The War on Employee Loyalty

Eyes
Beware the Corporate Overlords are watching!

Labor Day seems appropriate for my latest observation about corporate culture.  The Corporate Overlords, the mysterious demigod (in their mind) leaders have been fighting a titanic global war in the last few years – one that has hit thousands of organizations.  This is a comprehensive all-out war on employee loyalty.  This undeclared war, while somewhat unintended, is still being waged and will have long-term implications on the workforce, productivity, and the very survival of some organizations.

At a time when businesses increasingly demand more from their people, they actively take steps to drive them away.  Organizations expect long working hours, demand their staff stay connected 24×7 (even on their private mobile devices), and set output expectations that often require extended working hours and weekends just to tread water.  The war on employee loyalty would be comical if it wasn’t so funny.

Loyalty is a fickle thing.  In this context it is the commitment of the employee to the organization.  That can reflect itself in several ways; an employee’s willingness to work more hours, their ability to handle more workload, a desire by the employee to provide exceptional service or quality, the drive to do better, etc.  At its most basic level, it can be defined as employees simply remaining at the organization.  Above and beyond that, it is the employees taking extra measure, working harder or longer, or exercising exceptional effort to improve quality, productivity, and workplace culture.  These are all things that any leader or organization should value.  It’s all about commitment.

You would think organizations would place a value on loyalty…that there would be Directors of Loyalty or Loyalty Czars (or my suggestion “Lord of Loyalty.”)  You would also be delusional.  While organizations want (or outright demand) loyalty, they believe it should be unconditional.  In other words you have it and the company doesn’t want to invest in getting it. It’s as if your paycheck alone should garner your unswerving and undying support…as mere thanks for the opportunity to perform above-and-beyond.

Just typing this last sentence I threw up a little in the back of my mouth – no joke folks.

One reason that many organizations don’t place any importance on employee loyalty is they cannot tangibly measure it or its benefits.  It’s a lame excuse at best.  Oh sure, you can look at staff turnover rates, but most managers scoff at such numbers with the whine, “well, that’s not uncommon for our industry.”  This leads to employee satisfaction surveys.  These surveys don’t directly reflect the bottom-line profits, so leaders feel free to disregard the findings of such surveys.  The mentality is “if I can’t measure it, it must not be important.”  Even more entertaining is when results of such surveys are presented, leadership can twist the results to fit their own agenda.  “Oh, they rated us low there because they were confused by the question?” or “That only was rated low because the week before the survey we did X.”  Rather than own the results, leadership blames the results on the suspected ignorance of their staff.  Winning!

Jim
Survey results obviously are the staff’s fault…

There is also the misguided belief that an employee’s level of satisfaction/loyalty is their problem. “I can’t make my people more loyal or happy,” is the war-cry of the insipid and incompetent leader.  That is true. At the same time what leaders can do is create an environment where employees have the opportunity to be satisfied – thus generating loyalty.  To take the stand of, “there’s nothing I can do,” is a cop-out.

Another factor that comes into play is an assumption that staff are content and thus loyal.  Complacency and organizational “quiet” is considered by leadership as the byproduct of a happy and loyal workforce.  In reality, some organizations have little employee noise and friction because the free will and souls of the employees have already been crushed.  Those that speak out are often publicly punished.  Teams that stagnate or show signs of resistance are reorganized, merged, or disbanded.  Leadership takes on a Michael Vick role with the employees being their dogs.

Also chiseling away at loyalty is easy when you take away personal space in an office, going to free-roaming office space or open office spaces.  People used to have a place at work, even if it was a mauve burlap padded cubicle.  Companies have opted to strip that away with hotelling of office space to save real-estate costs.

Employees struggle to build meaningful relationships with each other as well. With more workers being virtual, their physical ties to their organization or their colleagues are stretched thin.  You can work with someone for years and never meet them face-to-face.  Same with your leaders.  Virtual teams need to connect physically from time-to-time to help establish stronger interpersonal relationships.  Many companies have deliberately assumed that because people are working virtually that they don’t need to get together live occasionally.

