Why You Should Stop Being a Loyal Employee


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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47 Responses

  1. Avatar Will Truman says:

    Baby just woke up, so I don’t have time to fully respond yet. But great post.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Excellent advice, but phrased misleadingly, I think. You didn’t stop being loyal, you stopped being (just) an employee. If loyalty means anything, it goes up, down, and sideways; it’s not the same as subservience. Admittedly, “loyal” is often used by bosses to mean “shut up and do what you’re told, with no particular reward or reason to think you won’t be laid off next week”, but that’s a real perversion of the concept.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      Are employers loyal to employees in this way? Even employees who act like Tod? I question whether the purported two-way-ed-ness of this street really flows both ways.

      Loyalty to a boss is different than loyalty to a company, and I notice this concept seems to raise its head when bosses perceive the going’s about to get tough politically. You are supposed to be loyal to your boss, your boss will tell you, but it’s rarely clear how the boss will tangibly reciprocate that loyalty.

      Loyalty to the company may mean accepting no raises or even pay cuts when income is spotty, and I notice that it when things get better the employers tend to indicate that they showed their loyalty to the employees by not laying them off — and they tend not to return employees back to the incomes they had been on pace to earn prior to the hard times.

      Or maybe this is because I see employment issues through a jaundiced lens because of what I do for a living. I don’t ever see the cases where employers and employees get along well.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Are employers loyal to employees in this way?

        Ones worth working for are. For instance, if someone’s been a productive employee for years, and then becomes less so because they’re having personal issues, the employer can either cut him sone slack, or start treating him as a problem employee. If it’s a temporary situation (e.g. an illness in the family), the loyal (and intelligent) thing to do is the former. Many employers fail this test, but not all.Report

      • Avatar Kimsie says:

        I’ve had whip-crack smart bosses.
        Who were paid less than me.
        And took a paycut to avoid losing employees.

        (all of this I learned about two weeks before leaving…
        but I’d have gone through hell (and 100 hour work weeks, which I did do) for him
        Great employer).Report

  3. Avatar Kazzy says:

    First, let me say thanks for indulging my question.
    Second, I trusted that you had a sound and logical reason to make this transition in your life. Please trust that my question was less, “Why would you do a stupid thing like that?” and more, “Can you explain how/when/where/why you made this transition and what it meant?” Which is what you did, so I’m confident you took it that way.
    Third, there is some really great advice in here. I’m pushing 30 and actually might be facing a situation in the very near future where I need to make a tough call vis a vis employment.

    One of the problems I currently find myself in is that my new boss has made it clear she desires the exact opposite type of work environment. She has explicitly said, “Stop waiting to ask for forgiveness; ask for permission,” directly contrary to the advice I’d given a colleague who wondered how I navigated things so successfully. She has made it clear to certain individuals, implicitly or explicitly, that we are all replaceable. She makes a lot of decisions behind closed doors and swears those who she might have involved in the decision to secrecy until the news goes public, at which point the decision is made and the opportunity for feedback has passed. I’ve needled my way, somewhat, into the “inner circle”, in part by taking on certain official roles and responsibilities and in part by doing some of what you’ve articulated here (though not necessarily with as clear a vision as you’ve demonstrated).
    So, I anticipate soon hitting a crossroads wherein I will not be able to view employment in the way you advocate here while being employed in the place I am now. Which is okay.

    But, yea, thanks!Report

  4. Avatar Miss Mary says:

    I like this. With a little tweaking, and if you used the language Mike talked about, I’d let you talk to my underlings. Someone needs to light a fire under their ass.Report

  5. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:


    That advice is, by far, the key to getting ahead in one’s career. One reason I left my last employer was because it was so massive that it was almost impossible for a lone voice to be heard, and even if it was heard, unless you had been there 10-15 years, or you made sure to go to every single meeting you could (whereby your actual work would never get done) you were still considered the FNG & pretty much ignored.

    I like my current employer because my supervisor encourages us to make our names known in the company. And even though I am on the front lines, as it were, I can voice my opinion to the VPs & they’ll listen, and discuss, and pay attention.

    It’s invigorating to actively be part of the success of the company, and not just a cog.Report

  6. Avatar Maribou says:

    This is both exquisite and widely applicable. I suspect I will reread it a few times.Report

  7. Beautiful. I couldn’t agree more.Report

  8. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    This story of taking ownership of one’s job and the organization of which it is a part is extremely admirable and inspiring, but I don’t see much in the way of the ending of loyalty in it.Report

  9. Avatar Barry says:

    Tod: It is true that your employer can fire you – but it’s also true that you can quit. There are times when your employer can afford to be without your services and you can’t afford to be without their paycheck; but there are also times when the opposite is the case. ”

    Rarely, very rarely.Report

    • Avatar Patrick says:

      Then you’re ill-prepared for a dip in the economy because you don’t have cash on hand and you’re replaceable.

