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Why do we prize loyalty at work? It doesn’t make us any better at our jobs.
Employers look for lots of things when they’re hiring. One thing employees are cautioned about when applying for a new job is the length of time they spend at previous jobs. A frequent history of job changes is seen as negative, a cause for concern. Loyalty is called into question.
Loyalty is a funny thing. It’s not a trait that makes anyone better at their job—a person isn’t better at waiting tables or serving coffee if they’re loyal. Yet, loyalty is an often-used metric for determining if someone is hireable.
While being loyal is prized, not being loyal is treacherous. People are admonished when their resume reflects frequent jumps from job to job. Loyalty, for whatever reason, is considered a necessary attribute, a sign that a person is desirable or possesses traits that an employer is looking for. Folks who are seen as disloyal are not only seen as untrustworthy, but bad at their jobs.
Let’s break this myth.
People leave jobs for all kinds of reasons. Reasons can range from practical to flippant. I have to imagine, removing extenuating circumstances like a move or life change, that most people leave a job for one of three reasons:
They receive a better opportunity elsewhere that their current employer can’t meet
They feel physically or emotionally unsafe
Their work conditions are unstable—this is the most ambiguous, but encompasses feeling disrespected, or undermined, or talked down. There’s some form of instability in leadership that makes work feel unsteady
Loyalty is one of those traits that we experience both in our professional and personal lives. In both instances, loyalty is seen as a good thing: it’s good to be committed to your friends and it’s good to be committed to your workplace. However, loyalty at work is different because it intersects with power. Loyalty looks different between two equal actors versus between a boss and an employee.
Beyond the cost of training new employees, loyalty itself doesn’t make one a better employee. Instead, it serves a safety net—an employer can push the importance of loyalty on their employees as a way to wave off challenges to power and lowkey threaten staff. An employee who can’t work under the leadership of a particular boss can easily be portrayed as disloyal. The actions of the employer go unquestioned, and the reputation of the employee can be irrecoverably damaged.
Loyalty allows leaders to write off any of their own missteps and blame workers for negative outcomes and employee turnover. Instead of examining their own shortcomings, the concept of loyalty allows those in power to say, “that person was disloyal,” and move on.
Where this becomes especially dangerous is who is deemed loyal. Loyalty is highly subjective, cyclical, and reinforces itself. The people who are deemed loyal are the people who stay at a job, and there’s not often a lot of consideration as to why particular folks stayed while others leave. What loyalty allows folks to miss is that certain people might leave jobs more often than others because they feel unsafe or are routinely marginalized at work. Loyalty has the potential to obscure discriminatory practices.
The question of loyalty often falls disproportionately on marginalized people. Women and people of color already get saddled with “busy work,” or the behind-the-scenes work that elevates others but rarely brings recognition to themselves. When marginalized people leave jobs to pursue better opportunities, they are often written off for being disloyal.
Likewise, marginalized people might be forced into situations they feel uncomfortable in because loyalty is such a strong motivator. When someone is deemed disloyal, it’s meant as a character flaw. You call someone disloyal when you mean to hurt them or paint them in a negative light. The threat of being seen as disloyal can potentially be so strong that people are more likely to tolerate unfair and unkind situations rather than speaking out. Nobody wants to be seen as disloyal.
Before I wrote this article, I did a google image search on the word “loyal.” Along with highly stylized banners that look like sad replacements for the majestic landscapes and sunsets I associate with motivational posters, what popped up were a lot of strange quotes about loyalty being absolute. Loyalty is “black and white” and given to others “completely.” Most of the quotes reduce loyalty being a supreme expression of care that requires no reciprocity. In fact, demanding anything in return is seen as a disingenuous form of loyalty.
These sorts of extreme delineations might hold true amongst individuals, but do they apply in the workplace? Not at all.
An employer would never be loyal to an employee in such stark terms. If you stop being a benefit to an employer, you’d likely get fired.
Loyalty never works from the top down—it always works from the bottom up. The burden of showing loyalty comes from the least powerful actors in a business. However, it demands nothing from those in power. We never say, “this business owner was disloyal to his staff.” We have no concept of what that could even mean.
If you’re still unconvinced, think of businesses with very low turnover. Did they somehow attract the only loyal people in your industry? No—instead of relying on people being loyal, businesses with folks who stay for years have figured something else out: how to keep people happy.
Loyalty is a ubiquitous virtue. It’s something we look on so positively that we ignore what it's absence can tell us. Loyalty obscures Bad Boss Behavior (a term I do plan on trademarking, thank you very much), harms marginalized people, and reinforces the status quo. It’s not a real metric of anything. Stop demanding it.
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