Is workplace loyalty dead?

Is workplace loyalty dead or is it just playing out differently now?
Is workplace loyalty dead or is it just playing out differently now? Photo: Warren Wackshall

Workplace loyalty is a quaint concept that goes back to the days when people had jobs for life. But Lynda Gratton, a workplace expert, believes it is long gone.

Writing in the Financial Times, her view is that loyalty - a virtue so prized in a spouse, partner, pet or friend - has been sacrificed to a high speed economy, resulting in "shortening contracts, outsourcing, automation and multiple careers”.

The trouble is that companies still want to employ committed workers who are aligned with their goals. But that’s hard to get when the concept of loyalty has shifted so dramatically.  

Instead they should be adjusting to the new reality that loyalty - namely the expectation that you will hang around even if the going gets tough - is playing out differently in today’s workplace.

Workforce consultant Tammy Erickson spells it out very clearly in an interview with the New York Times:  "As long as I work for you, I promise to have the relevant skills and engage fully in my work; in return you'll pay me fairly, but I don't expect you to care for me when I'm 110."

In her Harvard Business Review blog Erickson says loyalty has been replaced with trust, which is a more complex thing to manage. We can restore trust, she writes, with a new equation.

“Here's the equation I believe will form the basis of trust between corporations and workers for the decades ahead: The organisation will provide interesting and challenging work. The individual will invest discretionary effort in the task and produce relevant results. When one or both sides of this equation are no longer possible (for whatever reasons) the relationship will end. So if the organisation no longer has interesting or challenging work for the individual to do, or if the individual is no longer willing or able to engage in the work — to invest the levels of discretionary effort required for excellent results — it is in everyone's best interest to part ways.”

It’s not a bad idea. But let’s take it further. If companies are so focused on outcomes from the work, why does it matter that the person has to be in at 9am?  If they can still get the job done, why can’t they slip in 10.30am or later? In fact, why do they even have to come in to work at all if they can get the same results at home or in another location? 

Jessica Stillman at BNet talks about some companies adopting the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE).  “If in the future agility in a changing marketplace demands employees and companies are going to understand themselves as exchanging effort for results, than isn’t it time for a more results-oriented work environment?” she writes.

The changed nature of loyalty will also play out in the way people handle their careers. We are likely to see more free agents working the system to their own benefit.

As eminent management thinker, Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, puts it, it’s all about the changing nature of organisations, in which you have to fend for yourself. 

Pfeffer writes: “My perspective is that organisations — which have laid off millions, which have workplaces filled with disengaged and dissatisfied employees, and which regularly, even in partnerships, cast people aside — can (and do) take care of themselves. My point of view is quite consistent with the popular idea of employees as free agents and the evidence on the ever-weakening bonds between people and their employers … you need to take care of yourself — and do so by whatever means necessary. Don't rely on the kindness of strangers, much less the unselfish support of colleagues or the good auspices of your employer. You have to fend for yourself, or like my friend and soon-to-be former co-worker, you may find yourself in a bad situation”.

That sounds harsh. But with the economic recovery so patchy and various sectors still laying off workers, many are likely to be thinking along similar lines, and in doing so, reassessing their relationship with their employer.

Is workplace loyalty dead or do you think it’s just changed?

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