Loyalty Isn't Real

Stop Making Hiring Decisions Based On It

One of the arguments that frustrates me the most involves people who move from job to job. I’ve heard dozens of employers look at a potential applicant’s resume, say something like, “this person has worked a lot of places,” and treat that like a negative thing. Immediately, their loyalty is called into question.

Photo by Cory Bouthillette on Unsplash

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—and yet not being loyal is a trait that can be used against people. It’s easy to admonish someone when they jump around from job to job or don’t show perfect allegiance to a company or business. Loyalty, for whatever reason, is considered one of the most necessary and prized traits an employee can posses—and folks who have shown they are not loyal are bad at their jobs.

Let’s break that myth.

People leave jobs for all types of reasons. Some of them are perhaps unwarranted or downright silly. I imagine, however, removing extenuating circumstances like a move or life change, that most people leave a job for one of three reasons:

  1. They receive a better opportunity elsewhere that their current employer can’t meet

  2. They feel unsafe at work

  3. They feel under appreciated and have no pathway to a better position, learning opportunities, or basic respect and dignity

So why is loyalty demanded at all?

Loyalty is a form of power—it’s a way for an employer to demand unwavering allegiance without reciprocity. Asking for loyalty might be fine between individual actors (between friends or chosen family or whomever), but loyalty between an employee and a business is often used as a weapon against people.

Loyalty itself isn’t a trait that contributes positively or negatively to a cafe (beyond the costs of training and hiring new people, but loyalty itself as a trait doesn’t inherently affect business outcomes) but when people leave a business, that challenges the way people in power have to view themselves and the spaces they create.

Loyalty, however, allows them to write off any of their own missteps and blame workers. 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, and is often a function of who stays at a job and who goes which is mostly subjective. What loyalty misses, though, is nuance, and doesn’t consider that certain groups might leave jobs more often than others because they feel unsafe or like they’re not growing professionally.

The question of loyalty often falls disproportionately on marginalized people, who have to fight harder for their voices to be heard and to be taken care of at work. When marginalized people leave jobs to ensure their own safety, they are often punished in the eyes of employers for being disloyal.

Likewise, marginalized people might be forced to put themselves in situations they feel uncomfortable because loyalty is such a strong motivator for people. 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. So if that threat—of being considered disloyal—can affect work outcomes, people are more likely to tolerate unfair and unkind situations without speaking up. Nobody wants to be seen as disloyal.

I worked at a cafe where I told my boss a customer made me feel unsafe at work. My boss told me that he was a paying customer and that he wouldn’t do anything about it. Shortly thereafter, I left. But would my boss say, “hey, she left because she felt unsafe and I didn’t do anything?” Of course not. He would probably say I wasn’t loyal and just chased after the next position.

Before I wrote this article, I did a google image search on the word “loyal,” and it was a lot of strange quotes about loyalty being absolute (“it’s not black or white”) and things about people’s loyalty ending when they no longer receive anything in return. Basically, most of these quotes amount to loyalty being a supreme expression of care that requires no reciprocity—and in fact demanding anything in return is seen as disingenuous loyalty.

Let’s turn it around. What employer would ever keep you on staff if you stopped being a benefit to them? Loyalty never works from the top down—it always works from the bottom up, and demands that 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 (this is a hard paradigm shift, I understand), then think of businesses with very low turnover. Did they somehow attract the only loyal people in your industry? I’m going to guess not—instead of relying on people being loyal, businesses with folks who stay for years have figured out how to keep their people happy.

If you find yourself going back to the idea of loyalty, I ask you to look inward, and question why people are leaving your business. Using loyalty as a crutch is only harming your ability to grow and be better.