Whence cometh loyalty? For some reason this topic has come up a few times for me in the last week. Initially it was a conversation with a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel who was doing a story on whether or not young workers lack “professionalism.” Since then I’ve seen stories in the media about what new grads will need to do to maximize their success in a slowly improving job market (be professional, communicate, network, etc.) and had a conversation with an employer about how he only wants “hungry” students willing to prove themselves (in an unpaid internship). Then about a week ago I was sitting in a focus group for a colleague and the conversation turned to skills needed by young workers. Most of the employers at the table were adamant that Gen Y lacks the professionalism and drive needed to be successful, and that colleges of business should be teaching classes to address this. It was the same, tired argument about a lack of enthusiasm, drive, ambition, and enterprise that generally emanates from well-seasoned groups like this. During the conversation, the talk turned to employee longevity and the loyalty that goes with that. The older employers at the table said that younger workers job hop too much and they wouldn’t interview anyone whose resume didn’t show longevity.

I couldn’t keep it in any longer… In 15 years of HR experience I have been part of the elimination of almost 3000 jobs. Some were through reductions in force, some were location closings. But all had the impact of eliminating jobs and putting people out of work through no fault of their own. All were economic decisions driven by company leadership as either part of a strategy for cost reduction or in response to reduced demand for products and services. Now before you start calling me some kind of pinko commie one-percenter, let me say that I totally get the need to reduce staffing when you don’t have anything for them to do. I’m not saying keep unneeded resources the way my nutty neighbor hoards old newspapers and empty prescription bottles. That’s just dumb, in BOTH cases!

Funny that I feel the need to head off that kind of argument before I’ve even made my point. Must be watching too much cable news….

Anyway, I told the collected employers that my experience in the people business has shown that most companies operate in order to make a profit for their shareholders and that means that, if necessary, they will eliminate jobs and shed the associated costs. It’s not a good or bad thing, it just is. People are a resource that cost money and depending on the company’s philosophy, sometimes you have to eliminate jobs to cut costs.

However, I entered the people business at the beginning of the late-80s recession and since then have been in it in one form or another. In that time, most of today’s young workers were born and grew up (gad, it pained me to say that!) So, if I’m busy laying their parents off and shutting down where they work and sending them home sometimes with no prior warning, how does that impact their views of “company loyalty”?

One of the employers said that his company provided outplacement services to laid off employees. That’s great, I responded. But that’s not always the case. Out of all the layoffs I participated in, we only did that once with a small pool of upper-level employees. In most other cases we laid people off that day with no warning whatsoever. We also brought in security and did other things to protect company property from the ravages of a rioting hoarde…a hoarde that never rose up. But didn’t it look comforting to have the Pinkertons at the ready just in case some ne’re-do-well decided to get out of line. Looked really good on the Channel 9 news.

How did it really look to the people impacted? On one of those occasions I ended my job by laying myself off. In that case I knew it was coming. In another case my boss let me go with no warning after I had let half of my team go. I got to go home and tell my kid that the good news is we’d have more time to hang together. The bad news is that was about all we’d be able to afford to do! In another case, I saw my Dad retire after more than 30 years with his employer. This, you’ll want to say was the pinnacle of traditional employer/employee loyalty, right? A young man joins a company at its lowest ranks and rises to become a senior executive before retiring. Great story. Except for one fact. My Dad accepted an early retirement package. That’s a nice way of laying off old people who have been there a while. Was he ready to retire? Probably, my mom was sick and he wanted to spend time with her. But was retiring his choice? Was his time as productive worker at an end? Probably not. Then again, some older workers haven’t had the option to “retire.” In many cases I just told them that what they were going to do was up to them, they just couldn’t do it here anymore.

Not to get off track, but come to think of it, what do these folks retire on? It’s certainly not a company paid pension in most cases. Those are as rare as an Edward Cullen steak. No, they have to retire on a 401K that they contributed to and hopefully managed well. Over the past 10 years many companies (again, in the spirit of cost savings) have cut their contributions to this benefit, or stopped contributing all together.

What has the collective impact of all this been on young people just entering the workforce? Well, I haven’t studied all the empirical evidence, but I have a hunch based on conversations and observations of this group. Their experience is that companies, in general, are not loyal to the employees who work for them. We have created an environment where, instead, employees look out for their own best interest. If that action benefits the company (and many times it does) then cool, but if not, so be it. And if it be, then I’ll take my ball (knowledge, skills, connections, program, Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, etc.) and go play elsewhere.

This isn’t to say that layoffs and plant closings are the only factors contributing to a demise in perceived loyalty. It’s more the product of an increasingly self-absorbed society. Heck, if you want to be a sociologist about it, what impact has free agency in professional sports, musical frontmen “going solo,” and the inability of anyone who wins The Bachelor to get married and have a normal boring life had on society’s views of loyalty. Private equity firms rape and pillage the countryside! Sports teams pack up and leave town under the cover of darkness! Sammy Hagar replaces David Lee Roth only to have the Van Halens kick him out and bring Diamond Dave back! I’d say it’s anarchy, but it has become such the norm that it can’t be anarchistic.

Josiah Royce writes, “There is only one way to be an ethical individual. That is to choose your cause, and then to serve it, as the Samurai his feudal chief, as the ideal knight of romantic story his lady, — in the spirit of all the loyal.” To him, loyalty was the product of serving one’s cause, sometimes forgoing individual needs, and continuously honing in on one’s core mission until you surrounded yourself with people and resources that support that core mission. When you’ve reached a level of full commitment to the cause, you are loyal. Loyalty, then, is something directed to “things” more than it is to people. In today’s terms, young people are committed to causes more than they are to people. To them, people come and go, but the cause can remain constant. Through this we see a rise in social activism, possibly fueled by equal doses of naivety and enthusiasm, but the level of dedication is greater than seen in previous generations. We also see a rise in entrepreneurship, a desire to be in more control of one’s own destiny and less subject to the whims of leaders and strategies they don’t control.

So what happens when that cause is ill-defined? Take the rise in corporate gobbledygook known as “Mission Statements.” These useless code phrases dot the landscape like so many vacuous billboards. “We change people’s lives.” “Driven to be the best.” Give me a freaking break. In both cases the core mission of both enterprises was to deliver maximum return to shareholders. Period. Again, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. But because we muddy the water by believing our own bullshit and insisting that these half-baked catch phrases are really what we do, we cloud the true mission of the firm and, in Royce’s view, fail to clarify our cause. No cause = no loyalty.

What was interesting to me in that focus group was the reaction of one of the employers to my hypothesis. An older gentleman responded politely saying he heard what I was saying, but still wasn’t going to hire anyone who jumped around. That’s fine, I thought, most of the best ones are doing their own thing and won’t want to work for you anyway!

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