Sunday, February 3, 2013

Saying goodbye to loyalty in the workplace

A colleague and friend retired this past week after a long work life (forty years). As is often the case with employees who retire from my workplace, she will come in to work from time to time as a consultant to help with specific projects that require her expertise. At her retirement party, there were several speakers who commented on her expertise and her dedication to her work. But one speaker in particular commented on her loyalty to her workplace, her willingness to speak up when there were problems, and her desire to help make it a better workplace by speaking up, even if it put her in an unpopular position with management. He commented on the fact that the workplace doesn’t need and won’t function at all with only yes-men and yes-women, but rather with employees who are willing to speak up and to say no when necessary. In other words, such employees are willing to stick out their necks, to rise above the radar, to create discussion and debate when warranted and to take responsibility for their choices. They are willing to risk disagreements with management and to risk unpopularity with fellow colleagues who would rather they kept their mouths shut rather than create discord. You would think the workplace would encourage these sorts of behavior and would want to hire such people—people who open their mouths, tell the truth, and are honest, trustworthy and loyal. These are the people who are the backbone of an organization, who know it in and out, who know the history of a workplace (for better and for worse), and who can tell you how the system and infrastructure function. In other words, these types of employees are worth their weight in gold, in my opinion.

The opposite is true these days, that workplaces seem to only want yes-employees around them. It’s fairly simple to figure out--it makes life easier for everyone, especially management. But it may not be a smart management philosophy in the long run. There are several reasons for that, which the speaker above touched upon. He meant that it was necessary for employees to speak up in order to prevent a workplace from disintegrating, to prevent it from self-destruction. When I think about it what he said, it makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, there is too much of the opposite—employees who simply agree with the boss when asked their opinions about a specific issue. If you are asked your opinion, and the only thing that preoccupies you is figuring out what management’s stance would be so that you can parrot management’s ideas back to your boss, who will be pleased that you are in agreement with them, then you are a good employee, at least these days. To voice the dissenting opinion, to talk against a specific management philosophy or dictate, to relate the problems associated with the aforementioned, are death knells for your career advancement. If you are direct, honest, willing to debate and discuss, have a sense of an organization’s history, bring up problems, or otherwise ‘bother’ management, you are not valued, or not valued as highly as those who nod and agree with the boss. And of course from a boss’s perspective, the path of least resistance is to promote the employee who agrees with you and your business philosophies and strategies. I get it. I just don’t agree with it. And I cannot see how this makes for a healthy workplace. But I’m of the old school, and grew up during a time when honesty, directness and loyalty were valued.

Some types of managers will tell you the following when you bring up a problem that exists in a workplace: that you are too focused on how things were done in the past (when you bring up historical references for how that problem may have been dealt with previously), that you need to forget the past and focus on the here-and-now, or that you are too direct, or that what you bring up is really not a problem (even though it really is), to name a few responses. They like to talk a blue streak about conflict resolution and the rampant belief that all problems can be resolved; my answer to this is that not all problems can be resolved, just as not all people can truly get along, and in fact to believe so is remarkably naïve and possibly dangerous. Of course, if all employees simply nod their heads and ‘agree’ to a particular resolution, regardless of whether they agree with it or not, then ‘conflict resolution’ has been achieved. But it’s not honest resolution. In the long-run, this type of agreement is not healthy for an organization. Because the result is that dissension rather grows in the corridors. Employees talk about and against management’s philosophies and strategies instead of talking directly to management. There are a lot of rumors and gossip. Management for its part thinks that all employees are happy with the status quo, and so on, and are free to proceed with their plans. But there is a reason for why employees play the yes-men role: they are afraid for their jobs. If you are not in a protected position (where you cannot get fired, e.g. civil service jobs), you can find yourself without a job when the first round of budget cuts comes along. Because the name of the game now is to save as much money as possible—that is the current management strategy—and you put yourself first on the cut list if you are a ‘dissenter’.

