It’s never just business – knowing when to take thing personally

By Karen Gately

Have you ever been told ‘it’s just business, don’t take it personally’? If you have you probably understand how dismissive and disempowering that statement can be. Implying that some decisions made or actions taken in the course of ‘doing business’ are exempt from the moral standards that typically apply; it’s a problematic things to say let alone accept. Doing business is never an acceptable reason to behave unethically or treat people poorly. 

It’s an unfortunate reality that not everyone in business can be trusted to behave appropriately. Standing up for our rights is essential if we are to have the quality of work life we all deserve. Every employer and client is bound by the same legal and moral obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment in which our rights are respected. When that doesn’t happen we need to take action. 

Standing up for what is fair and right starts with taking responsibility for our own health and wellbeing, as well as that of the people we work with.  With this perspective in mind the standard of conduct we should expect and hold others accountable to become clear. At the heart of what we should is expect is to be able to work in an environment free of risks to our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. Equally, we should expect to be rewarded fairly for the contributions we make.

Being bullied, harassed, taken advantage of or ripped off are all examples of behaviours we should never accept including from people we work with or for.  The harsh reality is when the wrongdoer is our customer or boss we have two choices – challenge their behaviour or find a new job. Too often people accept or turn a blind eye to bullying, dishonesty and generally poor conduct, especially when the culprit is the person in charge or in a position of power. Unless we choose to take a stand, however, nothing will change.

Never underestimate the devastating impact behaviour such as bullying or harassment can have; distress, anxiety and panic attacks are just a few of the ways in which victims report being affected.  Impaired concentration or ability to make decisions, loss of self-esteem and confidence, a sense of isolation and a strong urge to withdraw from the workplace are consequences of these appalling behaviours that are unfortunately all too common. 

Examples of the types of behaviours that are never acceptable in business and shouldn’t be tolerated include those listed below.  It’s astonishing to me how often these and other destructive ways of going about things can be observed in workplaces today.  Never accept:

  • Abusive, insulting or offensive language.
  • Spreading of misinformation or malicious rumours.
  • Behaviour or language that frightens, humiliates, belittles or degrades, such as harsh criticism delivered with yelling and screaming, aggressive tone of voice, sarcasm and insults.
  • Inappropriate comments about a person’s appearance, lifestyle, or their family.
  • Teasing or regularly making someone the brunt of pranks or practical jokes.
  • Physical assault or threats.

If your boss expects you to work in unsafe conditions, is abusive when things go wrong, expects you to use your sexuality to win business and keep customers or if you are asked to compromise reasonable ethical standards to create advantage for your employer it’s time to take things personally.  Never accept the excuse that inappropriate expectations or ways of behaving are a necessary part of getting ahead in business.  There is always choice and we all need to exercise our choice to maintain high ethical standards in our work lives. 

While of course there is no guarantee your stance will be well received, or that there won’t be adverse consequences to deal with, the only hope you have of influencing change is choosing to speak up.  Have strength and stand up to anyone who behaves inappropriately. Act with conviction and remember that there is no excuse or justification for destructive and unethical conduct regardless of which people are involved.  Take a firm stance and speak with confidence when you ask anyone, including your boss, to take responsibility for the damaging impact their actions have on you or other people.

Karen Gately is a leadership and people-management specialist and a founder of Ryan Gately.  Karen works with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical guide to getting the best from people and The Corporate Dojo: Driving extraordinary results through spirited people. For more information visit or contact

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