      Fix those, if at all possible.Report

      • Avatar Barry says:

        You will always be more replaceable to the company than they are to you. The times you aren’t will be very rare, and will probably involve a company so small that you are in greater danger from it going under.

        As for the rest of your comment, we are in a dip in the economy, and most people don’t have the cash in hand to deal with being laid off, when that could involve a year or two of looking for work.Report

        • Avatar Patrick says:

          That doesn’t make the advice wrong, it just makes it temporally less applicable.

          And really, every place I’ve ever worked I’ve been less replaceable to my employer than my employer has been to me, either because I was more productive for the dollar than the vast majority of persons they’d replace me with, or because I had enough institutional knowledge that it was a bad idea to let me go (this includes places that let me go, for whatever reason). I don’t think I’m particularly an outlier. I think anybody that works hard and smart in today’s economy is probably getting paid less than they’re actually worth, which means it’s a loss for the employer to let them go, by definition, right?

          I learned, after my first layoff, to always have enough cash on hand to pay my rent for two months and/or to never sign a lease that I couldn’t afford on unemployment. Unemployment is there for a reason, and it works, as a band-aid, quite well.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          “You will always be more replaceable to the company than they are to you. ”

          This has not been my experience.Report

          • Perhaps the “always” in the portion you quote is too extreme, but I fear you might be generalizing too much from your experience. I assume you’re referring largely to your highly skilled career as a risk management expert, and perhaps also to your earlier service jobs (you’ve mentioned at least one of them in some of the posts you’ve written already). I don’t know much about your circumstances outside what you have mentioned.

            But you probably have enjoyed certain resources and a certain amount of privilege that others might not have. That doesn’t make your advice wrong, nor does it make your generalization a hasty one. In fact, I’ve known people in more marginal circumstances (at least more marginal than mine, and more marginal than what I assume, perhaps too hastily, yours might have been c. age 30) who’ve done well for themselves following an approach similar to yours.

            I’m sorry to call privilege–I think “calling privilege” on others often doesn’t work the way the privilege callers want it to and I’m not sure it’s wholly warranted in this case at any rate–but I can imagine circumstances where being less of an “I’m a partner person” and more of a “yes sir!” person might seem like an attractive option.Report

            • Avatar Patrick says:

              Well, this is a fair point, Pierre.

              Take for example a case of a particular woman I know in the IT business. She is not recognized among her direct peers and her boss as being particularly valuable. However, she does by far the more important work, and most importantly she does the double-loop stuff that stops work from being created, something that her manager doesn’t see because he’s not good at his job.

              Her fighting for proper recognition of her value has been counterproductive, actually (the dynamic in her group is really quite perverse).

              The right solution for her is to find a new boss, really. She’s tried to do what Tod’s talking about, and it doesn’t work for her in her current circumstances. So you’re correct; as a tactic, it doesn’t always work.

              But as a strategy, eventually it leads you to a place where it works as both a strategy and a tactic.Report

              • I’d say that’s probably right. But it does depend on there being a place where such a strategy/tactic works for the person in question. Or rather, it depends on their being a sufficiently large number of places where it works, in order to be generally useful.

                I’m open to the argument that the American economy is dynamic enough for their to be a sufficient number of such places and that the suitability of some places varies with the employee and employer, so it’s not always necessarily a zero-sum game. To be sure, I’m skeptical about the argument, but I’m open to it.Report

      • Avatar Barry says:

        “Fix those, if at all possible.”

        I love the way you say that. Frankly, I’m planning on getting the supermodel girlfriend, first 🙂Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Then you’re ill-prepared for a dip in the economy because you don’t have cash on hand and you’re replaceable.

        Fix those, if at all possible.

        So the view you’re expressing here here is that it’s better to have money and skills that are in demand than not to?

        Gee, thanks.Report

        • Avatar Patrick says:

          You know, it seems like such stupidly obvious advice, but it’s not advice that I followed my first four years out of college and I know *lots* of people in my age group that aren’t following it now.

          My employer offers you $10k a year if you go to school in a secondary degree program related to your job. Right now, I think employee participation in that program is about 5%, at most.

          That’s turning down free money, free advancement, free skills. I will bet you dollars to donuts that of the 95% turning it down, not too many are turning it down because they are actually out of time.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            Where it can be followed, it is good advice, I’m not denying that. But the simplicity with which you stated it suggests an unawarenes of the amount of legitimate struggling that is going on out there. Just not taking this advice is not most of what’s driving people’s struggles in this economy. And I know you know that, so the patness with which you wrote that kind of bothered me.

