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The Loyal Roil

There was a time when a person could reasonably expect to work for a company and, as long as they did good work, stay there for decades until they retired. Retirement would include this thing called a pension and they would arguably live happy ever after.

At some point between then and now, it was determined that when a company is having a rough go, the best and maybe only way to cut costs is to cut employees. If one looks at the balance sheet and says, “It sure costs a lot to have all these people on the payroll,” they wouldn’t be wrong. However, cutting employees isn’t the only way to go and may not be the best way. For example, when a company cuts a bunch of jobs then shortly thereafter, hires a bunch of people for the same positions, what is being saved? Possibly some short-term financial gains and also likely some long-term culture losses.

When a person is treated like human capital, it shows. A culture of “burn and churn” where people are hired, worked hard, and then leave does not set up a great space for people to thrive. Even the nickname “burn and churn” sounds more like something we might do tending to a camp fire than actual human beings interacting with other human beings.

BUT, if you, as a person, decide to leave a company for a better job, better location, less burning and churning, your loyalty can be called to question. Why? Not why is loyalty called to question, but why is loyalty like the severe tire damage spikes in a parking garage? Why should the employee bear all the burden of being loyal while the employer accepts none? Power. Power is the reason.

Companies who use employees like people use facial tissues are bound to have significant culture issues. That is not to say they won’t be profitable. In the news recently, a very profitable company reportedly has 150% turnover among entry-level people. So, there is no lesson to be learned there. That model is that it is capitalistically acceptable to treat people as expendable without affecting investor relations. Yippee.

For the rest of us who are not that one enormous company, treating people like people is both good for the bottom line and morally responsible. And this is where loyalty comes in. Why should an employer expect loyalty from an employee in the form of working crazy hours, accepting minimally acceptable wages and benefits, and accepting whatever treatment they receive from management? “You’re lucky to have a job,” should be immediately countered with, “you’re lucky to have employees.”

Loyalty should be about the relationship, not imbalanced reciprocity. Employees are keenly aware that if the company takes a downturn, their job could be “right sized” to fit the new needs. In return, seems like the employee’s home and family will also be “right sized?” Employers should be able to recognize that as a company, they don’t exist in the same way without employees and customers. Companies have taken dramatic steps, particularly during the pandemic, to tighten belts in every way possible to not have to lose employees – out of loyalty to the employees. Yes, a few have made a kajillion dollars, but the ones where the culture is balanced and engages employees have actually had to work to keep their people and culture. They had to work not because they didn’t want their employees to flee, but because they didn’t want to have to lose their employees.

There are a few examples of doing less of something to get more of another. “Bill Gates didn’t finish college, so why does anyone need college?” On average, it still remains true that by a large margin, most people with college degrees earn more than people without. “Amazon is hugely profitable and there’s plenty of stories about how they don’t treat warehouse people right.” No argument there, but most places can’t treat people as expendable and just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Additionally, just because one data point exists doesn’t make all the other data obsolete.

For most companies, most organizations, employee turnover is expensive. It costs money, it costs institutional memory, and it costs cultural capital. Why would we not work as hard as possible to ensure the employees stay as long as possible while contributing in meaningful ways? Why not be loyal to the employee who is then, in turn, loyal to the company?

The way “loyalty” has been used should be retired. If the employer-employee relationship is no longer sustainable for some reason, it should be acceptable to make a change. Some employers declare the relationship unsustainable at the first sign of trouble. As long as this portion of the equation exists, there is no need to discuss loyalty.

For employers and employees who work at creating an engaging culture, the outcome will be longer, stronger, and more beneficial relationships. When these descriptors are accurate and meaningful, it just may be argued that what has been established is loyalty.

Cover Art Photo by Anthony Fomin on Unsplash

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