It seems to me that loyalty is a dying virtue in the workplace in any case. There is no objectively good reason to be loyal to a workplace anymore, because that workplace will not be loyal to you in return, not in the age of budget cuts and streamlined efficiency. There is no contract between an employee and his or her workplace anymore, the way there seemed to be in my parents’ generation. The workplace has changed enormously during the past thirty years. It would be unrealistic to assume that it would not. The changes may be for the good in some ways; I am in a wait and see mode. There are certainly long-term employees who have abused their positions, just as there are companies that have abused their long-term employees. But at present, there does not seem to be much point in sticking around in one workplace for years anymore; in fact, it may be a liability to do so, unless you find a workplace that values loyalty. Younger people coming into the workplace at present know that their prospects of landing a permanent job (cannot be fired) in an organization are few to none. Companies will not offer such positions now; young people know this and know that they will be out of a job after four or five years, after they have fulfilled training courses or reached the limit in terms of how far they can progress in one position. There is thus no real point in getting too attached, too involved, too dedicated or too interested in what goes on in your workplace; you won’t be there for more than four or five years. You know you will be moving on. The workplaces of the future seem to be places where mutual utilization of each other will define how things are done. Loyalty will be reserved for the personal arena—loyalty to family and to friends. Perhaps this is the way it should be. But a part of me still feels that it should not be necessary to comment on an employee’s loyalty at the end of a long work life—that this type of loyalty should be more the rule than the exception. My guess is that the workplaces of the future will be defined by short-term employees working on short-term projects that are led by short-term managers; employees and bosses will be project-dedicated but not necessarily workplace-dedicated or workplace-loyal. They know they are dispensable, that they can be fired, replaced at will, or rehired, but also that they can move easily from one workplace to another, without the feeling of attachment that long-term workers often feel after many years in their workplaces. The white collar workplaces of the future will be more like factories—producing what they produce without much attention paid to those who are doing the producing. But in return, the employees will receive training and a good income, but no more. Expectations of career advancement within one company will taper off, especially if an employee reaches an income level that is non-sustainable for the company. It will be cheaper to hire younger workers without much experience. In this way, loyalty will be discouraged and eventually obliterated. A glum scenario, perhaps, or perhaps not. Time will tell.  


  1. Hi New Yorker in Oslo, I am replying to your comment as part of an assignment for a Business Ethics course at The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.

    I disagree with the statement ‘loyalty is a dying virtue in the workplace’. While I tend to agree with Ronald Duska who states the an employee is not obligated to be loyal to the organisation they work for, as the organisation is not a person and people are loyal to other people, such as their friends or family, I believe people show loyalty to a business or company when they have a good relationship with their managers and believe in the values the organisation holds.
    I believe that employers want trustworthy, skilled employees who show integrity in their actions. They want their company to be well represented. One of the first questions people are often asked when meeting new people is ‘what do you do for a living?’ If one has not even a small amount of respect or loyalty towards the company they work for they will not represent the company well. Having a manager or boss who believes in the values the business holds and discusses these with their employees and attempts to install these values within their employees is the key to having loyal staff.

    1. Hi Anonymous from New Zealand! Thanks for writing. I don't disagree with your comments, but it is unfortunately my experience that not all employers think about or reflect upon the value of having employees who show integrity in their actions. There exist workplaces that are focused only on budgets and on getting employees to toe the line. And not all managers have integrity themselves, so it would be difficult to look for that in employees if you are such a manager. I think this is the challenge that most workplaces face these days--hiring managers who have integrity. If the managers are good, employees will want to be loyal to and to represent their companies well.

