Opportunity or Obligation?

images (1)With the latest Insights West Poll reporting that 55% of BC Employees are ready to jump ship at the next opportunity – albeit the ‘right’ one – I’ve been thinking about how uneasy I am with the whole discussion around ‘employee loyalty’ to begin with.

It’s not that I don’t believe in ‘loyalty’ – I do. I am loyal to causes and brands (most of the time) and to family and friends. But in the work-arena, I find the word ‘loyalty’ just a bit too stuffy. In fact, in my time as a recruiter, I’ve heard some pretty whacky and disheartening stories around so-called career ‘loyalty.’ Recognize any?

  • The somewhat eccentric non-profit boss who denounced his star employee as “disloyal” and a “mission-deserter” when she handed in her notice for a more senior role (he even refused to shake her hand at the farewell party).
  • The slew of employees with 20+ years of service who were told they could collect their belongings after 6pm, so as not to disrupt workflow, when the new President decided to clean house.
  • The start-up culture that dictates it’s ‘disloyal’ to take a lunch break or leave before dark.
  • The number of candidates who have come to me, ready to move on, but a little too scared to look ‘ungrateful’ or ‘noncommittal’ to ever take the actual leap to a new (and better) opportunity.

Yes, I wrestle with the word loyalty when it comes to careers, because I don’t think the term fits to begin with. Here’s why:

  • It’s too heavy.  Being at work should feel good, not like a burden or an obligation. An employment contract is not an oath. For those employers who are so enthusiastic about celebrating new talent on their way in, why not make it a practice (as long as the person made a solid contribution) to clap them out as well?
  • It’s too personal. The word “loyalty” lays a thin film of guilt where it shouldn’t be laid. It implies that the flexible workweek you were allowed after returning from mat leave was a “favour” not a benefit. And that the raise or promotion you were given a few months back was an extension of your contract not your stellar work.
  • It’s too finite. The very word ‘loyalty’ implies a forever-ness that, in today’s fast changing world, doesn’t quite fit.

So, while I’d never promote leaving for the sake of leaving (I’ll lay out the many benefits of staying put in another post) and I advise heavily against needless career ADD, I’m suggesting we start holding ‘employee loyalty’ to another kind of test. Here’s a quick three-question quiz to test your own loyalty – whether you’re on your way in or out:

  1. Are you being loyal to your values and your character? If you’re not into long hours, don’t join the bootstrapped start-up.
  2. Are you being loyal to the promises you’ve made? If you said you’d see a project through to completion, organize your departure to make that possible – or, at the very least, don’t leave behind the ‘impossible’
  3. Are you being loyal to your instincts? When your gut has been chanting, “let’s get out of here” for longer than you can remember, it’s not a bad week, it’s a bad fit.

The employer-employee relationship has evolved. It’s a two-way street; a mutually beneficial meeting of skills and opportunities. Staying put when you just don’t fit isn’t loyal, and leaving because you hope to progress isn’t disloyal.  When we move passed the guilt and obligation – and start doing it right – the match should feel… effortless.

What do you think? What place does loyalty have in the workplace? Is loyalty a big cultural piece at your company? When is it disloyal to leave a company – or are employees free to jump ship at any time?