Sunday, March 04, 2007

What Should I Expect from my Employer and What do I Owe that Employer?

Sean has a great new job, but takes special note of the terms of his new employment:

This hit home with me [Sean writes on his blog] especially when I got the official offer letter from my new employer that, basically, said 'We make no commitment to you about length of employment and you make no commitment to us.'

He invited comments on this, and the comment I posted was to effect that this is the way it is in the real world. Others commented pretty much along the same lines.

But then, I got to wondering about whether we had pitched that truth a little too harshly (i.e. "this is the way that it is in the real world"), so much so that it may not even be generally true. As I am an employer (my huge operation employs 14, including myself), I got to thinking about whether we have a commitment to our employees about the length of his or her employment, even though there is no written contract that specifies a certain term and even though we are in an "at will situation". That commitment, which is more about loyalty than merely length of employment (because what we are really talking about, I think, is loyalty) includes, but is not certainly not limited to, the following:

1. We have sick days. We commit to employ through illness to a reasonable extent and have made provision for it.

2. Along the same lines, we have health insurance to help the employee keep healthy so the employee can keep working.

3. We have vacation days, so that the employee can rest.

4. We have continuing education seminars, some that even the receptionist will attend. Though this helps the employee help us better, it makes the employee more marketable outside our firm.

5. We cut the employee some slack in extraordinary situations. For example, one of our staff several years ago was in such a nasty divorce that she had to be escorted to the courthouse by a policeman and we were advised by our security consultant to fire her because of the risk that her spouse might come to the office and do damage. We didn't do that, but kept her employed. We paid money for extra security for ourselves and tolerated her skydive in performance, the general firm disruption and additional cost of extra management time. She made it through the divorce and the crisis ended. (Whereupon, she promptly moved out of the state!)

6. We accommodate changes in schedule that our employees require from time to time.

So I think I would define the problem to which Sean's post alludes as the problem of loyalty. Sean should expect some loyalty, despite an "at will" arrangement. And I think that he will get it. As he gets into the job and shows his mettle, he should expect that the extent of his employer's loyalty will increase, in one form or the other. It is reasonable for Sean to have that expectation, and if he doesn't seen that develop in his employer, then it may be time to look for another one.

On the other hand, as an employer I expect some loyalty. We have largely been rewarded but sometimes disappointed. Last year, two fine staff people, into whom we had poured a lot of training, left us for a competitor. They said they left because they would be paid more at the other firm. But they never gave us a chance to respond to the offer they received. (Were we naive in thinking that they, out of some sort of sense of loyalty, would have told us about their dissatisfaction?)

We never had a chance to check the market and find out if, indeed, we were falling behind. (We should have been checking the market, and are trying to do a better job on that now. I concede that a more astute employer would have been checking this all along.) (In the case of the job category of one of them, we were a little behind, which we promptly fixed in the case of those left at the firm. In the case of the other, we were not behind, although she thought we were behind - she apparently had not run the numbers correctly.). Losing these two fine staff caused great disruption, and we still have a sense that we were not appropriately treated by them.

So I don't expect to tell an employee that he or she has a one, two, or three year contract, and I don't expect him or her to commit to one, two or three years. But each side should expect some consideration for the other, consideration that finally boils down to the idea of loyalty. No employer in his right mind will consciously design a job situation that will drive away a good employee. And an employee's promise to remain for a given term will not keep a fine employee there for very long if he or she is not happy. We all know that there are many things that make the employment relationship work, among them are mutual respect, hard work, fair pay, the opportunty to grow, and some "slack" when one side or the other side runs into difficulty. So contract arrangements that do not describe fixed terms of service are probably not very important, after all.

UPDATE: Carol read this post and we discussed the matter of the two staff members who left our firm last year. She observed that a departing employee will sometimes say that he or she is leaving for another job because the other job pays more money when, in fact, the employee has other issues with the present job that are too difficult or personal to discuss. She thinks that this may have been the case with the two people who left our firm. It was simply easier for them to discuss the issue in terms of economics rather than other terms, perhaps in an effort to spare feelings at our firm.


Sean said...

your perspective as an employer is interesting, Paul.

my biggest complaint with my previous employer was their seeming total lack of interest in retaining me.

when i gave my two weeks' notice, they asked if they could do anything to keep me.

they couldn't have. the new job is superior in every way.

but when i mentioned the 3 weeks of vacation (v. 2), my regional manager said 'now i can get you an extra week of vacation.'

too litle, too late.

my point: if they had showed more interest in retaining me - if they had even said 'we want to keep you. what can we do?', if they'd tried to develop me, if they'd cast a vision for a good promotional track (which i didn't see at all), if they'd given that extra week of vacation, and, yes, if they'd offered more money sooner - i might not have looked so hard for another job.

Paul Stokes said...

There is a lot to say about your comment, Sean; a lot of truth and insight for any employer to consider. As I mentioned in the post, we failed to be watchful about helping keep up with the market as far as salaries are concerned. We also need to help our staff not only to do the job we hired them to do, but also to see that the job will grow with them or that the firm itself will grow and we will need the sort of experienced and gifted people that we expect them to become. You can put no relationship on "auto-pilot", whether it is with your wife or your children, your employer or your staff. One day, sooner than you can imagine, you will be someone's boss at work. Your experiences to date will serve you well.

Scott said...

(I had trouble posting earlier...user error.)

I think it will be interesting to watch employment trends as the Boomers retire and the emerging culture takes "control." The emerging culture generally has a greater disdain for institutions and will value relationships over them.

Employers who work at the relational dynamic of the workplace, as well as being fair in other respects (e.g. $$, extra week vacation), will likely have higher employee retention than those who remain too busy or simply avoid the efforts required to build and sustain relationships.