Why we owe companies our work – but not our loyalty

By Scot Herrick | Cube Rules Commentary

Aug 01

In my interview the other day on Vocate, the first question I was asked was “What are the most important lessons you’ve had to learn in your professional life on finding and thriving in a job? My first bullet point, of many, was this one:

We owe a company our work, but not our loyalty because corporate loyalty does not exist

That is a provocative statement and one worth exploring. There are reasons. Let’s see what they are.

We owe a company our work

When people first read that line, their first reaction is that I’m advocating blowing off a company and what the company wants from its employees. That’s not true.

From a transactional viewpoint, there are services being offered for a price. Those services are our job skills and performance in the service of meeting a manager’s or company’s goals. For those services, we receive a paycheck and benefits (unless you are a contractor).

The other benefit workers get is the opportunity to both practice and obtain new job skills. In fact, one of the critical factors in achieving employment security is the ability to both practice and obtain new job skills that will be desirable with a new, different employer.

As Ilana Gershon notes in an essay in aeon:

…in the society of perpetual job searches, different criteria make a job good or not. Good jobs used to be ones with a good salary, benefits, location, hours, boss, co-workers, and a clear path towards promotion. Now, a good job is one that prepares you for your next job, almost always with another company. (my emphasis)

Thus, the company benefits from our work by achieving business goals. We benefit from a paycheck, practicing and gaining new job skills, both of which are beneficial in showing future hiring managers you can also help them with their business goals.

It is easy to argue that compensation for the work is not fair, especially given what CEO’s make as compared to Cubicle Warriors, and I’d agree with that. But reality is what it is, so our best chance for improving our own lot is to give the company our work, get paid, and gain skills.

We do not owe our company any loyalty

The bottom line is this: if push comes to management shove, you’re out the door. Either through a layoff or being fired as an “at will” employee. It doesn’t really matter how good you are; if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time – no matter how good your job performance is — you’ll be gone.

Which, by the way, is why there is no job security, only employment security from having business results that is enticing to potential hiring managers.

The amount of effort a company goes to gain your loyalty is amazing. Boring things like benefits, cafeterias, holiday pay and marginal raises. Community things like celebrations, community involvement, outreach events, birthday celebrations, and contests.

I always look at these things and notice that none of them involve the important stuff like giving you work that engages you, offering you the ability to learn new job skills, or giving you work that challenges you to grow.

I am, personally, incredibly biased against these loyalty events. Even in my About page, one of the first lines is that this is not a ‘rah-rah management site.’ It’s there for this reason.

When companies only value your work, the dynamics of work change

When workers are commodities, smart workers change the way they view their jobs. Let’s look at a few, again from the Aeon article:

Being a good manager now means helping those whom you manage acquire the skills that will help them to leave for a better job at another company. Good managers know this…

Plus this:

If your goal is to get a job somewhere else, not all work projects are equally valuable. Workers must jockey for the tasks and projects that might lead to a job elsewhere. They must try to avoid tasks that, either due to intellectual property issues or for other reasons, are too company-specific…

And this:

While you might always have wanted to get along with your co-workers, the quitting economy introduced a new instrumental reason why collegiality is especially important. Now that people aren’t supposed to stay all that long at a company, you experience a regular turnover in your workplace.

Workers who used to get ahead by impressing their managers by being steady, self-effacing and conscientious no longer have the time to establish the appreciative audience they used to within a company. As a result, these types of workers might no longer be steadily promoted. If their co-workers appreciate them, however, then they might, when it comes time for them to look for their next job, have supporters at other companies.

All of this is a self-fulfilling malicious circle: companies focus on shareholders and try to commoditize jobs in order to pay the lowest price for the work. They design the organization for growth and contraction by hiring additional contractors and laying people off as business contracts showing no loyalty to the people working in the company.

Workers know this (or should know this) and design their career about gaining job skills and business results that make them more valuable to hiring managers outside the company needing their work. Workers gain more job skills and then leave.

We end up with a workforce of quitters because where market rules rule, Cube Rules says that the only way to know your value is to look for another job and, if you find one, you usually quit.

And that’s talent management in corporations today.