Nobody taught me how to run my company. I was not trained, nor did any Public Relations book or management book tell me how to do it. I just sort of worked it out - how to do work that people would pay for, and how to hire people that would do the work well. When I started hiring people, I made it relatively clear what I expected, and made sure they could do the thing before they joined. I have people that have worked for me for seven years, and I would absolutely describe them as “loyal.”
However, I find the idea of worker or employee loyalty utterly noxious, because for me, the easiest way to keep someone working for you is fairly straightforward:
- Pay them well, and make sure they are paid on time.
- Treat them well, and if you do something wrong, apologize and if necessary compensate them for your mistake.
- Set reasonable deadlines, and give them the means to execute.
- Whenever possible, take the blame with the client for them.
- Set reasonable hours, and enforce them. This includes vacation time.
- Make their wins their own. Share your wins with them.
- Do the work they’re doing. Do not consider anything “below” you.
- As obvious as it sounds, be loyal to them. When they have a bad day, support them. When things are bad, overcompensate and have their back.
- Try and eliminate expense reports and any and all busywork that is not related to the actual work product. I don’t care if it makes you feel good.
These are not particularly hard things to work out, and I am not perfect, which is a big part I’ve found of being a boss. You have to admit you’re fallible, be empathetic even when a boneheaded mistake happens, and be willing to fall on your sword with the client.
The reason I’m waffling about my own nonsense is that I keep reading about “company loyalty.” Companies regularly overestimate how loyal their employees are, and companies are contorting themselves to “retain employees,” worrying about a “culture crisis” because of remote work where employees are “not plugged into” company culture:
Then there is a study by the Oliver Wyman Forum that found a desire for more flexibility and a better work-life balance, rather than a hunger to return to the office, were the most important reasons for leaving or wanting to leave a job, after the quest for more money. The sweet spot is hard to hit. Undermanaged remote-working staff can feel neglected, leading to bad consequences, from job dissatisfaction to burnout and fraud.
Another poll this year, by the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors, highlighted the risk of a “post-pandemic organisational culture crisis”. “How do employees maintain their strong attachment to the business, continue to experience the shared purpose, values and sense of community within their organisation and uphold expected behaviours in the absence of the old office-centric in-person interactions?” asked Heli Mooney, head of internal audit at airline Ryanair.
There are two very big problems with this entire conversation:
- Office culture is bullshit. It does not exist. “Culture” is something that can grow in an office but in a professional setting, culture is almost always a way to cover up the abuse of a worker.
- It acts as if loyalty is something the company is owed.
Other than the tasks that you are paid to do and the strictures of your job, nobody should be “loyal” to a company. Companies rarely if ever show loyalty to their workers - and the pandemic and the remote debate has shown exactly how disloyal companies are to those that work for them. When Better.com laid off 900 people, it was coming off of the back of a huge investment by Softbank (though it seems like it was smaller than they expected, but still) - and they’ve been flayed both for the callousness of CEO Vishal Garg’s “we’re laying people off” message and, indeed, that they had just got a bunch of money and used it to…fire people:
“I come to you with not great news. The market has changed, as you know, and we have to move with it in order to survive so that hopefully, we can continue to thrive and deliver on our mission. This isn’t news that you’re going to want to hear. But ultimately it was my decision. And I wanted you to hear from me. It’s been a really, really challenging decision to make. This is the second time in my career I’m doing this and I do not do not want to do this. The last time I did it, I cried. This time, I hope to be stronger. We are laying off about 15% of the company for a number of reasons — the market, efficiency and performances and productivity.”
One of the things a lot of bosses miss when it comes to engendering loyalty that it isn’t just about pay - it’s also about making sure you don’t screw them over with your stupid decisions. Better.com hired “aggressively” in 2020 and then, as the mortgage market changed, decided to lay off 15% of their workforce entirely on a Zoom call. They could have, say, not been greedy and hired a bunch of people that they might have had to fire relatively quickly (a source told TechCrunch that Better had " “too many people in the wrong places”). Loyalty isn’t just about the money - it’s about having responsibility for the people that work for you, and making sure that you don’t put yourself in a situation where you might have to fire 900 of them at a moment’s notice.
