Loyalty: How Much? to Whom?

By Holloman, Russ | Industrial Management, May/June 1991 | Go to article overview

Loyalty: How Much? to Whom?


Holloman, Russ, Industrial Management


The owner-manager of a local business recently complained to me that one of his key employees had left to work for a competitor. "I'm looking for a replacement who will be loyal," he said. He said that he wanted a person who would stay with him, somebody who was not always looking for greener grass.

Was the employee who left -- for a better position, better pay whatever -- disloyal to his former employer? Is "loyalty" the right word to describe the desired relationship between persons and their employers? Is loyalty what organizations need from employees? Or is it honesty, integrity, and a willingness to go an extra mile in giving their time, energy, judgments, and ideas in the best interests of the organization? Do people owe all these things to their employer, and loyalty too?

It is inarguable that when we work for an organization we must not subvert or sabotage its activities. More positively, we must spend the required time on the job producing a quantity of quality goods or services. But these things can be bought, since we must perform them as a condition of continued employment. Loyalty is something apart from the performance of required duties; loyalty cannot be bought --it can only be earned. Loyalty expects no recompense. I can refuse an attractive offer from another organization, even when my employer makes no counteroffer. I can defend my organization when it is being criticized or maligned. I can transfer to an out-of-town branch when a vacancy occurs there. All these actions are morally permissible for me to do, but they are not morally obligatory as an expression of my loyalty. No one has a general obligation of loyalty to an organization, even though it is demanded and expected.

We typically face two problems in any discussion of loyalty. One has to do with defining or characterizing loyalty itself; the other has to do with the question of to whom we owe it. Generally, we think of loyalty as being "faithful to a person, government, cause, or duty." We go to work each day, expected to produce a quantity and a quality of work over a prescribed period of time. We do this, but for reasons other than loyalty. We are supportive of the organization's goals and processes, but not because of loyalty. Loyalty is not something to give to or be expected by an organization. Loyalty is something we give to ourselves. If I did not do the best job I can possibly do for Augusta College, I would be disloyal to myself. When I work nights and weekends preparing lectures and grading papers, I am not being loyal to Augusta College; I am being loyal to myself -- the person making the sacrifice.

Likewise, any organization that keeps an employee on the payroll, in spite of a mediocre work record, simply because the employee has 20 or 10 years of service can hardly claim to be motivated by loyalty alone. If the organization is loyal to this employee what happens to its loyalty to its other employees, its stockholders, and to itself? What is often mistaken for corporate loyalty is nothing but paternalism which, even when it is benevolent, engenders feelings of dependency and loss of real security.

The second problem in discussing loyalty is the possible consequences of too much loyalty. There is a noticeable lack of thought and research on the possible negative consequences of having overly committed employees. It may seem like heresy, but there are some real threats for an organization that operates with an unnecessarily high level of commitment from its members. Our own experiences tell us that such an organization resists change and becomes less creative.

Employees can have such complete trust in the organization's goals and policies that they never ask questions or offer suggestions. In extreme cases, overly committed employees commit unethical or illegal acts to benefit their organization. …

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