Human Resources News & Insights

The most overrated trait of the decade

Was there really ever a time when people felt loyal to their employers? And is loyalty actually what you’re looking for?

Everybody’s heard the talk about how loyalty has vanished from the employment relationship — on both sides. Back in the day, the narrative goes, employers treated workers like family, and there was a bond between management and workers that went beyond day-to-day productivity.

In a recent post on Knowledge@Wharton, the blog of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, several professors commented on the state of employee attitudes today.

Management professor Adam Cobb says it’s all about the power:

“When you are talking about loyalty in the workplace, you have to think about it as a reciprocal exchange,” he says. “My loyalty to the firm is contingent on my firm’s loyalty to me.

“But there is one party in that exchange which has tremendously more power, and that is the firm.”

Cobb sees the 1980s as the beginning of the end for worker loyalty: “You started to see healthy firms laying off workers, mainly for shareholder value.” Health insurance costs started to be shifted to employees; pension funds shuttered in favor of 401(k) plans.

“The trend was toward having the risks be borne by workers instead of firms,” Cobb said. “If I’m an employee, that’s a signal to me that I’m not going to let firms control my career.”

Where does their loyalty really lie?

Management professor Matthew Bidwill notes that “there is less a sense that your organization is going to look after you in the way that it used to — which would lead you to expect a reduction in loyalty as well.”

But here’s where he veers off the traditional view: Bidwill’s not sure employees were ever all that loyal to their organizations, no matter what the economic climate.

“Employees are often more loyal to those around them — their manager, their colleagues, maybe their clients. These employees have a sense of professionalism — and loyalty — that relates to the work they do more than to the company.”

Bingo: There’s the opportunity for employers to strengthen their relationship with workers.

Loyalty vs. engagement

It’s pretty clear: In today’s workplace, loyalty and engagement are two different things.

Study after study has shown what makes people stay with their current employer. A checklist:

  • interesting, challenging work
  • opportunities for advancement and learning
  • collegial workforce
  • fair compensation
  • a respected manager
  • recognition for accomplishment
  • feeling a valued member of a team
  • a substantial benefits package
  • the feeling their work “makes a difference,” and
  • overall pride in the company’s mission and its products.

Loyalty doesn’t seem to play a very big role on that wish list.

What your managers can do

There’s certainly no dearth of opinions about how managers motivate, nurture and reward employees — and make them want to stick around.

But many of these theories stress the nuts and bolts of manager behavior – as in, “you need to praise at least three employees in your department every day.”

That approach tends to overlook the key issue: What do employees want from their job on an emotional level?

Here’s a rundown of the things the experts say resonate most with employees — and make them want to stick around:

  • Clear expectations. Pretty simple: Workers want to know exactly what they’re responsible for, and what they’ll be judged on.
  • A sense of control. Employees aren’t robots. They need to feel they have the power to decide how their jobs can be completed — and the freedom to suggest how tasks can be simplified or streamlined.
  • Feeling they’re “in the loop.” Employees not only wish to know – and have input on – what’s going on in their department, but what’s happening in the business as a whole.
    And they want to be secure in their understanding of how what they do on a day-to-day basis fits into the overall operation — now and in the future.
  • Room to grow. These include potential promotions, extra training, learning new skills and the possibility of using those new skills in a different area of the company.
  • Recognition. Everyone wants to believe their extra effort won’t go unnoticed — or unrewarded.
  • Leadership. Employees want to be led by people they trust. And the people they trust are those who value workers’ contributions, recognize and accept differences in people and act with employees’ best interests in mind.




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  1. This article is good – as far as it goes. There is a lot more that could be said on this topic. Perhaps a lack of space?

  2. Common Sense says:

    After reading this article’s headline, I was shocked that “the most overrated trait” was not “diversity”. I occaisionally hear talk about loyalty, but magazine articles and my mail boxes are consistently littered with “diversity for diversity sake” propoganda. Can we all finally agree that building a stong organization should take precedence over building a diversified organization? Diversity does not automatically mean strength or greatness.

  3. Common Sense, how true!

  4. @ Common Sense and Rose…true but that doesn’t mean companies should do things to keep diversity out, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Intentionally is the obvious (disparate treatment) but unintentionally keeping diversity out of the organization is possible as well especially through strong, good ole boy referral systems (adverse impact).

  5. Common Sense says:

    @MMAN Neither Rose or I ever implied that “companies should do things to keep diversity out”? Why are you raising objections to ideas we have never fostered. I am certain most, if not all the readers, are familiar with the obvious consequences of both intentional and unintentional disparate treatment.

    I never implied companies should not be careful to avoid disparate impact. I simply pointed out that “diversity for diversity sake” has been over-hyped for more than a decade.

    Anyway, “Why did you bring up such a small nuance to (try to) correct me… for you to bring out the technicality like you did is not substantial for this conversation”…to bring up these tangents “rather than grasping the major concept of what people are actually saying…even when it is evident” seems a little misguided.