  2. Part 2 of the above:
    I disagree that employers want yes-men and yes-women to be there employees. For a company to succeed processes need to be challenged. It is foolish for an employer to believe there way of doing things is always the right way or the only way. It is like someone saying there is no more for them to learn in this world when we all know as humans we are always learning and do not stop until the day we die. An article written by Lee Harrison ‘Improve employee loyalty throughout 2012 – and beyond’ discusses how employers need encourage and develop their employees. There are four main strategies employers can use in order to develop loyalty within their employees. One of these I found to be most important was empower. By empowering employees and letting them know there ideas and actions are important and contributing to the company this will develop loyalty towards the company and employees will enjoy working for the organisation.
    While Duska’s analysis has some interesting points and while an employee is not obligated to show loyalty it does not mean they shouldn’t. It shows character and puts in a person in good stead in which in turn can provide them with more opportunities in the organisation. If employees went around with a blasé attitude not caring about the place they work for or the reason they are hired they will not last long in that particular company or any other for that matter. To progress in our careers we need other employers to vouch for us that we are worth hiring, if we show no loyalty to a company how are we to gain there respect and have them represent us in a good light?
    Your analysis is rather glum, and I don’t believe this is how the future of the typical workplace will be. Employers want their companies to succeed, to beat the competition and they cannot do this with low skilled employees. In order to succeed a company needs people. Hardworking people who are honest and loyal. Your statement that people are easily fired and replaced; whilst they can perhaps be replaced employers cannot easily fire employees. There is employment law in place in New Zealand which is there to protect the workforce from been treated unfairly and exploited. While I am not naïve and am aware exploitation does still occur it is rare and can be dealt with by the courts or unions.
    However employee loyalty has been on the decline due to tough economic conditions. Unfortunately when there is a financial crisis employees are laid off, business downsize and restructure. The companies take these steps in order for the organisation to survive. Unfortunately research using the American Customer Satisfaction Index shows that companies involved in downsizing have had a decline in customer satisfaction. Unfortunately this also means those particular firms profit is also falling (Keiningham, 2013). After there have been layoffs in a work place employees tend to feel jaded and no longer want to go the extra mile for their workplace. If organisations invest in their employees they are more likely to have better profit outcomes. Another facts stated in the article by Keiningham, 2013 is ‘researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that spending 10% of a company’s revenue on capital improvements increased productivity by 3.9%. But investing that same amount in developing employee capital more than doubles that amount, to a whopping 8.5%.

    1. I don't think my analysis is glum. I have perhaps been in the work world a few more years than you and have seen a lot of different ways of doing things. I totally agree with you that to empower employees is the best way of getting them to be loyal, and to succeed. Unfortunately, not all workplaces manage this, and again I place the blame where it should be placed, on the leaders and managers. I have unfortunately been exposed to a type of leadership that does not 'empower' its employees. This leadership has told its employees in public meetings that this or that person is mediocre, lazy, or unmotivated. I was asked to sit in on a few such meetings, and I was shocked at the tone and the way management treated its employees. And even if it was true in some cases that a few employees lack motivation, why is it ok for them to be publicly chastised? It reminded me more of a strict grammar school than anything else, where the teacher had complete control over the class. Needless to say, the employees who were publicly humiliated are as a result neither loyal nor willing to improve. I think that change has to start at the top for employees to see, and then reflect upon. Most employees will respond well to a good manager or company leader. Unfortunately, I just haven't seen that many of them, at least in my public sector workplace.

  3. Part 3 of the above:
    Loyalty is a virtue, and while people may reserve this virtue for friends or family only, there is room for it in the workplace. It may not be that your loyal to the company itself (as it’s an entity not a person) but loyal to your manager and uphold the values of the company.
    In conclusion I do agree with Duska’s statement that employees do not have an obligation to be loyal to their organisations but I believe there is place for employees to show a degree of loyalty and I believe this still occurs in the workplace. Just because employees do not have to do something because it’s not in their contract does not mean they won’t. Majority of people pride themselves in their work and which to exceed expectations and be recognised for the hard work they do. By doing so I believe they are showing loyalty to the team they work in which involves the overall organisation. I personally work for a company which the general public generally have a lot of comments about and as humans we tend to talk more about the negative then the positive and unfortunately for the organisation I represent it can tend to be negative. However the people that work there know what good work we do and the hours we put into trying to create results for our clients. It is unfortunately not always the result they would like but I believe we show a lot of integrity and loyalty to our company and to the general public we work for also.
    Ronald Duska, Whistleblowing and Employee Loyalty 1983

    1. Loyalty is a virtue, but it should be given to those who are worthy of it. I have seen far too many people who have squandered their loyalty--worked long and hard for an organization that thought nothing of firing them when times got tough. That is the grim reality for many employees these days. It may differ from country to country, I admit that. But the work world can be a brutal place, and many workers, after many years in such a world, understand that the work world is about making money, as much as possible, while saving as much money as possible in that quest. That may mean firing older workers, not rewarding loyal workers, etc. I have worked in empowering workplaces, and workplaces that have not been empowering. You can feel the difference. The former are in the minority, in my opinion. And that is important to emphasize--this is my opinion. I enjoy such discussions, and am always willing to engage in them. I also read a lot of books about the business world, although I am a scientist by training. Some of the books are very helpful--among them 'Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't' by Jim Collins. Very interesting reading, and some surprising information about the types of leaders who are good for companies. Eye-opening!

