A number of years ago I worked alongside a woman who had spent her entire career with one company. The company had undergone numerous changes over the years, changing names, acquiring and being acquired, even transitioning industries. The company provided her with a pretty good career, and by this time she had her retirement clock setting on her desk, counting down her final days with the organization. A perfect example of the working world I had learned about as a child.
But even my parents, who were taught to aspire to this, didn’t manage it. My father changed jobs for advancement, and was forced to change jobs through programs ending and companies failing. By the time I entered the workforce, the employment world was well into the big transition from company-based careers to capability-based careers. And now we’re seeing the results – including at the extreme end the newly named “gig economy”. Which raises the question: Do you owe any loyalty to your employer? If so, how much? What does loyalty even mean these days?
When workers built their careers around a single company, loyalty was an important component. Companies expected their workers to be loyal to the company – that their efforts, opinions, and decisions aligned with the goals of the organization. In return, workers anticipated full employment, with advancement opportunities, preference over outside workers, and retirement security. As we learn to navigate this more fluid career environment, this definition of loyalty no longer works. Companies often try to be lean and agile, poised to react to economic realities, and many believe that they can’t afford to make long term commitments to their workers; Workers recognize that their career success depends solely on their own efforts and that their security and advancement are in their own hands. But loyalty is still an important value. It is one of the characteristics of leaders that people value the most. So what does loyalty mean now?
The primary dynamic in our current labor environment is a buyer/seller modality. Even if you are an employee, it is still a business transaction. While in previous generations there was a certain paternalism to the employer/employee relationship, that is no longer the case. You are “selling” your expertise, your labor, your time, and your creativity to the organization. They are buying from you results that they need to maintain their commitments to their customers and constituencies. That’s it. So no matter what you do for a living, you are a business owner. The business is you. So the basis of the relationship with your organization is the same as with your customers – a shared understanding of what will be provided, and what shall be received in return. Loyalty is now to the shared goal, rather than to the organization as a whole. Loyalty means that each party is in agreement as to what is expected, and commits to fulfilling the agreement to the best of their ability, and keeping the best interest of the other party as a primary force in any decision making. So you do you owe any loyalty to your employer?
Loyalty is an important part of being ethical, authentic, and fair. Being loyal is critical to maintaining your reputation, which in this new employment world is one of the most valuable assets you possess. So how do you remain loyal while advancing your career?
Understand the boundaries of the employer / employee relationship. While it is no longer a life commitment, it is a commitment. You commit to conduct yourself with the utmost professionalism while doing the best work you can for your employer/customer while you are in the relationship. This means not conducting side hustles on company time, not undermining the company in any way, and doing just enough not to get fired. However, it also means that you are an equal part of this transaction, and are free to dissolve the relationship in a professional, appropriate way. Think of your employment like a contract, with both parties having responsibilities and gaining value.
Treat your employment as if you were a company and your employer was your customer. Make sure that you know what the organization is expecting you to do, and make sure you have the ability and resources to do it. Training and learning new skills is your responsibility, although the organization may contribute. Be honest about what you can and can’t do. You can certainly take on new challenges, but you should make sure that any commitments you make can be met. Integrity is a critical part of the loyalty you owe your customers. Actively seek out feedback to validate that you are performing to what is expected, and to confirm that you are meeting your commitment to the organization. On the flip side, while you owe the company the work you have signed on to provide, you don’t owe the company your life, your family, or your future.
Put your career before the organization. This is when I often get pushback, but this is a good thing rather than a bad thing. Often, in order to advance in your career, you must change organizations as well as positions. When you conduct your professional life as a business, you must balance the needs of your “customers” with the healthy growth of your “business”. This means being fair and honest with your employers, staying with your commitments long enough to create value, and providing sufficient notice and effective transitions when you choose to leave for a new opportunity. Taking responsibility for your career, and not relying on the organization to do it for you, actually makes you a better employee. You are now responsible for your growth, motivation, and performance. This makes you more, not less, attractive as an employee.
I hear so many people mourn the loss of the lifetime employment culture. But there is a silver lining. Meet your employer on equal standing – So don’t feel like a traitor, or a failure, when you decide to leave your employer to find a better opportunity. It’s just a business transaction. If you do it right, you leave on good terms, and you add to your network of connections. It’s through these connections that you build your unique, customized just for you, successful career.