  6. @Common Sense…I was just posting a thought. I wasn’t saying that you or Rose were trying to keep diversity out, I was just adding to what you had said because I feel what I said needed to be said. I feel you spoke of diversity initiatives in a negative tone when you used the word “propaganda” and stated that a “strong organization should take precedence over building a diversified organization.” Not saying that this is applicable to you here but ideologies like these could definitely lead to discrimination if they are not fostered and left in check within reason. BTW you went off on a tangent first when you brought up diversity in the first place which wasn’t even mentioned in the article. I was just responding to it and I did not bring up a small nuance as you did in another post. I brought up very relevant and substantial topic in response to your post.

  7. Common Sense says:

    @MMAN let’s get a few things straight. I offered no irrelevant tangents, I gave a contrary opinion on what was deemed to be the most over-rated trait.
    Raising straw-man arguments like in order to illustrate that you have a grasp on the obvious with the implication that I or other readers do not, is not saying something that “needed to be said” so much as it is simply a waste of time.
    Yes, you bet I spoke of the over saturation of diversity initiatives in a negative tone.You may want to attribute my comment as one of ideology, but I think you would be hard pressed to find any non-partisans who do not feel that the “diversity” message has been over sensationalized in the last decade.
    If you show me two different companies that make widgets with comparable dynamics and company “A” focuses on obtaining the best employees they can find while company “b” focuses on finding the most diversified workforce, I will show you two companies that perform drastically different.
    You want to speak of ideologies and tangents. Here you go. It was Martin Luther King (A prominent Republican) that had a dream that his kids would be judged by their character, not their skin color. I ask you, what company (what ideology) is closer to MLK’s dream? Company “A” or company “B” whose employees will eventually be standing in well diversified unemployment lines because the company is destined to close it’s doors due to lack of productivity.
    Let us all strive for a color-blind society.

  8. @Common Sense…you took my comments and blew them out of proportion. I agree 110% that company A would be better served in obtaining the “best” employees and would be exactly what this society and economy for that matter needs. However, many companies still hire based on “who” is known rather than “what” is known. In other words, just because someone is the CEO’s son does not make them the best for a particular job but it is him who still gets the job. But the organization would say that he is the best simply on that basis. By using these types of referal systems, some companies make the case that it makes a “stronger organization” and that it is more important than diversity initiatives thereby ignoring the importance of diversity altogether. These systems are a source of corporate inbreeding that keeps minorities out especially when diversity is already lacking in an organization. So I am not advocating hiring based on skin color at all but I am aware that minorities (and any other qualified candidates for that matter) still tend to be “overlooked” in organizations sometimes due to the very nature of the referral systems that are claimed to make “strong organizations.”

  9. Common Sense says:

    @MMAN. I did not blow your comments out of proportion, quite the contrary. I was being dismissive of them because I considered them argumentative straw-man, time-wasters on obvious h.r. topics. You seem to revel in the roll of the agonistic contrarian. The funny thing is, you also appear like a pleasant person and I think we agree fundamentally on many issues, but your constant need to elaborate, parse words or play devils advocate to just about everyone of my posts is wearisome, especially since I have said nothing inaccurate. Basically, sometimes despite what you may think, somethings need not be said.

  10. @Common Sense…if my statements did not need to be said then yours didn’t either. You act is if you are the only one who should be allowed to comment on anything on this website. When you post something on here, you are in fact inviting support and/or criticism of what you say and yes even elaboration as I have done in many cases. I don’t deny very often refuting your comments but a few times I have agreed with them. However, what you said about me in the previous post, I could then turn around and say the same about you if you’ll take notice, but I am not going there.

  11. Common Sense says:

    Nobody’s statements needed to be said. I simply wanted to voice a new/different opinion. Contrary to what you may believe I welcome feedback. However, I do grow tired of your usual need to interject “pearls of wisdom” that are known to the entire H.R. universe (Hardly what I would call elaboration). The implication is that because I did not mention it, that I must not be aware of it.

    When I refuted your comments it is because I disagreed with you or you were flat out wrong. When you “refuted” my comments it is not because I was incorrect, it was because you have some sort of constant need to share your “extensive knowledge” with the uneducated.
    Thanks for not going there. (sarcasm intended)

  12. @Common Sense…you do think more highly of yourself than what you ought. So you obviously “know it all” because you state that I am wrong, in other words you apparently don’t feel that there are any viewpoints other than yours to consider. Sorry Charley, you must also feel you need share your 2 cents worth on everything too, but I for one have not criticized you for doing so because that is what these threads are for.

