Employee loyalty isn’t gone, it’s just different


Today, people in their 20s change jobs every two years. This frustrates employers, who say, “Why should I hire someone who is going to leave? I need someone who is loyal.”

At the same time, employees look at the work they are given and say, “How can I spend my days doing work that doesn’t mean anything to me?”

Ironically, the way to make your work more meaningful is to be more loyal. This doesn’t mean you can’t quit in three months. It means that you have to be loyal while you are there. And in this way, the idea of workplace loyalty is changing: Loyalty is not dead, but you have to ask yourself, what are you loyal to?

It’s a great job market for young people today. Among college graduates the unemployment rate is less than 2 percent. The problem is finding meaningful work. But this task doesn’t need to be as hard as people make it.

You don’t need to be saving lives. You need to work at a place that contributes to your core needs, in a way that gives you the opportunity to express passions in significant ways.

One of the most common ways of finding meaning at work is through personal development. “Loyalty as a function of time is a dated idea,” says Jaerid Rossi, process engineer at Specialty Minerals of Canaan, Conn. “Work is only appealing if there’s constant learning.”

But loyalty is a layered concept, and for many this includes the power of a company’s brand.

“Organizations are not a source of security but they are a source of identity,” says Bill Taylor, cofounder of the magazine Fast Company and coauthor of the book, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win.

So find a company that you want to attach your identity to.

In this way, you are searching for a company that deserves your loyalty. Its brand will be in line with your own values and the image you have of yourself. For example, Steve Rubel runs the blog Micro Persuasion, but he is also an employee at Edelman, a public relations agency that has an image of being forward thinking about technology. Edelman adds a nice element to Rubel’s identity so it makes sense that Rubel would be loyal.

“Edelman’s success online reaffirms in peoples’ minds that I’m with a company whose values I share,” he says.

Loyalty doesn’t always satisfy image-building, though. For instance you can be loyal to a cause, such as the examples cited by Taylor: “People at ING Direct really feel like they are bringing some sense of sanity to an increasingly insane consumer finance culture. In Mavericks at Work, people are loyal to what they want to do in the world. For example, most people at Netflix are true movie fanatics and they believe popular entertainment is better in America because of Netflix.”

If you want to help homeless kids, you can work at many different types of organizations that fight homelessness, and while you might not feel huge dedication to a particular organization, your enthusiasm to the cause will keep you loyal to the work. You can carry your loyalty from company to company.

Taylor explains that “People can [also] be loyal to a cause or to a technology. For example, they think Ajax is the greatest software in the world. They can also be loyal to colleagues and team.”

The common thread in all this loyalty, though, is being part of something bigger than yourself. You cannot give up everything for your company, but being loyal to nothing is equally disconcerting.

“People are their best when they have obligations not only to themselves, but to other people as well. People do their best work when they identify themselves as part of a team or a project.”

Rossi echoes this sensibility: “For me, the services a company provides must somehow be beneficial to the employees and the community around it. I need to understand what the company’s goals are and I need to share that vision.”

What can employers do to attract new loyalists? Find a mission that they believe in. If they don’t believe in it, they’ll never be able to convince other people. And remember that people can feel affiliated to an organization without having to work 70 hours a week.

In fact, some of the most loyal employees are those whose company arranged working situations to accommodate very strong loyalties such as family or athletic endeavors. Even a company that has little mission to speak of can gain extreme loyalty from employees by easing the employee’s individual mission. Among Microsoft loyalists, for example, are those who rely on its outstanding insurance coverage for children with autism.

So figure out your needs and passions, and cast a wide net for the company that could fill them. You’d be surprised at the number of companies that can make you feel like work is meaningful. Similarly, employers will be surprised at the intense loyalty there is to be had from this generation of job hoppers.

37 replies
  1. Grand Guigol
    Grand Guigol says:

    Please, employees aren’t loyal because they know their employers can – and will – lay them off at the drop of a hat…entirely due to forces completely outside of the employee’s control.

    If employers want more loyalty, they shouldn’t be slaves to the next quarterly earnings report from Wall Street.