Employee loyalty once again frames workers as some sort of animal that must be manipulated into staying. The conversations around remote work and people “falling out of company culture” suggest that companies themselves are loyal or reliable to their workers, and that they do not - and will not - act solely in the benefit of the company itself. The BBC, ever-present in the “we must protect the bosses” content racket, talks about how “worker loyalty is a breaking point,” and brings up a great story:
“I’d just spent well over 12 months proving that I was able to do my job entirely remotely, so being told that there was no longer any flexibility at all in terms of my physical location was extremely frustrating,” she says. “I tried for several weeks to come up with a solution, but in the end, I could see no other option than to quit. I loved working in finance, but my priority now is to find a new job that works for me and my family,” she adds. “And that may well be in a different industry.”
Wait, isn’t that good? Maybe the BBC gets it…
If businesses want to retain the loyal talent they need to stay competitive, experts argue they must listen to the needs of the labour market and adapt quickly.
The problem isn’t competition or the needs of the labor market, and framing it as such is suggesting that loyalty is some sort of competitive advantage versus a norm that companies need to engage with. The causes of employee “disloyalty” are fairly obvious - inflexibility from employers, burnout, and so on - they are never framed as something that the company is responsible. For example, if someone is burned out, they don’t just need some time off - they need their workload reduced or eliminated for a period of time so that they can recover, as burnout is a mental health issue caused by their job.
I think I can be more specific: if you want people to be loyal to you, be loyal to them. I do not know why this is such a hard thing for people to understand, and I do not know why I am seemingly the only person that writes it this bluntly, but companies need to stop acting as if “employee loyalty” is the concern of the employee. Loyalty is a two-way street in a romantic or platonic friendship, but in the case of a company, you must earn the worker’s loyalty by being loyal to them.
Loyalty Should Be Earned, Not Expected
This is at the core of the problems I have with the great resignation conversation - it is treating capital’s access to labor as something they are owed versus something that they must actively solicit and pay for. The reason that this is happening is because the pandemic showed people exactly how disloyal companies were to their workers. It was a garishly public display of greed, and, ironically, a time when companies really could’ve shown how loyal they were, cutting executive compensation to retain jobs or agreeing contractually to bring people back - and instead, they chose to make massive profits and treat workers as a row in an excel spreadsheet.
That’s why this is so frustrating to write - so many people are talking about “corporate loyalty” as if it’s a two-way street where companies reward loyal employees rather than using them up and discarding them at will. The New York Times, who acquired tech purchase advice site the Wirecutter back in 2016 for $30 million, were able to offset pandemic losses thanks to the revenue that the site brings in through affiliate purchases. This is because the Wirecutter staff does extremely thorough and thoughtful work.
One might say that the Wirecutter workers have been incredibly loyal to the Times, despite making $43,000 less, on average, than others in the Times newsroom.
The Times Management, who are sitting on $1 billion in cash, offered to give them 0.5% guaranteed annual raises. One writer, Thom Dunn, has to work two jobs to make ends meet, and had to get an emergency grant for low-income artists to pay a hospital bill when his son was born six weeks prematurely.
The Union went on strike over Black Friday and Cyber Monday - big revenue days for the site - and the Times wouldn’t budge, having middle managers file articles instead of paying them. Their strike demands were fairly reasonable - a $300,000 increase in salaries for its 65-person unit, and a boost in guaranteed annual raises.
The reason I bring up this extremely longwinded anecdote is that this is why I consider the whole “employee loyalty” conversation so utterly vacuous. For there to be any validity about questioning or complaining about employee loyalty, there has to be an established body of work of company loyalty, of which there is not really much at all. Kellogg’s and their union have failed to come to a deal because the company has no loyalty to their employees - otherwise this situation would have never occurred, because their reaction to the requests would’ve been “okay, sure.”
The times I’ve been loyal to a company have been because they have appreciated my work, treated me well, given me what I needed to succeed and paid me to do it. In return, they got a guy who worked really hard and did good work, and made them more money than they were spending on the guy in question. And, importantly, they cared when things were bad and did things as a result.
I’m sure somebody will read this and say “well, there are people I’ve worked with that were paid well and treated well that were still not loyal!” to which I say “work is a transaction of labor for money.” Your boss is not your dad, your co-workers are not your brothers and sisters, and your office is not your home. If a company wants loyalty, they should pay for the privilege - loyal people work harder and go further for their company, and if companies want that, they should remove as much friction as possible between a worker and their work.
The thing I’ll close on is that the missing link in the “loyalty” picture is that loyalty is really only tested when times are tough. And this conversation is being framed as a worker revolt - as some sort of labor-based tantrum where the common folk are raising their pitchforks - when it should be a chance for people to interrogate executives about their privileged expectation of fealty in labor.