Whatever Happened to Employee Loyalty?

I was saw a Peanuts cartoon strip in which Lucy, Charlie Brown’s nemesis, told this bedtime story: “Once upon a time they all lived happily ever after.” It’s probably the shortest one of its kind on record. Just when you start to get into it, its over. The End.

And once upon a time, employers and employees seemed to live happily, or at least predictably, and then that to came to an end, too. Those who have suffered the most from this are Baby-Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964. That generation, the largest of the 20th century, began their careers in the tradition of the forefathers: Get a job with a good company, work their for 40 years, and then retire.

About half-way through their projected employment, however, the rules changed, and almost overnight. Instead of having a job for life, they were told explicitly that this was no longer the case. The Nashua Corporation was the first to make this proclamation in 1984 and within a few months Xerox made the same claim and backed up their words by laying off 20,000 people around the world. After that, nearly every company that heretofore had felt “constrained” by the job-for-life obligation it had inherited rushed away from it like a pyroclastic flow. In no time at all, the idea of permanency with one company was cast into the abyss; never to be seen again.

Once upon a time they all lived happily ever after; but not anymore. Now they all live under a different set of rules and assumptions.

What are the new rules?

One rule is that you are in charge of your own career. You decide what education, training, and / or experience you need. You decide which jobs to take, how long to work in your current position, and when it’s time to move on.

Another rule is that you decide when you’ll work, where, how you’ll dress, etc. If you want to work from home, then you do. If you want to meet in a coffee shop, you do. If you want to show up at 10 am and leave at 4 pm, you do. And if you want to wear a T-shirt, cut-offs, and flip-flops, then you do. The goal is to get your work done; not conform to some ridiculous rules that are unrelated to the job at hand.
While it’s true that not all jobs afford this kind of flexibility, it doesn’t change the fact that the mindset is there. It’s perfectly normal to feel this way. That’s because the world of work that you, your parents, or grandparents had come to rely upon was shattered by the companies to whom they had devoted or were willing to commit the best years of their lives. And you know as well as I do that when trust on that scale is broken, then all bets are off.

What are the new assumptions?

One assumption is that all employees are free agents. They can come and go as they please. They are not bound to work for a given employer any longer than they wish to. In other words, they are not obligated to be loyal to their employers.

This has come as something of a shock to organizations. They have been used to holding all the cards. Indeed, when they decided that no one had a job for life, they thought they were establishing a tighter rein on the workforce and, for many Baby-Boomers, this was the case. Their world had been turned upside down, and they didn’t know how to handle it. Their children (known as Generation X or Millennials), on the other hand, were only just entering the workforce, so they knew what to expect. They also knew that employers couldn’t be trusted, and that meant that they would have to look after themselves.

What assumptions do free agents hold?

Think about it. The view of employers is that you don’t have a job for life. That means that you’re hired on a contract-by-contract basis. It could be for a project that last a few weeks or months. It could be for a year or two; maybe three. But what has changed is that there’s no assumption that the contract will automatically be renewed as it was when people knew they had a job for life. Instead, employment could simply come to an end.

Free agents know this, and they’ve taken it to heart; and it’s this that has caused employers to ask, “Whatever happened to employee loyalty?” You see, what happens is that these free agents might decide at the end of their contract to take some extended time off. So instead of the employer being the one who says, “Your services are no longer required,” it’s the free agent who says, “I don’t need to work here for a few months,” or “I’m taking my skills elsewhere because that’s what I need to do to advance my career.” This often leaves companies in a lurch, wondering where they will be able to get the qualified people they need.
Whatever happened to lessons learned?

You’d think that employers would learn. Unfortunately, few have or do. They still treat their employees like throwaway items, assuming that they are easily replaceable.

I’ll give you an example.

A friend of mine was recently fired from her job. She had worked there for 10 years. Such loyalty is rare these days. But she’d experienced some health issues recently. Now follow me closely. She was recovering from a fractured pelvis, but was still going to work in the office. In her words, she was “a little off my game lately due to pain levels.” Oh. Did I mention that sciatica was an issue? I want to preserve her identity, so I won’t say any more.

“What’s the big deal?” I hear you ask.

It’s this.

The way that you Mr or Mrs Employer treat people is witnessed by everyone who works for you. Whatever you do to one is felt by everyone else.

In the process of getting rid of one employee, whether you think it’s justified or not, you influence the intentions and actions of those who remain. If they employee was well-liked or if those who remain believe that you were unfair, they will begin to consider their own situation, partly because they may wonder about their own security.

Over time, you’ll find that the people who can leave will. Usually, the best ones leave first. You’ll be left with those that you probably would rather not have and you’ll gain the reputation of one who can’t be trusted. Those who learn of this won’t want to work for you. Not only that, but you may also find that the skilled labor that you thought was available in such ready supply isn’t after all. There’s a shortage of it and has been for at least a generation.

Whatever happened to employee loyalty? It was lost when employers ceased to be loyal to them. If you, the employer, want it, then you’ll have to earn it. You must not assume that you have it.

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