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August 29, 2014 at 4:10 AM

Workplace loyalty: Should I stay or should I go?

 

By Lora Shinn / Special to NWjobs

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Despite being in an industry known for job-hopping, Andrea Klassen, 39, has worked for the same big tech company for nearly 16 years. While the larger entity has gone through layoffs and restructuring, Klassen’s small Seattle office has endured and remained tight-knit — she even met her husband on the job.

Since starting at the firm, Klassen has progressed into a leadership position. Among the reasons she stays put: good pay and benefits, an easy commute and flexibility that’s vital to a working mom. “If I don’t have a full eight hours in the office, I can work later to make up for it,” she says.

Klassen, who didn’t want her real name used, is one of a re-emerging number of workers who are committed to their employers. According to an annual MetLife study, the number of employees who felt “very loyal” to their employers dropped precipitously, from 60 percent to just over 40 percent, during the period of 2008–11. But in the past two years, that number has climbed; more than 50 percent of employees declared themselves very loyal in 2013.

In the academic world, loyalty is referred to as “organizational commitment,” says Tom Lee, a University of Washington professor who has studied commitment for more than 30 years. “We have a strong psychological need to have a connection to things — people, family, organization. We want this connection.”

Yet a stint of two to five years with an employer is fairly standard. The median number of years workers have been with their current employer was 4.6 in January 2012, the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Most people are likely to leave in their first three years of work,” Lee says. “Top-level management expects employees to turn over.” Loyalty today often means commitment while employed, he says — not just clocking in and out, but staying an hour longer or putting in extra effort.

Loyalty expectations vary by industry

Tech and other fast-paced businesses “need constant new creativity, new information and new blood to keep up,” says Susan Stringer, a Bellevue career consultant. As a result, tech companies accept more turnover, particularly in comparison to manufacturing, banking and other traditional industries, where loyalty is sometimes prized more highly. Traditional employers “value people who know what they’re doing, who have a deeper understanding” of their jobs and industry, Stringer says.

Employers wanting to instill loyalty might offer stellar pay, stock options, sabbaticals or educational benefits, such as paying for an MBA, Stringer says.

But research points out that workers are more likely to stay if tasks and responsibilities are fun and engaging, and the employee is offered autonomy or personal freedom, Lee says.

One Seattle-area business, Gravity Payments, is finding innovative ways to seed loyalty by developing leaders internally using an in-house mentoring program, offering aggressive raises and empowering employees to make major decisions. Of course, the fun bonuses — including unlimited vacation days, catered lunches and breakfasts, and subsidized gym, transportation and education — don’t hurt, either.

How long is too long?

Nonetheless, even if things are good, “loyalty carried to an extreme can be a problem,” Stringer says. When you stop learning and growing, you need to move on, she says.

“Valuable employees look up every 18 months to three years,” Stringer says, and ask themselves whether they are being challenged, and if not, what needs to change. Every five to seven years, she recommends looking at whether your job still suits your long-term strategy or you need to set a new career goal.

Klassen’s husband, for example, grew frustrated with his professional trajectory, despite being with their mutual employer for more than a decade. “He wanted the title of architect, and he wasn’t able to get the title he wanted at our workplace,” she says. His new employer was all too happy to accommodate.

The job security from the couple’s now-diversified employment is reassuring to Klassen, who plans to stay loyal to her current job — at least for the time being.

More in Workplace Topics | Topics: benefits, career advancement, HR

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