On what loyalty is worth

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about loyalty.

First, because now that I’m working in a pretty hardcore ecommerce company, loyalty and rewards programs are a part of the toolset for doing my job. But I’ve been thinking about it in a larger sense, too.

work-kittehA good friend of mine is incredibly frustrated, because after sticking with the same employer for several years and investing a lot of money and time in professional development, and getting another exemplary employee review, her reward was… a 2% COLA increase in salary. She’s considering leaving a job she likes, at a company she obviously cares deeply about. I can’t blame her, because the message they keep sending her is that while they expect her loyalty, and possibly appreciate it, they have no intentions of rewarding it. A new company would ironically pay her considerably more for less immediate value than she has  her current employer, since the new company would have to train her.

Coke will reward me for continuing to choose them over Pepsi. Kroger will reward me with a substantial discount on my gas expense (which considering my commute, is considerable) for choosing to give them my business. Delta, Southwest and US Airways will reward me if I choose them for my transportation needs. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s a rare employer who actually rewards their most loyal employees for not jumping ship.

There’s always a sense of betrayal associated with inequitable loyalty. If I’m faithful to you, but you don’t reciprocate in the way I expect, it’s worse than disappointing. It feels like a slap in the face. It’s infuriating. It transforms a mutual partnership into a hierarchy, with the loyal party in the sublimated role.

Ultimately, it becomes a power struggle. Asserting your free agency is an attempt to reestablish equilibrium, but the other party will often react with a show of power to maintain the status quo. Fear and pride can pour gasoline on the fire. It can turn into a mess. Finding the loving and just thing to do requires an extraordinary amount of calm and a pretty unshakable sense of your own unalterable value. Otherwise, you’re not just fighting about your salary. You’re fighting about your value, and your ego can’t afford to lose that fight, so the temptation to fight dirty is just too great.

I’m more and more convinced these days that the workplace is the primary battleground for being an agent of peace and justice.

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