A few of the more traditional leaders I’ve worked with recently have complained about the younger members of their staff. They are upset at what they see as a reduced level of loyalty. In the old days, they say, we were like a family but the younger generation don’t seem to want or respect this. They are too quick to jump ship for another company or they lack the same level of commitment as the older members of the team. I’m not sure whether this is one of the typical generational stereotypes that often get thrown about or whether there is in fact a demise of the concept of our employer being a family. I really hope it’s the latter. We are not our employees’ family. We never have been. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s healthy.
For all of the nice stuff about being a family, the sense of belonging, the long term-relationships with colleagues we care deeply about, the loyalty and pride that we feel, there are several reasons why we should stop presenting the relationship with our employees in this way.
The thing about your family is that, even when times are tough, we don’t tend to get rid of them, even if we’d like to! We’re being dishonest when we welcome our employees to their new family because, if we have to – for financial or performance reasons – we’ll discard them. 225 million jobs were lost globally in the first year of the pandemic and whilst this will have been really painful for many company leaders, in the end, they still do it.
Companies that present themselves as a family tend to engage in some practices that are unhealthy for both the company and the employee.
There’s a tendency to see a resignation as a betrayal. One boss I had didn’t speak to me for six weeks after I told him I was leaving. This is so short-sighted. Smarter companies recognise that people leaving is part and parcel of the employer-employee relationship and make it ok for people to do it. In fact, they go further than that. They nurture their alumni and ensure that they can come back – with new skills, fresh perspectives and experiences – that can add more value to both parties than if the person had stayed. Da Vita Healthcare, for example, regularly hire back people from their alumni. Around 15% of new hires have worked there before.
Conversely, it becomes a given that employees will stay with us, that long tenure is the ultimate goal. Think about what we celebrate. We give out awards or extra holiday for long-service, we monitor and reprimand managers with high churn rates, we devise retention schemes to keep people with us. Now of course, we should thank people for their loyalty. But equally, shouldn’t we prize those people who don’t stay forever? Who purposely limit their time with us because they value variety and new challenges?
I once worked with a guy who would only accept two-year contracts because he worried that if he accepted a permanent contract he would start to feel too settled and he would become wedded to his employer. He worried that he could become scared of the prospect of having to leave and find another job. And that this would drive unhealthy behaviours; that he’d be more concerned about clinging to his job than doing a great one. If we stop thinking about ourselves as a family where leaving isn’t ever talked about, we can have healthier conversations about the need to move on, to keep skills and mindsets fresh. Whenever I’ve worked with long-serving employees, there is always a high percentage of them who seem unhappy, resentful almost. Like an unhappy marriage where the couple are miserable but lack the confidence to leave. We need to have healthier conversations with our people about how leaving isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We should openly talk about a healthy average time in role to prevent the relationship getting stale. I love the LinkedIn concept of Tours of Duty, where it’s not just acknowledged that you won’t stay forever, but positively welcomed.
Whilst seeing our employer as our family has some negative consequences, I’m not saying it’s a relationship that should be purely transactional either. Of course, there should be warmth and kindness. But being kind is not about pretending there’s a job for life and avoiding difficult conversations. Kindness means having those honest conversations and being truthful about the relationship. I think the ultimate kindness we can show our people is to work with them to make sure they can remain employable in the future, with us possibly, but more importantly, somewhere else. Both the employer and the employee have a responsibility to keep their skills fresh, but more importantly, that they don’t see their future as interminably linked to us. We can work together to ensure they retain the confidence and the appetite to leave.