The virtues of job fidelity

December 24, 2014

After a dozen job changes over 35 years, it is too late for me to become a loyal employee. But I know the model of the faithful worker. The dental assistant who used to tend to my teeth worked at the same small practice for about 35 years before retiring, with deep regret, two years ago. She stopped by regularly afterwards, because she wanted to stay in touch with the community that had defined so much of her life.

She died suddenly a few weeks after her most recent visit. Her former work colleagues were still in shock a few weeks later. “She was not just like a member of the family. She was a member of the family,” one of them said. I can’t imagine someone saying that about me two years after leaving any of my posts. I have not been around long enough for the passage of time to bond me, as she was, to work and to colleagues. She had become part of the life of the practice, and the separation from her life in the practice made her feel somehow less herself.

Her feelings of loyalty seemingly have no place in the modern job market. Workers look out first and foremost for their own careers. Even if they actually stay a long time with one employer, they frequently think about moving. When there is loyalty, it is usually limited to immediate colleagues, and contingent – as long as nothing goes too badly wrong and nothing better comes up.

Employers are no more loyal. How could they be? They are more concerned about profits, costs or product quality than about building a community in the workplace. Bosses often talk about the importance of teams and commitment, but workers rarely believe them, for good reason.

The detachment of employees from employers undoubtedly has benefits on both sides. Individual workers gain more freedom to develop their talents and more flexibility to follow inclinations. Loyalty minimisation also probably helps the performance of employers, if performance is measured as it usually is, in terms of output or efficiency.

However, the infidelity of labour also comes with a cost, which is paid by society as a whole. Two centuries ago, the German philosopher Georg Hegel predicted the gradual dissolution of what he called civil society, all the social groupings that are less than the state and larger than the individual. In this thinking, civil society includes extended families, tribes, churches and all sorts of professional and social groupings.

History has mostly worked out much as Hegel anticipated. Governments have become more powerful and more intrusive, while most parts of civil society have faded in importance and independence.

Corporations and other employing organisations fit right in. Hegel could have drafted the economists’ standard approach to the firm. The assumption is that each person involved – shareholders, bosses, regular workers, customers – looks out only for his or her individual self-interest, while the government sets most of the important standards for good behaviour.

In effect, the company is only a convenience set up to mediate between individuals and the state. The cult of shareholder value maximisation is a significant step in the wrong direction, as it gives control of major companies to equity investors, basically a group of outsiders.

The two-sided loyalty deficit also belongs in this schema. Without deep loyalty to employees, a company will struggle to be anything more than an organisation with a narrowly economic purpose. It will not nurture or protect its weaker members. It will be too transient and divided to speak with a strong, responsible and believable voice in social debates. On the other side, workers without loyalty to employers will not create an enterprise which sticks together in hard times and which does not become dangerously arrogant in good times.

If, as it seems, civil society is in decline, it entails a regrettable loss of good communities and a gain for overly powerful governments. The onus is on modern employing organisations – from multinational profit-seeking corporations all the way down to modest dental practices – to resist the momentum of history.

It is possible. Companies and other employers can have their own purposes, characters and cultures. They can have an identity which is independent of governments, and sometimes opposed to them. But employers cannot be strong actors in civil society unless their members are loyal to them and they are loyal to their members.

As the dental assistant’s story demonstrates, such labour loyalty has not yet disappeared completely.

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