Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
An unsettling number of people are confused about what kind of loyalty they owe their employers.
I regularly receive letters asking whether it would be disloyal to look for a new job (as if an employer is a romantic partner an employee would be cheating on) from people who feel guilty about leaving their jobs for a better offer and also from people who would like to quit but feel obligated to stay because “we’re so busy right now” or “another key person on my team left recently.”
It’s not that people shouldn’t have any loyalty to their employers. It’s reasonable to have some allegiance to the company that employs you and signs your paychecks! But people get the balance wrong in ways that disproportionately harm themselves while benefiting their companies.
Take this person, for example, whose company cut her salary, yet she still worries about being a “traitor” if she leaves:
The company is undergoing dramatic financial issues and last week management cut everyone’s salary by 10% to preserve our financial stability. … Management is adamant that this difficult time is for staff to “give back” to the company and make sacrifices for the whole.
All my friends and family say I should run, quit, and find a new job ASAP. I feel hesitant because I did really like my job before this happened and felt like I had a career trajectory at this company. I’m also struggling to determine if I owe it to the company to stay, put in the work, and weather the storm of 2020 for $3,000 less a year than what I was making. … Am I a traitor if I leave?
This person sees her company struggling financially and knows she should start looking for another job but worries that other employers will think she’s being disloyal when she interviews:
I’ve been working at my current organization for 12 months, and generally enjoy my job. Recently however, the organization has lost a major contract and rumors are rife that other large contracts will be pulled too. … I want to start a job search just in case things do get worse, but I am worried this will make me look flaky to potential employers, particularly when expressing why I want to leave my current job. I’m concerned that telling the truth and saying I’m worried about my job security will look like I’m being very disloyal to my current employer for jumping ship before it potentially sinks.
In a particularly impressive display of chutzpah, this company tried to demand loyalty from a job candidate who wasn’t even working for it yet:
My partner recently interviewed at a potential employer. The feedback was good, and he has now heard from his recruiter that they are going to make an offer. However, the recruiter also said that the employer asked that my partner “show loyalty” and stop interviewing for other roles while they put the offer package together.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this idea of workplace loyalty is largely a one-way street. Employers don’t tend to sacrifice their own financial interests to protect their employees. When budgets are tight, they lay people off. If an employee isn’t meeting their work requirements, their job is likely in jeopardy. That’s not to say managers don’t ever struggle with those decisions—they often do—but ultimately, employers act for their own benefit. And that’s not a criticism! These are business relationships; both sides are supposed to be able to walk away without significant guilt when the arrangement no longer works to their advantage. Yet workers often struggle with that in a way that employers don’t.
The problems with misplaced loyalty play out in other ways too. You’ll find a particularly dysfunctional version in companies that like to proclaim, “We’re like a family here!” While one can, of course, have warm and caring relationships with one’s colleagues, companies aren’t families. Most obviously, families don’t (usually) fire their members. More insidiously, though, “we’re like family here” often means employees will be expected to prioritize the company above their own interests by doing things like working long hours, accepting lower pay, and, you know, not unionizing, and will be expected to be loyal to the company in ways that won’t be returned. Because “family”! (I’ve long believed that if an interviewer ever tells you their company is “like a family,” you should strongly consider running.)
But it can be tough as an employee to shed these beliefs about loyalty, damaging as they are. That’s especially true if you’re a conscientious worker who truly likes your colleagues and your company. In most other areas of life, when we like people and spend a lot of time with them, a duty of loyalty does develop, so it’s confusing when the rules are different at work. Ultimately, though, we’re paid to be at work, and the relationship—while it may be warm and supportive and even a source of real joy and satisfaction—should last only as long as it remains in both parties’ best interests.
It’s also important for employees to stay really clear about what loyalty does and doesn’t demand. You do owe your employer some things: You owe good work, clear communication, professionalism, and a reasonable amount of notice when you decide to leave. You don’t owe your employer all your weekends or a lifelong commitment to stay or the sacrifice of healthy boundaries. You’re trading your labor for money, and the clearer you can be about the nature of the relationship, the better.