put the needs of nonprofits before the needs of the business professionals volunteering their time. This meant that we only engaged volunteers who were truly qualified and could finish the job. It meant we define the pro bono projects based on the real needs of nonprofits. It meant that if a volunteer wasn’t doing their job, they were removed from the team.

One of the biggest issues in volunteering is that a large percentage of service efforts don’t yield any impact because they don’t put the nonprofit first. They leave the nonprofit frustrated and often take more resources than they generate. As one nonprofit leader told me, “if I get another volunteer I am going to go bankrupt.”  The volunteers leave projects feeling like they wasted their time. By putting volunteers first, they are greatly increasing the odds that neither the volunteer nor the nonprofit’s needs are met.

This has convinced me that the best way to put employees first is to actually make customers the top priority. We are best served when we are in service to others.

The Act of Service

At Imperative, my new social enterprise, we have spent the last two years studying purpose at work and connecting it to performance. One of the three critical sources of meaning in our work is making an impact. A culture that puts service, impact and customers first is more likely able to have employees really feel like their work matters and that the company is purpose-driven.

Mutual Respect

Making customers your top priority, however, doesn’t mean that you should make employees a distant second. To many customer-obsessed companies neglect to create boundaries to protect employees from unreasonable requests from clients whose expectations aren’t well managed. This especially common in consulting and law firms who overwork their employees in the name of client service when in reality they simply are using clients as an excuse to overwork and abuse their teams.

What is your experience? Which does your company prioritize? Does it work?


Aaron Hurst is an Ashoka Fellow, award-winning entrepreneur and globally recognized leader in fields of purpose at work and social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative and founder of the Taproot Foundation which he led for a dozen years. Aaron is the author of the Purpose Economy and has written for or been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg TV and Fast Company.

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