Free agency in the NFL is in full swing. As a native of the Detroit area, I was disappointed by the apparent departure of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for Miami. Suh was probably the best defensive player Detroit had since the merger of the NFL-AFL, but I was not surprised he would leave. Despite his professed love for Detroit, he would repeatedly say that his agent would pick the place he would play next – essentially, he would go where he can make the most money. This chain of events led to fans attacking Suh and suggested that he, as well as other modern players, don’t have loyalty anymore. Perhaps this is the case. But it was not the players who created this. Long ago, team owners set the tone by jettisoning players who had been long time veterans and home town favorites when they felt that player was not worth the expense to the bottom line. In fact, you can see the same patterns in business.
When I was growing up, my parents and grandparents told me that it was essential that I get a good job, work hard, pay my dues, and my reward would come in the form of advancement, increased pay, and ultimately, a retirement. However, around the time I was in college, I saw a new trend. People who put their hearts and souls into the companies for which they worked were downsized and had to start over. These people had worked so hard that they missed key events in their family life, such as kids’ sporting events, school plays, and concerts. Instead of being rewarded for their loyalty, they were tossed aside and replaced by younger, cheaper employees. It was apparent the days of starting a job at your first company one day and retiring 20 -30 years down the road were dead. And the generation X and generation Y young adults saw this first hand and determined to not let this happen to them.
Today, I hear businesses complain that employees are not loyal. Instead of sticking with a company and paying their dues, employees and constantly changing jobs, taking on bigger and better offers. One client remarked to me that it was almost like sports free agency. “These kids have no loyalty anymore.” I could not help but laugh at the irony. Loyalty, after all, is a two way street. For years, companies have created the perception that they do not reward loyalty, and employees have responded by always being on the look out for bigger and better opportunities. After all, life is short. The attitude is, “I need to get what I can now.” In sports, your longevity is limited, especially in football. Every play you face a potential career ending injury. On top of that, you never know when a team might dismiss you. So players feel like they have to get the most they can when they can get it. This is the same trend in business. People face downsizing every day. So I guarantee workers are taking at least some time per day looking for other opportunities as an insurance policy.
I am not saying you should never downsize your workforce. The market is going to drive those conditions. But just understand, you cannot expect a fully dedicated workforce if people have to worry about whether or not their heads are next on the chopping block. It is also not the smartest thing to downsize strictly on cost. There is the old saying, “you get what you pay for.” But you cannot go bankrupt with a workforce that is not needed. You need to cut, but also need to create loyalty.
So in light of the modern work place, how do you create loyalty? Tech companies have done a great job of creating fantastic cultures. They organize great team bonding experiences. They take care of each others’ families. In other words, the best companies create an atmosphere of family. Work is not just something you show up to for a set period of hours. They reward their top employees and are very up front with employee feedback so that when an employee is let go, there is no surprise. In fact, because of the timely feedback, employees have time to look for other options when it is apparent a change needs to happen as opposed to this scenario: the employee works hard and the only feedback he gets is the boss walking by saying, “great job.” He thinks he is doing great work that is valued. Next thing he knows, it is a Friday and he receives the news that he is being let go. Now he has to scramble to find another job and face the stress and uncertainty of adjusting to this last minute life change. The added problem with this approach is the rest of your employees are going to talk. They will say, “wow, Joe was let go today. I wonder if I am next?” The biggest consequence of this sequence of events is that your best employees will decide it is time to look for other opportunities. However, if you create an atmosphere where you reward loyalty and provide honest, direct feedback, you instill more loyalty and when you do need to downsize, it is done with dignity and does not erode the loyalty of the others who remain.
But the economy and the way we have done business has changed. Employers have long looked out for the best interest of their respective companies. Now workers are doing what is best for them. The internet, the ability to freelance through sites such as odesk and fiverr, and a new culture of entrepreneurialism means that employees will always be looking out for what is in their best interest. It is not personal. It is just business. You can always create loyalty, but it will never be the same as it was 30 years ago. It is not dead, it is just different.