  2. Almost Got It
    Almost Got It says:

    Loyalty absolutely must begin on the side of the employer, and not the other way around. Employees are a company’s first customers, buying money from the employer in exchange for their own currency: work. Like any other customer, they are human beings who want respect, courtesy, and value for their currency. If they don’t get what they pay for, they will leave the company. And their replacements, even if easy to find, will eventually do the same. And bottom line? Happy employee-customers will also work to give you happy customer-customers.

  3. Terry
    Terry says:

    Companies don’t really care about most employees except star employees. Therefore there is a huge shift in loyalty from years ago. However as stated here learning is a great loyalty bone.If a person is learning he at least feels like he is advancing. That is one reason why Toyota is so incredibly successful. Their employees are learning everyday while doing continuous improvement. And loyal.

  4. AjiNIMC
    AjiNIMC says:

    Its very simple, do companies care about a employees?

    The equation that needs to be matched

    “Time spend by Company thinking about an employee” is proportional to “Time spend by employee thinking about company”. Is this equation is matched you can convert a lot of normal employees to loyal group.

    Look at this image,

    * * * * *

    Yes, I think the equation needs to be equal, although it’s a difficult equation to measure, exactly. And that image you link to is a good example of why. It is unclear if the company values it’s employees or values the idea of attracting good employees.


  5. Rambler
    Rambler says:

    Very interesting subject. In India we have a bigger problem when it comes to changing jobs. Mostly its for people in IT and the call centre related jobs. There are so many oppertunites available so people are jumping around just for a nominal increase in the pay package. Employers are not being able to hold on to employees for more than an year or two, with hikes available as hugh as 30-50% of your current package outside, its tough to hold on to people.
    And people too have got into the mode of make as much as you can, very bad trend. I have 4 years of work experience and changes 2 companies, first one I lasted for 10 months and have been in thc current company since than about 3 years.
    The other thing is lack of interesting work and hope that its better in a different company. Thats too big a thing to write as a comment :)

    * * * * * *

    Thank you for the different perspective. I find, though, that the description you give here is surprisingly similar to the issues we have in the US


  6. Jacob Share
    Jacob Share says:

    In my experience as an employee and as a manager, sharing the company values is nice and may encourage you to do some PR for your company among friends but it won’t keep you loyal when a better job opportunity comes along. I like the way you said it- employees are loyal when companies help them be loyal to others eg. their family, friends etc. In other words, when the company takes employees needs into account.

    * * * * * *

    You bring up another interesting aspect of the loyalty discussion: If companies create environmnets that help employees to be loyal, then the employees will be, in effect, publicists for the company. A great way for companies to hire great people is to turn their employees into publicisits. Word of mouth is so powerful when you decide which company to work for.


  7. AjiNIMC - wrote about "Questions for your employer (Hiring Manager)"
    AjiNIMC - wrote about "Questions for your employer (Hiring Manager)" says:

    >> although it's a difficult equation to measure, exactly

    It is a good equation to evaluate the scenario when a person is leaving. I wanted to created a chain where an employee (can’t call him a mentor but I can call him a personal HR) will think about other employee atleast 15 mins a week and will also report the opinion to HR. This will bring many hidden issues to the visible surface. Most of the times there is no one to care about other member or no one to spare some exclusive time to think about other member. Even a 15 mins thinking a week can change the scene.

  8. Ken
    Ken says:

    Attitudes about company and employee loyalties are definitely changing. My own father worked 35 years for one company. I followed his lead and worked 25 years for one company but they went through a corporate merger and eliminated my department. So I tried again with another company and stayed 10 years. This second company bought out a competitor and eliminated the group I worked in. I am now working for a third company but feel NO loyalty to this company and doubt that I ever will. I followed my father’s work ethic but I tell my daughter to be cautious about becoming too loyal to any one workplace.

    * * * * *

    I like this comment becuse so much of the current attitudes toward loyalty stem from watching careers of people like Ken. I think people want to have stable jobs they can stay with forever, and grow with. But it’s just not possible. We see it’s not possible as we watch the older generation’s career paths.

    So, Ken, I am not sure we need warnings about loyalty. I think you, and people like you, teach us by example.


  9. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:

    I do think we need to be mindful of the tendency to rename things in their best possible light. When Ken is advising his daughter not to be too loyal to any one workplace, is that because he really thinks loyalty is a bad thing, or because he’s renaming stability (stasis) as loyalty.

