A manager at one of my first jobs once told me that they “threw people under the bus and drove it too.” The moment has stuck with me ever since — a comment so flippantly cruel that it was branded on my brain. When I asked the manager what they meant, they said that lower-level employees’ responsibility was to make managers look good and, as my manager also explained, take the blame and “get in trouble” when things went wrong. We were, in other words, supposed to give our all for the company and take a dive for it if necessary. That was the moment I realized company loyalty was a one-way street.
I’ve heard many similar stories from my newsletter readers about managers and executives who weren’t simply disloyal, but considered their employees interchangeable. They demanded loyalty, but gave none in return. Whenever I read or write about the Great Resignation, these stories always come to mind.
Whether it’s corporations freaking out that remote work causes a “culture crisis” of employee disloyalty, or employers incorrectly assuming that they’ve done enough to address their workers’ concerns about the pandemic, much of the discourse around the Great Resignation is focused on the loyalty that companies expect from their employees and the collective shock among management when that loyalty dries up. Companies’ lack of compassion, investment, and commitment to their staffs has been laid bare during the pandemic. And now employers are terrified, because employees are realizing a fact that companies have understood for years, but tried to hide: Work is an exchange of labor for money. It is a transaction, not a relationship.
Workers are asking, why should I be loyal to my employer? Why did I ever think this way? And with the power dynamics in the labor market flipped, employers have no good answers for them.
The loyalty lie
Employers’ sense that workers are becoming less loyal is well founded. Employee loyalty dropped during the pandemic and has hit a “breaking point.” But employers’ are misdiagnosing why employees have become less engaged in their work. They blame remote work, and their best idea to improve loyalty is to simply “listen to the needs of the labor market and adapt quickly.”
Allow me to be blunt: The real reason workers are ditching their employers is because the pandemic provided a vivid demonstration of how little corporations care about their employees. The Washington Post found that while the vast majority of the 50 largest companies in the US turned a profit since March 2020, more than half also laid off workers — shedding tens of thousands of jobs while pocketing billions of dollars for shareholders. Wage theft — paying people below minimum wage, making them work extra hours without pay, or otherwise not paying workers what they are owed — is an $8 billion-a-year crime against workers that never seems to attract the same attention as luxury boutiques being raided. Workers at companies as large as The New York Times and Kellogg’s were forced to strike to secure even meager improvements in working conditions and salaries.
And despite millions of workers embracing the flexibility and benefits of remote work, corporations have continued to push hard for people to return to the office, even during the Omicron surge. Companies have spread lies about remote work waylaying young people’s careers and pushed a campaign to suppress remote work because it’s far easier to go back to the way things were than to improve the current reality.
Throughout the pandemic, workers were treated significantly worse by the government than their employers were. Companies had nearly half a trillion dollars of Paycheck Protection Program funds forgiven while stimulus checks for households were restricted based on income. And corporate America did little to help their employees fill the financial gaps left by the government’s piecemeal aid.
Workers are taught to “climb the corporate ladder” and to stay with a company for at least a year to prove that they’re not flaky job-hoppers. We’re taught as kids that loyalty to a company is good and that we’ll be rewarded for our hard work with bonuses, promotions, and perks. But when the pandemic hit, what did employers do? Four percent of employers dropped an insurance benefit within a few months, and despite getting PPP loans, many still laid off workers.
Loyalty is something companies have to earn, not expect
Perhaps it’s easier if you consider the inverse of the situation. Imagine a worker who half-assed their work, kept their workspace a total mess, and did the bare minimum to keep their job. Would you expect a company to be loyal to that person? No? Then why should workers be loyal to companies that pay loyal employees 50% less, barely invest in training workers, and fail to keep salaries in line with the ballooning costs of healthcare?
Corporations love to talk about employee loyalty, but so rarely do they return that loyalty. But when employees finally get fed up, companies scramble to try and blame worker turnover on anything other than their own actions. Figuring out why workers aren’t loyal is not a black box that requires the opinions of eight HR experts. It simply requires the understanding that loyalty is earned, not owed.
Despite what some may have you believe, it is very easy to foster loyal workers. Pay employees well, and on time. When problems are created by the company or management, offer an actual apology and some sort of compensation. Set reasonable hours and give fair vacation time.
And, I repeat, pay them well.
MIT Sloan Management Review recently published a thorough study about worker attrition. The researchers found that apparel retailers had a 19% attrition rate, meaning roughly one in five workers left the company over a six-month period. Fast-food restaurants, research hospitals, and the hotel-leisure industry all had an 11% attrition rate. According to the study, the top reasons people quit were toxic corporate culture and job insecurity or reorganizations.
Somehow it took a vast study analyzing 34 million workers to show that people don’t want to work at a place with a terrible culture and where people are fired all the time. People are not quitting their jobs because of a newfound rebalancing of their priorities, or because they’re reevaluating their lifestyles; they’re quitting because the conditions they are working under are not worth the amount of money they’re being paid.
This entire conversation has been intentionally obfuscated by the corporate entities that stand to benefit from the status quo. The reason there are so many articles that treat mass resignations as a mystery to be solved is that corporations do not want to improve conditions for workers, as they believe that they are owed access to labor at the wages they want to pay.
The furor over the Great Resignation isn’t about workers suddenly becoming unfeeling cynics leaving the companies that nurtured them; it’s a capitalist tantrum from corporations being told to clean up their rooms. These companies are furious that they have to do anything other than keep people off the unemployment rolls in order to get the labor they want and the loyalty they’ve come to expect. What we’re seeing is the largest act of hypocrisy in corporate history: companies complaining that they can’t have unfettered access to loyal, reliable workers who they’re then allowed to disregard any time it suits them. And the so-called “Great Resignation” is going to continue until companies decide to extend to workers the same kind of loyalty, consistency, and value they expect in return.