Employee loyalty suffering, but trust is still possible

Updated: 2011-05-08 07:49

(New York Times)

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Employee loyalty suffering, but trust is still possible

Is loyalty in the workplace dead?

Just recently, Lynda Gratton, a workplace expert, proclaimed that it was. In The Financial Times, she said that it had been "killed off through shortening contracts, outsourcing, automation and multiple careers."

It's sad if this sterling virtue is now out of place in the business world. But the situation may be more complicated. Depending on how you define it, loyalty may not be dead, but is just playing out differently.

Fifty years ago, an employee could stay at the same company for decades, said Tammy Erickson, an author and work-force consultant. Many were guaranteed longtime employment along with health care and a pension.

Now many companies cannot or will not hold up their end of the bargain, so why should the employees hold up theirs? Given the opportunity, they'll take their skills and their portable retirement accounts elsewhere. These days, Ms. Gratton writes, trust is more important than loyalty: "Loyalty is about the future - trust is about the present." Serial career monogamy is now the order of the day, she says.

Ms. Erickson says that the quid pro quo of modern employment is more likely to be: 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.

For some baby boomers, this shift has been hard to accept. Many started their careers assuming that they would be rewarded based on long tenure.

A longtime employee who is also productive and motivated is of enormous value, said Cathy Benko, chief talent officer at Deloitte. On the other hand, she said, "You can be with a company a long time and not be highly engaged."

Employee loyalty suffering, but trust is still possible

Ms. Benko has seen her company shift its focus to employees' level of engagement - or "the level at which people are motivated to deliver their best work" - rather than length of tenure.

Then there are the effects of the recent recession. Many people - if they haven't been laid off - have stayed in jobs because they feel they have no choice. Employers may need to prepare for disruptions and turnover when the job market improves.

If the pendulum shifts, how will businesses persuade their best employees to stay? Money may do the trick, but not always. Especially with younger people, "you're not going to buy extra loyalty with extra money," Ms. Erickson said. Rather, employers need to make jobs more challenging and give workers more creative leeway, she said.

Loyalty may not be what it once was, but most companies will still be better off with at least a core of people who stay with them across decades.

If loyalty is seen as a commitment to keep workers of all ages fulfilled, productive and involved, it can continue to be cultivated in the workplace - to the benefit of both employer and employee.


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