Workplace Loyalty


By Mark Grzeskowiak

When I was at university, I would sometimes hitch a ride to my parents' house with my sister, "Susan." She ran in an in-house printing shop for an advertising company. It was the height of the 90s dot-com boom. I knew things were going well for the company, because of the jukebox in the reception area.

It wasn't just any jukebox. It was a full-on, 1950s jukebox, and right next to it was a paper cup that was always filled with nickels. Visitors and employees alike were encouraged to drop a nickel in the jukebox and let the music echo through the office. The reception area also had a soda vending machine and candy vending machine.

That jukebox seemed to represent everything that was good about Susan's company. It was a small company that asked a lot of its employees, but no one looked stressed or unhappy. Whenever someone went to the jukebox, they'd pick a song, grab a chocolate bar or a soda, and make jokes. Sometimes someone from the other end of the office would shout their approval or disapproval of the selection ("Ah, not that song again!" "Someone get Lou away from the jukebox!"), and the cheerful banter went back and forth.

Strangely, despite the hours and the heavy workload, people were loyal to the company. I'm sure it wasn't just the jukebox, but I believe it played an important part.

The concept of workplace loyalty goes back to Middle Ages, when peasants worked the land in exchange for protection by the landowner. It was, in essence, a contract for life. Obviously the content and term of that contractual obligation has changed a bit over the years, but when we talk about workplace loyalty today, we mean pretty much the same thing. In exchange for our hard work and dedication, our employer would do her or his best to protect us from the dictates of a brutally competitive global economy, where layoffs, cutbacks, and constant "restructuring" are the norm.

Things have changed. Technology has made many jobs redundant. People, somewhere else in the world, are willing to do our work at a tenth of the price. And yet, despite this reality, our expectations and sense of entitlement remain. A whole industry has sprouted up around the legalities of a wrongful dismissal. Others walk away from a job the moment their employer can no longer meet their expectations.

Neither party appears willing to maintain their end of the contract. It's a serious situation, not only for employees who have to cope with the uncertainties of the economy and a lack of financial security, but also for employers, who have to deal with a shortage of skilled labor, while keeping an eye on competitors looking to poach their workers.

Some employers use money, incentives, and perks as a way around the problem. "Look," they say to their employees, "we can't change the fact that your job isn't secure, but we can guarantee you an excellent salary, stock options, and training while you to work for us." At the other end of the spectrum, many employees have taken on a mercenary mentality.

These arrangements may reflect the realities of the day, but are they effective? Something tells me that maintaining loyalty in the workplace on the basis of incentives alone, or even maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of the tough realities of the global economy, is not enough. This brings me back to the jukebox.

It's possible that many of the incentives mentioned above were in place at my sister's company. I was, after all, only an observer sitting in the reception area waiting for my sister at the end of the day. But then again, there's something to be said for an outsider's perspective.

While observing the employees interact around the jukebox at my sister's company, it struck me that the greatest motivator may simply be ensuring that employees enjoy themselves at work. I'd even suggest that if they enjoy their jobs, they'd also learn to enjoy each other's company. And when you think about it – do friends really need a reason to do things for each other? They don't. They do things for each other, because they like to do things for their friends.

That's why I think of that jukebox whenever I think of workplace loyalty. It was the catalyst for something special. It didn't last, but what does?

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