            I also think that you underestimate how difficult it is to make yourself irreplaceable. Making yourself more valuable is not the same thing. Everyone can do that; not everyone can make himself irreplaceable. Companies would rather not have to replace someone who’s functioning reasonably well in their role, but if they have reason to do it, they will. Very few people are truly irreplaceable. You say that “every place I’ve ever worked I’ve been less replaceable to my employer than my employer has been to me,” but that’s another things still. That’s largely a function of what part of the labor market you reside in. Depending on your skill set, how replaceable your employer is to you will be radically different because of the relative demand for people in different occupations. These differences among market segments can be mitigated in the is-the employee-more-replaceable-to-the-employer-or-vice-versa calculation by application of diligence and professional development on the part of a given employee in a given occupation, but not remotely offset. I suspect you underestimate the degree to which your set of skills and qualifications are in demand. We really just can’t generalize from our own singular experiences on these questions.Report

            • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

              I”m not understanding why you can’t reverse everything you say here and make it equally true.

              You make it sound as if the only choices are being employed by company ABC and being unemployed; like there’s just this one company in the entire world, and there are no other competitors you can take your services to if you are unsatisfied with the way the company is run – which has to be the most disempowering stance an employee can take.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                I don’t think I make it sound like that. I’m merely saying that different workers in different occupations are in vastly different positions in these regards, even accounting for differences in dedication, taking-ownership, etc. among different workers (and everyone can’t be 1-A in that regard, though I’m certainly not disagreeing with you that everyone can try to adopt that attitude). That said, for a lot of people, that is how they need to look at the facts of the labor market as they face it/would face it if they chose to walk from their current job, out of an abundance of caution in this economy.

                Very plausibly that doesn’t apply to you or Patrick and hasn’t for years, though. Which is the point.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Here is some reading. I wish I could find slightly more up-to date numbers on applicants per vacancy, but IMO it’s still striking that the month before the crisis hit, the ratio was 1.6 applicant per opening; two years later it was still more than twice that many. Even if that’s improved somewhat in the year since the article I found ran, it’s still the background reality that shapes a lot of people’s attitudes about taking one’s services elsewhere. I notice that the upshot of what you and Patrick are saying here, as far as that goes and for that matter, is not about what a great idea it is to go shopping one’s skills around the marketplace at this time; rather the basic point you are both making is about what a good idea it is to fully embrace the role you have in your organization, look to enlarge and expand it, generally make yourself more noticeable and noticed, and ultimately irreplaceable. And that’s damn good advice for a person with an average (and I do mean that in the statistical sense – not meaning middling, but just meaning, not assuming what occupation and skill set a worker has), as far as it can be carried, in this labor market. Because the alternative – shopping one’s skills around – ain’t what it used to be cracked up to be anymore.





                “They’re taking longer to fill vacancies because they just feel less need to fill jobs now,” Professor Davis said. “They recognize that in a slack labor market there is an abundance of viable candidates. If something happens, and if they need to hire quickly, they know they can do that. That’s harder in a tight labor market.”


              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                There’s another comment with multiple links awaiting moderation here.Report

              • Michael,

                I tend to agree. Exercising one’s right to quit–a pretty good right to have, by the way–means entering the job market and facing the resulting uncertainty. It can be scary to be unemployed, and depending on the employer, it’s probably much less scary to lose any given employee, excepting the really “irreplaceable” ones. In my experience, people (e.g., me) tend to be more replaceable than they (e.g., I) think they are.

                I think the disagreement between you and Tod–if it really is a disagreement–is more about whether to emphasize the benefits of the right to quit and sell one’s services elsewhere, or to emphasize the risks and contingencies and uncertainties involved in exercising that right. Tod’s attitude is a healthy one to have, but I do think it needs to be balanced by a realistic assessment of one’s personal capital (for lack of a better word).Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Obviously I agree. I have more to say in a comment that is hopefully taken out of moderation soon, but my observation here is that, while there has been reference to the right to exit, the overwhelming thrust of the storytelling and argumentation from Tod and Patrick here has been to communicate the value of doing everything possible to increase one’s value to one’s current organization. And, again, regardless of the gesture toward the option to shop oneself to other buyers, that makes all the sense in the world given the objective reality that has faced job seekers (whether employed or unemployed) over the last few years. (That situation is finally, as I understand it, happily starting to become a bit less daunting over recent months. I expect the deterrent effect in employees minds from this period of looseness in the labor market against leaving a job to last for some time longer, however.)Report

              • Avatar Patrick says:

                Exercising one’s right to quit–a pretty good right to have, by the way–means entering the job market and facing the resulting uncertainty.

