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February 3, 2011
Is Loyalty in the Workplace Dead?
I keep hearing a word that pops up regularly that is completely alarming when I ask job seekers to describe themselves. The conversation usually goes like something like this:
Me: “Ok, now tell me some of your personal strengths and attributes that make you good for this type of job.”
Job Seeker: “I’m driven, dedicated, and extremely loyal.”
Let’s interrupt this conversation to have a frank discussion about “loyal.”
The word always gives me pause because of its contradictory nature when used in the job search process. Semantics mean everything, and this word requires us to dig a little deeper to uncover a huge problem in its use. This brings up two fundamental questions:
Question #1: If an applicant is so loyal, then why are they leaving the employer?
Question #2: Why aren't companies loyal to dedicated employees instead of laying them off?
Isn’t this expression of “loyalty” technically supposed go both ways? Employees are supposed to be loyal to companies…and companies are supposed to be loyal to good employees. Right?
It sure doesn’t look that way.
Fact: We spend a significant portion of our lifetime in the workplace, sometimes even more than we spend with our families, on average. The math doesn’t lie: Out of 168 hours in an entire week, we spend approximately 40 sleeping, 73 on our own time, 10 hours commuting, and 45-plus hours in the office environment (including lunch time). Out of our entire waking time during any given week, we spend at least 41% in our place of work.
That’s a significant chunk. With that amount of time being spent with co-workers, it’s easy to come to think of this group somewhat as a “second family”—a natural assumption given the complex array of relationships that evolve in working so closely with a group of people over so many hours.
But there’s an emotional connection there as well, which goes deeper than the perfunctory professional connection. People bond with their fellow employees and supervisors, and there’s a sense of belonging and security that results. Workers are motivated and inspired to throw themselves into their work and, oftentimes, exceed what is being asked of them in an effort to help push the company forward. They invest trust in the management and owners and that the executives have the employees' collective back.
Then one of three scenarios happens:
1) The Unthinkable. Business drops off, or there’s a change in organizational leadership. Things end up not being the way they used to be. There are more closed-door meetings, and morale might plummet as a result. Staff members don’t like the new management or direction, and begin looking for new opportunities and wanting to jump ship. In other cases, changes like these can mean a pink slip. Struggling to understand, the employees are devastated. “I put my heart and soul into that company!” “I worked hundreds of hours of overtime and never noted it just to get the project done on time.” “I loved my job and always got good reviews…what happened?”
2) The Flattery of the Competitive Offer. You’ve worked hard, and it’s been noticed. Competitors try to snatch you away from your current employer and, gee, it’s too good to resist—so off you go.
3) Boredom and/or Disconnect. Sometimes, there is simply a shift away from the employer’s engagement in the employee, and the worker begins to feel disconnected and alienated. That’s when they begin looking for new opportunities to learn new things, be challenged, or move to the next level of their career because there is nowhere else to grow.
How we think about the workplace needs to shift. Sure, there are a lot of HR warm fuzzies that are part of any corporate or business culture that make you feel a part of a team. And team chemistry is an important part of the equation.
But don’t forget, for even one moment, that the workplace is first and foremost a business environment, and your being there is a mutual business decision.
Companies make personnel decisions based on business, not loyalty. Some still factor loyalty into decision making, but that consideration is quickly being phased out. It's all about dollars and cents now.
Look at this way: You made a business decision to work for a company based on the compensation and work that you would be doing, and they have hired you to do a job based on your skills and performance.
Ultimately, I’m becoming convinced that loyalty in the workplace has become obsolete. Long gone are the allegiances that employees make to a company that seem forever binding, staying in the same position for time immemorial until they retire. And conversely, employers may overlook long-serving employees and see an opportunity to eliminate “dead wood,” infuse new ideas, and trim overhead costs.
Loyalty expressed in a résumé or cover letter almost seems a quaint, outdated expression instead of a statement of integrity these days.
So what do you think? Does employee/employer loyalty still exist?

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Dawn Rasmussen, CMP, is the president of Portland, Ore.-based Pathfinder Writing and Careers, which specializes in mid- to upper-management résumés. She is an active volunteer in her community and donates her time teaching a résumé writing class at the Oregon Employment Department every week to help empower unemployed professionals and workers.
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