    I think Penelope draws an important distinction between loyalty to an abstract concept (personal development, company’s brand being in line with personal values, etc.) versus defining loyalty in a really linear, time-driven way. Loyalty is not tolerance for being ill-used.

  10. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Those of us who worked in high-tech in the 1980’s and 1990’s were in the vanguard of the “don’t get too attached to your company” trend. What each individual needs to do is work out their own balance between need for stability, need for workplace attachment, ability to withstand whatever amount of time without a paycheck, desire to always be on to something new…There may be different times in your life when different elements appeal more than others.

    Having worked in a couple of places where some people did believe that they were going to be there “for life” – and seeing how crushed they were when they lost their jobs – I know it was a lot easier for those of us who had the attitude of “as long as it’s interesting/fun/challenging or whatever, I’ll work hard and enjoy my stay,” knowing that when it was over, that was fine, too.

  11. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    I like the notion of loyalty to a company’s brand. I think when I have felt disconnected from an organization that I worked for, it was because I couldn’t be loyal to its brand, or in my case, its mission. The one job I found truly fulfilling had a brand/mission that I valued. Then I got laid off!

    BUT, I like the distinction between loyalty and stability. This helps me further explore why I feel I can’t find the right job, and my discomfort with leaving jobs frequently.

  12. Toyota Perspective
    Toyota Perspective says:

    In order to prepare for a recent position I had to read the Toyota Way by Liker. It provided a very interesting perspective right from the beginning about loyalty. I don’t have the book with me, but the passage boils down to something like this:

    The Company will never lay off employees because of a bad quarter. Toyota feels that doing so based on a bad quarter would be similar to an individual employee telling one of their kids they have to leave because they had a bad quarter with their stock market portfolio.

    Until we get away from the quarter to quarter philosophy and adopt a longer term perspective (which is healthier anyways), employee loyalty is going to be hard to find.

  13. Tor dot Bjorn
    Tor dot Bjorn says:

    As a project assistant in my young 20s I must admit that It’s a feeling of loyalty in higher management (or in ‘corporate’ as many of my fellow workers would call it) that helps me to feel loyal.

    I personally feel and act loyal to the company when I start to feel that I have a place and future with the company, and that they are doing what they can to stay afloat in a currently volatile business (forestry, natural resource related). I feel that and act that partly in my own attempts at tenure, which I feel can benefit the company just fine. If I didn’t think that those working above me believed in their work, and it’s effect and growth – my own beliefs won’t be sparked.

    What can be difficult is letting it be known: i.e – don’t wanna be a suck-up/dog, but do have to express my content. I do this through occasional meetings with my boss, and just generally being and feeling talkative.

    Good article. I like it.

  14. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    One thing that puzzles me about posts such as these is the qualifier that ” people in their 20s change jobs every two years”. What if you’re older than twenty? What if you’re older than thirty? Does meaningful work matter more to young workers?

    Am I supposed to be coasting now, and enjoying chawing on the fat of middle age? I still *feel* young, and I’m aging slowly. Is there a proscribed genealogical point when I’m supposed to not change jobs? Do frequent job changes at some point start to damage one’s reputation?

    Just wondering.

  15. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:

    Margaret: I don’t know if I’m coasting, but I’m a lot more risk-averse now that I’ve got a kid in school. I’m also a heckuva lot better at imagining bad outcomes. Better at settling, if you will.

  16. Dale
    Dale says:


    The question is basically once I have taken care of my lower order needs (per Maslow)do I like and have respect for that part of me that is viewed through the lens of my job/employer. If not, do I have the guts and resources to change what I do not like.
    I would love to save the world, but I feel too old, beaten, scared, and responsible (kids, kids, kids) to leave my relatively secure but unfulfilling job to do so. The typical boomer trap.
    Freedom (mostly of the emotional type) is something that I envy younger people, but am honest enough to admit to myself.

    Rock on X’s, Y’s, and M’s.

  17. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    After getting laid off by those management giants, “Neutron” Jack Welch and “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, I can say that they and their ilk have done all they can to kill employee loyalty. If my good work and dedication mean so little to them, why shouldn’t I jump ship at the drop of a better offer?

