It’s the meeting request no leader looks forward to seeing in their inbox.
Your most talented team member wants to see you, on short notice, and with no advance agenda. Intuitively you know exactly what it’s about. Even then you aren’t quite sure how to react when they say those words, “I’m leaving for another opportunity.”
Dealing with employee turnover has always been part of a leader’s job. An unpleasant reality that you hoped wouldn’t happen more than once or twice a year. But then came the Great Resignation and suddenly it seemed like employee loyalty evaporated overnight. Resignations became a monthly, even weekly, event. And there appears to be no end in sight. A cheery 2022 McKinsey and Co. survey predicts that some 40% of workers globally are considering leaving their job before the end of this year.
Is Employee Loyalty Gone for Good?
What’s behind this surge in job switchers? Look no further than the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on work life. As employees spent more time at home and less time in commute, the importance of wellbeing, flexibility, and work life balance came into focus. Worker priorities shifted, driving a values-driven exodus across many industries. Other workers abandoned industries they saw as unstable – hospitality, airlines, and food service. And, many seeking employers that weren’t struggling with massive declines in demand, supply chain disruptions, and frequent rounds of layoffs caused by the pandemic.
As leaders scrambled to adjust, many reasonably wondered, “If employee defection has been caused by the pandemic, won’t it subside as Covid-19 comes under control?” The answer to that question is almost certainly “No.” Multiple studies strongly suggest that the pandemic has changed the job market permanently and that we are just at the beginning of a sustained trendline.
The Decline of Delayed Gratification
For an example of this change, look at how we have traditionally motivated worker tenure. Employee loyalty strategies have long been predicated on a single notion – the power of delayed gratification. Managerial bonuses aren’t granted at the time of promotion, but months later. Sales and performance-based incentives structured to be continually earned but only periodically distributed. Expansive paid time off or other vested benefits are only available only after years of commitment (Stay here 20 years and you’ll get that sweet assigned parking space!). Approaches like these were intentionally designed to sustain motivation and retention through the promise of a delayed pay-out.
This all works so long as delayed gratification remains a constant human experience. But there’s the problem. In our consumer-driven world, delayed gratification has all but disappeared. Nearly any product we can think of can be on our doorstep in 48 hours or less. News and information are available to us 24 hours a day with the tap of a finger. We can even watch the entirety of a newly released TV series in one straight 8-hour binge session. Delayed gratification is no more.
Yet when it comes to our team members, we expect to get behavior now in exchange for a payout in the distant future. If your employee sees that the pay, promotion, or new experience they’re seeking is achievable by simply switching jobs, the right decision seems clear. We don’t fault customers for choosing the more immediate benefit whenever possible. So, why are we faulting these same humans in their roles as employees for doing the same? Especially when those workers who do stay with their current job are likely paying a tax for that loyalty.
The Rise of the Consumerist Employee
Another critical shift is clear when we examine geographic location as a factor in job switching. The last three years have proven the efficacy of remote work, eliminating the need to live where we work, and vice versa. That one shift alone has expanded job searches from a local to a global endeavor.
On top of this, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are currently more than 10 million unfilled jobs just in the US alone. The result of this explosion in choice for workers has had one significant effect. As employees consider their newly vast job options, they are responding in the most familiar way they know how – as consumers.
This should not be a surprise. Humans in general now function as consumers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We not only expect immediately gratification, but we are constantly weighing an overabundance of choices available for goods, entertainment, news, technology, and personal services. We are evaluating those decisions based on price, value, proximity, and speed of access to determine who is most deserving of our business. As a result, brand loyalty has become harder to earn and even more challenging to keep.
It only follows, then, that those same consumers are making similar calculations in terms of employment options. Faced with a multitude of new job choices, they are continually weighing a decision to stay or leave. And they are basing that decision on a consumer calculation of where the greatest value is for them, how quickly they can access it, and which employer deserves their time and talents.
This is where traditional employee loyalty approaches are breaking down.
Think Like a Marketer
Understanding that employees are making consumer-based decisions in today’s job market should radically shift our approach to employee loyalty. But before we can consider strategies to address this shift, let’s confront the word loyalty itself. What do we mean by “employee loyalty?”
For decades, the loyal employee has been thought of as the individual who provides unwavering services to a business either until they retire or until the business decides they no longer need them. Responsibility for employee loyalty has been placed primarily on the worker to make the commitment to stay at a single organization for an indefinite amount of time. When an employee leaves, the leader wonders, “Why weren’t they more loyal to me or the company?”
But if we apply our consumer-based lens, we see how limited this view is. A marketer dealing with an issue of customer attrition would rarely focus on asking “Why aren’t our customers loyal?” Instead, they would ask “Why aren’t our customer strategies earning greater loyalty?” Loyalty in this context is viewed as a two-way street, and the marketer understands that both parties need to see value at all times for the relationship to be sustainable.
In this vein, in order for loyalty to be a meaningful term in today’s job market, leaders need to ask themselves, “Why is our culture not earning more employee loyalty?” Whether looking at the issue of declining employee loyalty or it’s close cousin “quiet quitting,” the responsibility for these outcomes lies not just with the employee, but with the organization as well.
Earning Loud Loyalty
Here’s the good news. By understanding this shift in mindset and accepting our role as leaders in solving the problem, we can aim for an even better outcome. Rather than simply accepting the legacy definition of loyalty (employees staying at their job as long as we need them to) we can replace it with something more powerful and more meaningful for both parties – Loud Loyalty.
Loud Loyalty occurs when:
- The employee and the business recognize they are in a reciprocal relationship where the effort and benefits are shared equally by both sides on a continual basis.
- Tenure as a measure of loyalty is no longer emphasized, and instead replaced with recognition focused on efforts that continually contribute to the company’s goals, the employee’s career objectives, and to a shared intention to live into company culture
- Advocacy for the employee experience becomes a daily commitment. For the leader, this means advocating for the work environment that uplifts your teams and empowers them to bring their best selves to the work. For employees, it means being vocal advocates of the company as a great place to work and taking a role in attracting other talented people to that work.
Embracing Inevitable Exits
Yes, there is a way for us to get better at earning and sustaining employee loyalty. But we also ultimately need to acknowledge reality: the world has changed and no matter what we do, employee tenures are going to get shorter and shorter. It’s expected that the Class of 2022 will change jobs up to 10 times before they turn 34. That new normal of navigating the job market is upon us, and it is likely here to stay.
But, if your organization does Loud Loyalty well, when people leave (because they are going to leave) you will have created a dedicated alumni network. For those employees, Loud Loyalty will sustain itself longer than their time spent at your organization, and continue as they move out into the large job market and as they advance into their careers.
Those employees will be the ones referring people to you when you have open job opportunities. They’ll be connecting back to you with possible business opportunities with their new employers. And, perhaps they will one day return to your organization in a different facet, bringing new experience and talents to benefit your goals.
That’s the beauty of Loud Loyalty. When you receive that meeting request that you know is going to be about a resignation, you understand it’s not the end of the relationship, but the start of the next phase. When that reciprocal dynamic exists, employees leave, but they don’t disappear. They graduate and become the distinguished alumni of your organization.