      I find that it is the blog posts about the work world that generate the most comments. That tells me that I touch a nerve when I write about specific issues in the workplace. People can relate. All employees have experienced a bad manager at one point or another, and that person might have had enough power to 'make or break' you. Those are the experiences that help to shape the type of employee you ultimately become. I like the old saying 'Be careful how you treat people on your way up, because you might meet them again on your way down'. Perhaps company managers should remember this a bit more often.

  4. Part 1:
    Perhaps our understanding of loyalty has changed over the years. My understanding is that, from your own experience, you believe there is no longer loyalty within the workplace. The issue to be solved here, then, is what exactly is loyalty, what is our understanding of it and is it really a dying virtue or do we just approach it differently now?
    What does loyalty mean in an organisational context? My initial response to this is that to be loyal to an organisation you need to have a passion, a desire to do your best for the organisation and stand up for what the organisation stands for. In further investigation of what loyalty is, it is about being aligned with the values and beliefs of the organisation. The Merriam-webster online dictionary describes loyal as “having or showing complete and constant support for someone or something”. Therefore to be loyal to an organisation you show complete and constant support for it, you ‘agree’ with its purpose, values, objectives and the way it operates. The indication from this blog is that being loyal means to be “direct, honest, willing to debate and discuss, have a sense of an organisations history, bring up problems, or otherwise ‘bother’ management”. Yes, if the organisations values are to be direct, honest, to debate and discuss and to know the history then that is what loyalty to that organisation means but if the values of the particular organisation are totally different then, no, loyalty is something else. If an individual does not have the same values as an organisation how can they honestly work for that organisation and portray the organisations values? Is it not ethically wrong for an individual to falsely portray values of an organisation they do not believe in? In my opinion, it is extremely important that organisations hire wisely, ensuring personal individual values align with the organisation values. Derek Irvine addresses this in his article “Aligning Company & Personal Values for Greatest Success” and states “Just as my personal values naturally surface in my interactions and decisions outside of work, they influence my decisions at work as well.”
    As you show with the retiree who had been with the organisation for the majority of their life, loyalty meant staying with the organisation, standing up for what you believed, telling the truth, being honest, and trustworthy. However, we are now in a new generation – Generation Y. In reading Ryan Gibson’s article on Generation Y Characteristics, maybe loyalty for this group is categorised differently to previous generations. Previous generations were happy to stay with one organisation for years. It was comfortable and easy. After all 'better the devil you know than the devil you don't'. However, this generation as Gibson indicates “are happy to change job roles more often to find the right organisation to work within”. Therefore, we now have generation differences in understanding loyalty. Does this mean that the older generation gave up their own values for the organisation values and that Generation Y are looking to align their own values with the organisation values? I believe this may be the case. So then perhaps it’s not “loyalty is a dying virtue in the workplace” as you indicate but more that individuals are now looking to align their own values with the organisations. This may mean changing organisations regularly.

    1. You argue persuasively for your standpoint, and I also think that an organization's values and an individual's values should be aligned such that both can have a mutually rewarding work experience. Loyalty to oneself is important. I guess what I see after thirty years in the work world is that companies change course, change goals, change ways of operating, etc. every two or three years, often with accompanying changes in leadership and styles of leadership. Some leaders tell you to 'get out' if you won't go along with their policies of extensive budget cuts and getting rid of valuable employees. It's tough to agree with that way of thinking, when two years previously, the employees to be cut were considered valuable to the company. The 'relativity' of work life is difficult to adjust to. What was important last month is not important this month. I could go on and on. It tells me that a lot of companies simply don't know what to do anymore to survive or to make money. No surprise to me that employees move on. In many ways, it's an 'eat or be eaten' type of lifestyle now. Perhaps that's a more realistic way of living life generally. That way, you will not be disappointed and you will always know when it's time to go so that you can survive.