  13. Common Sense says:

    @MMAN You have made 4 false statements/assumptions in one paragraph. A lot, even for you. You said:
    1)I think more highly of myself than what I ought.
    I have never placed any value on my self. (I simply voiced opinion and insightful facts)
    2)I “obviously know it all” because I stated you were wrong.
    I never implied I know it all (just the obvious). If I stated you were wrong, it means I think I know more than you on that particular point, no more, no less.
    3)I don’t consider others view points.
    Quite the contrary, I welcome/encourage vigorous debate as it helps me form my thoughts and opinions.
    4)I feel the need to share my thoughts on everything.
    I comment on a small fraction of the HR Morning stories. (Far less than you.)

    Don’t pretend you know my character, because you really have not the foggiest notion.
    Let’s please not go any further down the road of taking offense to criticism and replying with character assassination.

  14. @Common Sense…O.K. I can give you that what you said in your previous post may have been correct regarding my “interjecting pearls of wisdom” and that things I say may very well be common knowledge in the HR field. But my question is then why are these principles not used in many companies and/or espoused in HR (there’s no excuse in 2012 why diversity would be kept out of an organization whether intentionally or unintentionally)? No doubt that diversity is not an automatic key to, as you said, greatness, but I feel you spoke very negatively regarding it and by those comments I was lead to believe that you have a lackadaisical view of diversity like it doesn’t really matter. I apologize if I had misjudged you though, but it seemed from your statement that all that matters is the bottom line for organizations. However, I will lay low in responding to your posts from now on because you seem to not take it too well. I feel that everytime I post something even as an afterthought, you become critical and defensive and somehow try to debase everything I post. From here on out, although I will continue to post my thoughts as I know you will, I will not post them in specific response to yours.

  15. Common Sense says:

    @MMAN. I don’t take a lackadaisical view of diversity, but do view it’s hype with a fair amount of skepticism. Especially since most institutions have already achieved a fair amount of diversity (sometimes to their own detriment). Diversity is an admirable goal, but should not/need not interfere with productivity. (Just ask the NBA) With that being said I am not going to get up in arms about a father/owner making his son the c.e.o. of the company or a “ma and pa” shop using the “good ole boys” referral network to find a mechanic.
    Please don’t feel you need to “lay low” when responding to my comments. I am a big boy and appreciate honest, insightful, constructive feedback and lively debate. But you are right that I do become defensive when I feel my character is being maligned.

  16. @Common Sense…no doubt diversity has been up-played in recent years. However, I feel that if the shoe were on the other foot, you would probably feel differently about it. In other words, if you were in a minority group that has been discriminated against in the past, you would probably be more likely to support diversity initiatives on a different level. Take for instance the four fifths rule which requires the selection rate of minorities to only be 80% of the majority. Even if these numbers are met, minorities are still getting the short end of the stick. Let’s reverse that to say that the selection rate of the majority should be 80% of the minority (no doubt this couldn’t work but theoretically I hope you know where I’m going), now here you would have so many people crying foul it wouldn’t be pretty. Why not say the selection rate of minorities should be 100% of the selection rate of the majority? So with that said, I don’t feel we should take diversity initiatives lightly. That’s all I was trying to say. You also say that most institutions have already achieved a fair amount of diversity sometimes to their own detriment…how is diversity detrimental to an organization might I ask? I know the obvious implications are hiring un/under-qualified minorities for the sake of diversity but we both know that this is not a legal requirement and if organizations are doing this then it is their fault not those who are promoting diversity initiatives.

  17. Common Sense says:

    @MMAN Why do you ask: “How is diversity detrimental to an organization?”
    You answer your own question: “I know the obvious implications are hiring un/under-qualified minorities for the sake of diversity” I never said that diversity in and of itself is illegal. Whether or not it is a legal requirement matters not. My point is the same. (My point is your answer).
    I stand against stupid unproductive behavior whether or not it is illegal.

    I ask you one more time to not make assumptions about my character to which you can not possibly know. You say “if you were in a minority group that has been discriminated against in the past, you would probably be more likely to support diversity initiatives on a different level.” I believe I would be a man of the same character and would hope to have the same values no matter what my skin color. Their are plenty of strong minority leaders who have great character that oppose quotas, affrimative action and the over-emphasis on diversity matters.

  18. not political says:

    Loyalty has truly disappeared from both sides. If we maintain the narrow view expressed above, then the employer is only responsible for providing a paycheck for work. Then the employee only gives what they feel they are worth. Before the 80’s an employee and employer could count on 20 or 30 years of “loyalty”. Now employees who are with a company more than 5 years are considered “old timers”. Why not take some of the greed out of the equation and understand that the employee and employer give equally. Isn’t this what we learned by the guide of honesty in our culture?

  19. not political says:

    Loyalty can be cyclical. Imagine the profit employers made from employees that stayed with the business 20 or 30 years before the 80’s. Now, imagine the cost of “brain drain in today’s climate. Loyalty prevented lots of this. Employees are no longer loyal because they do not feel the security that used to come with their employment by working hard and following the rules. Quality and Quantity of work never seem to be enough. Employers are afraid they cannot find loyal employees. Everyone wants the prize, however the real issue is how can employers and employees trust each other in a way to secure the future for both?

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