Another factor chipping away at employee loyalty is the abundant use of antiquated performance review systems/approaches.  The majority of organizations still rely on performance review systems dating back to the 1980’s.  These backwards looking systems based on numeric ratings, bell curves, and often spotty feedback are more of an administrative burden than performance growth process.  Many organizations have tried to divorce salary increases from performance discussions, despite the fact they are intertwined.  For experienced employees, performance reviews have become more of an ordeal than a true chance to talk about careers.

The sourcing of labor; or rather that out-sourcing of labor, also contributes to a dip in employee loyalty.  With organizations seeking low-cost labor solutions, employees can often feel their jobs are constantly at risk.  Some companies generate a culture where segments of their staff are forced to deal with the threat of outsourcing as a daily occurrence.  While this career-equivalent of the Sword of Damocles hangs over their head, ready to sever it from their bodies, they are expected to work longer hours and be more committed to the organization that is threatening them.

Technology also plays a role.  Companies, attempting to curb costs, have flirted with BYOD – bring your own device.  So now the company expects you to bring your own computer or pad rather than provide you one.  They invade employees phones with apps that the employee doesn’t want, but is required for work.  The icing on the cake is that they set rules and policies about the use of your own personal mobile device because they require you to use it to connect to work.  Imagine your organization telling you what features you had to have on your private car simply because you use it to go to work.  That is exactly what is happening in many organizations when it comes to the mobile device you bought and paid for.

One might argue that this is not a war against employee loyalty…that these are merely cases of unintended consequences.  Oops – did we jump up and down on your loyalty – our bad! I understand that and I’m not implying that leaders are huddle off somewhere plotting to take down morale by coordinating these various initiatives and directions.  Let’s be honest, most leaders aren’t capable of this level of coordination or even devious thinking (wink).

Milton
You’re talking about my office – aren’t you?  How did you know? 

My counter to that is that all of these are based on leadership decisions; right, wrong or moronic.  The fact that leadership did not factor in the impacts on employee loyalty, or that they simply don’t care, essentially places the blame at the top levels of organizations. All of these strategies and impacts were chosen directions on the part of upper management.  They simply did not care about the impact on employee loyalty – or worse, presumed that the staff were so enamored with their leadership that it didn’t matter.

Uh oh, I threw up a little bit in the back of my mouth again.

Some organizations deal with poor loyalty as if it were a cancer to be cut out.  Their solution is to drive out the long-term employees and replace them with new staff from the outside.  Rather than cure the problem, they opt for amputation and limb replacement.  In such organizations staff is a commodity that one purchases like office supplies.  Ironically, the result is more reduced loyalty (duh!).

Where can workers turn to mount a defense in the war on loyalty?  If they are US workers – nowhere.  Many HR departments over the year have been effectively neutered; reduced to the role of mitigating lawsuits rather than defending the staff from the mindless onslaughts of senior leadership.  The war against loyalty is a lonely one, fought in stark mauve-colored cubicles under bland florescent lights and in dreary battered conference rooms in glass-windowed hells all across the globe.

I fully understand that companies have to manage costs and address shareholders profit worries, blah, blah, blah.  At the same time leadership has to look at the impacts on its workforce of strategic decisions and plays some weight and value on their people.  Loyalty is a precious commodity.  Without it you have less commitment – a feeling that individual contributions are unappreciated or disrespected.  Whittling away at employee loyalty destabilizes the staff and kills productivity – and even causes them to begin to question the legitimacy of their leaders Sacrilege!  You kick morale hard enough and you get staff that won’t spring in the air the next time you yell, “jump.”  They will simply glare at you with a glazed expression of remorse, emptiness, and only having fond memories of why they used to care about their jobs in the first place.

The war is being waged out there…and many of us were drafted without even our knowledge. To you, out there in the trenches, all I can say is you are not alone!  I’m not with you – my company is great – but I hear your cries from the trenches.  Soldier on!

For more on my twisted views of the workplace, check out my books – Business Rules and Cubicle Warfare.

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One thought on “The War on Employee Loyalty

  1. Schriv

    I think you’re dead on target. As I sit here in my “new and exciting” open workspace, distracted from my code by constant noise, laughter, “collaberation”, etc., I begin to question if the people “upstairs” really have a clue or not.

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