  18. vita
    vita says:

    who can explain for me? If we speak about loyalty of employees we speak about commitment of organization as I understood, but there are so many different contracts with organizations, for example employer hired me for layout of a book and I have performed good that task, result- the organization left satisfied. But my next work will be in the another organization, so here arrise question : Will I be disloyal? just because of concept of loyalty…

  19. lazysouth4
    lazysouth4 says:

    I graduated college in 1995. I’ve been in the workforce 13 years now. As a GenXer who stands at the edge of another 10-15 years of work ahead, I’m ready to give up on working for corporations and public companies. Employee loyalty is on life support at best in these organizations. Greed is the new value alive in corporations today. The feeling is very much ‘every man for himself’. People are not seen as valued,long-term resources today – they are seen as risks and expenses. The modern workforce is a great darwinian fish tank, filled with shark managers looking to intimidate the strong and weed out the weaklings. The executives at the top use their spreadsheets to microscopically measure every cost associated with fish tank community. They claim their actions for cost reduction as ‘fiduciary responsibility to shareholders’. If the cost of water gets too expensive -the little fish learn to breath less. Does this sound like a system that values people?? I think not. My boomer parents love to talk about the old days – having a career for 15-25 years, benefits, community of coworkers, etc. I see few examples of that today.

    Penelope is correct when she implies worker loyalty is a reflection of ones ability to identify with the company mission and values. The problem is, nobody feels personally tied to company values anymore. There’s little sense of the work being appreciated or valued by people higher up who should care. And..basically that is the real root of the problem – the people higher up don’t care. They have the extra time, comfort, priviledge, capital and intelligence to foster a better environment but, they simply won’t. In my work lifetime, I’ve seen employees, highly regarded one day and, then escorted to the door with security on side the next. I’ve seen managers cut jobs using the ‘last one in, first one out’ principle. I’ve seen all kinds of logic tied justifying the departure of people. It all amounts to the same conclusion – people are expendable. The modern job force teaches me that jobs are increasingly disposable, like our cars, fast food, homes, clothes, cel phones and computers.
    The bottom line is this – employers will not increase employee loyalty until they change the perception about jobs and personal stake in their organizations. Until that happens, the ‘job’ of the modern worker will be to work hard with the radar up and, the walking shoes ready to be set in motion.

  20. Mllan Moravec
    Mllan Moravec says:

    Employee loyalty enriches both the workforce and management. Business and the public sector are into a phase of creative disassembly where reinvention and adjustments are constant. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are being shed by United Technologies, GE, Chevron, Sam's Club, Wells Fargo Bank, HP, Starbucks etc. and the state, counties and cities. Even solid world class institutions like the University of California Berkeley under the leadership of Chancellor Birgeneau & Provost Breslauer are firing staff, faculty and part-time lecturers. Yet many employees, professionals and faculty cling to old assumptions about one of the most critical relationship of all: the implied, unwritten contract between employer and employee.
    Until recently, loyalty was the cornerstone of that relationship. Employers promised job security and a steady progress up the hierarchy in return for employees fitting in, performing in prescribed ways and sticking around. Longevity was a sign of employeer-employee relations; turnover was a sign of dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply today. Organizations can no longer guarantee employment and lifetime careers, even if they want to.
    Organizations that paralyzed themselves with an attachment to "success brings success' rather than "success brings failure' are now forced to break the implied contract with employees – €“ a contract nurtured by management that the future can be controlled.
    Jettisoned employees are finding that the hard won knowledge, skills and capabilities earned while being loyal are no longer valuable in the employment market place.
    What kind of a contract can employers and employees make with each other? The central idea is both simple and powerful: the job or position is a shared situation. Employers and employees face market and financial conditions together, and the longevity of the partnership depends on how well the for-profit or not-for-profit continues to meet the needs of customers and constituencies. Neither employer nor employee has a future obligation to the other. Organizations train people. Employees develop the kind of security they really need – €“ skills, knowledge and capabilities that enhance future employability.
    The partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor.

  21. Larry A Olive,MBA
    Larry A Olive,MBA says:

    Just a thought, I have seen that people don’t feel the same about work as much as they used to, going to work is a chore for most and the younger generation does change jobs faster today then we used to. If a job becomes available in another place today’s employee will not hesitate to go, they do not feel a sense of need to stay.

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