                Er, you can choose that strategically. The idea is not “hey, I can quit any time I like and it will be to my advantage”. The idea is that you are as much of a manager of your relationship with your employer as your employer is. If you decide you don’t like your job, you can do what Mike is doing, right now: continue working at your job, and actively pursue replacements.

                I don’t want to derail the thread into a disgression, and I’m admittedly being a bit more blunt and nuance-lacking than I usually would be on this topic, but it’s my experience that most people don’t manage their careers, they let their career happen to them.

                Changing that dynamic is a pain in the ass and it’s work and it takes up free time and all of the other consequences that come with that… but if you don’t have short-term economic security, you have a very real vulnerability to your employer that can exacerbate all sorts of bad things. Fixing that is important. That’s all I’m sayin’. If you’re replaceable by a cog, you need to make some hard choices. Maybe some of those choices are ones you don’t want to make (see Ryan, David) but your alternative is to let the world happen to you.

                The world is very amoral.Report

              • Much of what you say here is very well taken. And I think it’s healthy to approach the whole issue as one of making choices rather than letting others (or “the system,” or “the world”) make those choices for you.

                My only qualification, and it might not be a true qualification because you allude to it anyway, is that some actors’ choices are more constrained than others. Some have more and better choices than others. And the power differential, in my view, often falls toward the employer(s) more than it does toward the employee(s).

                Of course, that’s basically what I read you saying, so it’s not a correction of what you said, more an explanation of what I took from it. You’re right, the world is an amoral place, or at least it’s healthy to approach it as if it is amoral.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            $10k/year in tuition assistance, or a $10k/year raise for getting the degree?Report

            • Avatar Patrick says:

              Tuition assistance. In practice, the Master’s along the way also correlated with a raise, but I was overdue for that anyway.Report

  10. Avatar Damon says:

    Well, everyone is replaceable.

    That being said, I know exactly what you mean, especially about making decisions above your pay grade. I worked in a Joint Venture start up where we were all doing 1k things just to get though the day and then went to a job where there were 4 decision makers and staff waiting months to get a decision. God it was chaffing. Since I was remote, I just did stuff and flew under the radar. Local staff said I was the only one who got stuff done for them. Coupled with the majority of workers to stop everything until a manager makes a decision, I just got fed up and did stuff. No one seemed to want to risk anything or risk being wrong. They forget that inaction is action itself. Just do something, make a decision. If it’s wrong, change direction, but don’t just sit there hesitating.

    Now, as to loyality, I’m on similar lines as you but slightly different. I recognize, especially in this economy, that I’m disposable, more so now. So my employer gets the minimal amout of loyality until they demostrate some on the return. Yes, I’ll step up and make a decision, etc like above, but I’m not busting my ass anymore on the vague hopes of advancement. So, yeah, I’ll work OT to get that proposal out that’s due, but don’t expect me make a habit of it.Report

  11. Tod,

    I really enjoyed this post, but I don’t have time to comment on it extensively or read the comments yet. I will say, however, that I do see things differently. I think the ability to act as a “partner” depends in large part–not entirely, mind you–on the type of job and the employee’s position in it.

    And just as a personal reflection, my own trajectory, so far, has been from simple loyalty, to seeing myself as a “worker” vs. management, back to something (right now) that I’d call “neo-loyalty,” wherein I try to return to my old sense of loyalty but learn lessons from my worker-vs.-management stage and from something like your “partnership” theory.

    If I have time later, I’ll elaborate. But just to repeat, I really enjoyed this post and it’s food for thought.Report

    • I’ll add that when I became a “worker vs. management” type of guy, I started to act like, and be treated more like, a “partner” than when I was merely the “loyal guy who does everything he’s told and would never go against the employer.” There were limits to this, both self-imposed and imposed by the fact that–contra what some have said (now that I’ve read the comments)–I’ve always been more replaceable than irreplaceable.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Why do you suppose that was? What did becoming the worker vs. management type actually entail as far as changing what you did when you were at work?

        It’s interesting to me how people are categorizing what sound like maybe similar trajectories in terms of how people conceive of and perform their roles at work here (pending your description of the process I ask about above). If what you and Tod are describing are somewhat similar evolutions in orientation, I’m interested that you both label it in a way that sounds completely counterintuitive to me: a lessening of loyalty, or the development of a worker-management us/them consciousness. This process to me sounds like a deepening of engagement, and a de facto increase in loyalty to and identification with the (success of the) organization. I must be misunderstanding what is meant by loyalty. To me what it sounds like is maybe being abandoned here is strict obedience/subordination to particular superiors.Report