  5. Part 2...
    Generation Y is looking to achieve happiness within their work and work-life balance. If an organisation is not fulfilling this happiness then the employee will look to move to an organisation that can. The older generation, one could say, may have been looking to achieve happiness for the organisation, no matter how it affected their own happiness or work-life balance. Therefore, it may be that organisations need to move with the times and provide a foundation for their employees that will promote the loyalty that they seek. After all, it is a two-way exchange.
    Do the employer and employee owe the other an obligation of loyalty? It depends on how one views the relationship. It could be argued that an employee and employer do have an obligation of loyalty to each other as they have started a relationship with an agreement (in NZ we are required to have Employment Agreements at the commencement of employment) between each other which involves investing resources into the other beyond the contractual obligations and mutual loyalty is an appropriate recognition of this (p14, Scholes, 71203).
    In Ronald Duska’s article on “Whistleblowing and Employee Loyalty” he states“one does not have an obligation of loyalty to the company... because companies are not the kind of things which are proper objects of loyalty”. He further states that loyalty is founded on a specific kind of relationship or tie, e.g. a husband to wife, a friend to friend, parent to child, etc. You owe loyalty to persons whom you have a relationship. Companies are there to make a profit. Employees do not have a specific relationship with a company because it is an entity and not a person. Therefore, an employee does not have an obligation of loyalty to the company and vice versa. However, as Duska argues, they may have a positive relationship with their manager and in that instance show loyalty to a business as their work is valued. Therefore the loyalty to the business is due to the relationship with the manager.
    I believe that our understanding of loyalty has changed from generation to generation. Loyalty in yesteryear was staying with one company for their working career, being honest, trustworthy and willing to debate and discuss as you indicate. Today’s generation is looking for happiness and work-life balance and seek out values within an organisation to achieve this balance. I, therefore, do not believe loyalty is a dying virtue, it is just approached differently now. Companies should have robust systems and procedures in place to ensure employees have the same personal values as the company otherwise there will be zero loyalty obtained.

    1. I agree with what Duska writes. The problem is what happens when you are 'trapped' in your job by circumstances (sick partner, sick children, debt, etc.). The fact that these employees stay in one company has little to do with loyalty to that company. They have to work to live, to survive, and they may not have the options of switching jobs often in order to find happiness. And happiness at work is not necessarily life happiness, although it is nice when the two are present together. The world is not black and white; there are so many gray areas. I've seen a lot in my thirty years in the workforce. Often when you are younger, you live to work as is often said, whereas when you're older, you work to live. That may be because you have re-evaluated your life and your goals, and found out that happiness is not to be found just in a job. We think it is when we are young, and perhaps it should be this way.

      I have seen good and bad business relationships between companies and employees, perhaps more bad than good, unfortunately. My take on it is that in order for there to be productivity and effectiveness, there has to be some modicum of stability such that employees know that their employer will provide a predictable work environment, at least for a while, and that employers know that their employees will be there for a while. I have seen what happens to organizations with high employee turnover rates, they hit the wall running and they keep hitting it. It is their policies that employees have a problem with. I think some companies just keep hitting the wall because they refuse to 'see' that their policies are outdated and employee-hostile, and that their leaders need replacing. They talk about replacing them but do nothing to effectuate it. Employees will not stay in an organization that does not value them or treat them decently. Companies are there to make a profit, yes. But employees are there to make a living, preferably as good a living as they can. Companies cannot have their cake and eat it too. They cannot expect employees to be hard-working and productive but not give those employees a stable work environment that is conducive to that. They cannot threaten employees with layoffs and budget cuts and then expect productivity from them and that they will care about the work they are doing. How can they care when they are worrying about being fired? The only thing those companies will create are employees who care about themselves, not about the company or about doing the best job they can. This has been the experience of a number of people I know.