Loyalty in corporate America: RIP

Flickr user samirluther

Commentary:

(MoneyWatch) On this day 20-odd years ago, my then girlfriend and I walked into the Orange County, California, bureau of marriage licenses and fictitious business names (yes, they were in the same office) and tied the knot. Not very romantic, I know (Don't ask, it's a long story.)

Now, I long ago gave up trying to understand why in the world this woman is still married to me, but I can tell you with absolute certainty why I'm still married to her. Because, every time I think about it, the answer comes back the same. When I go to bed at night and wake up in the morning, she's the person I want lying next to me.

Yes, I know how that sounds. It sounds romantic. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but it's really not. The truth is I'm a pretty pragmatic guy. If I thought I'd be happier jumping in and out of relationships, that's what I'd do. But I know myself and I know I wouldn't be happier. I'd be miserable.

That's why I've had the same good friends for decades. It's also why I still root for the New York Giants and the Yankees, even though I left New York 33 years ago. If that's what it means to be loyal, then call me loyal. But when it comes to business and career decisions, as they say back home, fuggedaboutit.

It's not that I made better decisions choosing my wife, close friends and sports teams than I did choosing companies to work for. I've worked for some great companies over the years.

It's just that, when it comes to my personal life, my criteria hasn't changed and neither have the people. But in my work life, both my criteria and the companies I worked for changed. They changed a lot. So that meant I had to make some changes, too.

You see, I always wanted my career to keep going up and to the right. I always wanted to keep growing and trying new things. To keep taking risks and being challenged. And yes, I had some pretty aggressive financial goals, as well. In any case, I couldn't satisfy all those criteria by working at any one company.

For me, that meant working for big companies, startups and everything in between. It meant changing disciplines from engineering to sales to marketing. It meant working for companies that addressed different markets. And it meant climbing the corporate ladder, not one rung at a time but in leaps and bounds.

Now, I'm writing all this about me because I think it's different for each and every one of you. How you feel about personal relationships is your business. Likewise, so are your career goals. But the point is this: When it comes to your career, I don't think it should have anything to do with loyalty. And the reason for that is simple.

For officers and directors of companies, loyalty to employees is absolutely not a factor. Not even a little. Sure, it's more cost-effective to keep good employees, terminate bad ones and try to turn the bad ones into good ones. It's expensive to lay people off and hire and train new ones later. It's tough on morale and productivity, too.

But in absolute terms, there's no loyalty to employees in corporate America -- and there shouldn't be. Officers and directors have a duty to serve the long-term interests of their shareholders. And guess what? Markets change. Competition changes. Technology changes. Everything changes. And companies need the flexibility to do what they have to do to grow and generate profits.

Likewise, you should do exactly the same thing on behalf of your interests. That means you should make career decisions that will help advance your professional goals and meet the growing needs of your family.

Having said all that, let me add a little twist to this. I hear from a lot of people who aren't happy at work and aren't sure what they should do. Many cite loyalty as a reason to stick around, miserable as they are. And yet, once I tell them what they should do, it always seems as if they knew it all along, they just needed a kick in the pants.

You know what that says to me? It says that employees have no loyalty, either. I think you're all smarter than that. I think that, deep down, you all know what you should do. I just think you're risk-averse and afraid of change. After all, it's human nature to be scared of the unknown; it takes courage and energy to change.

Just don't use loyalty as a crutch or an excuse not to do what you know on some level you've got to do. You're better off being honest with yourself. After all, how can you overcome fear and resistance to change if you keep telling yourself you're staying put because you're loyal. Trust me. You're not. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user samirluther

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