Examining the limits of employee loyalty

Everyone complains about the lack of loyalty in today's workplace. Columnist Bob Artner takes a look at loyalty and allegiance and offers his advice on what IT managers can reasonably expect from their employees.

One of the dirty little secrets of management is how often your own employees hurt your feelings. Of course, as technical managers overseeing impressive IT budgets and juggling a bewildering array of important projects, you shouldn’t let a little thing like your feelings stand in the way of getting your job done. On the other hand, since you’re a human being, that’s not practical.

Frequent readers of this column know that we don’t get into “touchy feely” areas of management theory, preferring to leave that to reruns of Leo Bascaglia specials on public television. However, having thought about this lately, it seems to me that many of these conflicts result from misunderstandings about the limits of employee loyalty, both to the organization and to you personally. In this column, we’re going to examine what loyalty means in the modern IT organization and what you can reasonably expect from your employees.

Ingratitude vs. self-interest
All too often, this question of employee loyalty gets framed in the context of gratitude. More precisely, a technical manager will consider an employee “ungrateful” for some specific action the manager doesn’t like. This usually is expressed in terms like “After all I’ve done for X, can you believe he/she did Y?”

Of course, this begs not one but several questions, each of which has to be answered before you can credibly accuse someone of ingratitude. Whenever anyone asks me that kind of rhetorical question, I always want to ask:
  • What specifically have you done for X? Are you thinking about something substantive, your general feelings of goodwill, or just the fact that you hired X? If the latter, you’ve got a weak case—after all, you hired X because you thought him or her to be the best person for the job. X doesn’t usually owe you anything for that—unless you really took a chance on a particular hire.
  • Does X know what you’ve done for him or her? Too many managers fail to communicate actions they’ve taken on behalf of their employees. How can your people appreciate what you’ve done if they don’t know about it?
  • What precisely is Y? Ingratitude, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What did X do? If he or she quit without notice, that’s bad. On the other hand, if he or she gave you two week’s notice because you couldn’t afford to match a competitive job offer, well, that’s another thing entirely.

When discussing the question of loyalty, you also have to ask yourself: loyalty to whom? Are you talking about your employee’s loyalty (or perceived lack of same) to you or to the organization you both work for? For most people, we’re more concerned with the former than the latter.

For example, consider this hypothetical case. Two of your developers schedule separate meetings with you. The first says something along the lines of “Look, this is just between you and me; I don’t want HR to know yet. I’m going to be leaving the company in eight weeks. I wanted to give you enough time to be looking for a replacement from some other department, but I don’t want to give my official notice yet.”

The second developer comes into your office and says, “I just wanted to tell you that I’m moving over to the CRM implementation team. They can really use another Oracle guy, and the project is way behind schedule. Unfortunately, they really want me to start next week.”

So here’s my question: Which developer was more loyal and to whom? On a personal level, you can argue that the first developer was being more loyal because he was giving you advanced notice that he was leaving your group—certainly more than the second developer. On the hand, if you’re talking about loyalty to the organization, the first developer is actually leaving the company, while the second is moving to an important internal project that is behind schedule. Even worse, the first developer is asking you to keep his impending departure a secret from the organization’s HR department.

My point is that loyalty is a complicated subject.

When loyalty can be expensive
Let’s look at the question from your employee’s point of view for a moment. Assuming that you’re a good technical manager, most of your staff appreciates your efforts and welcomes the work environment you strive to foster.

In return, they demonstrate their loyalty by working hard for you, sweating the details, and even giving you a heads-up about potential issues before they erupt into full-blown crises.

That’s fine, but it’s also essentially cost-free. What about when it actually costs your employees money to be loyal—is that a price most of your people would (or should) pay?

For example, take the issue of a competitive offer again. Is it really fair to brand an employee disloyal because he or she takes another job with more responsibility and a lot more money? I don’t think so.

If you want another example, consider maternity leave. Depending on where and for whom you work, employees who go on maternity leave may have a powerful disincentive to tell the truth about their future work plans. Specifically, employees who tell their employer in advance that they don’t intend to return to their position after the baby is born can forfeit some benefits and job security.

In such cases, one can hardly blame an employee for being reticent to share their plans with you.

Please understand, I’m not advocating dishonesty. I am suggesting that a situation that seems cut and dried to you may look quite different to one of your direct reports.
Loyalty, properly understood
So loyalty can be difficult to define. Does that mean it’s not important? Of course not. As an IT manager, you have the right to expect a certain degree of loyalty from your people. They can demonstrate this loyalty by acting like the professionals they presumably are by:
  • Putting in a full day’s work.
  • Not going over your head without telling you first.
  • Not undermining your authority behind your back.
  • Supporting the organization’s goals.

Perhaps these seem like pretty feeble demonstrations of loyalty to you. In my opinion, having a realistic understanding of what you can expect from your staff will keep you from getting your feelings hurt quite so often.

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