My workplace loyalty manifesto

This morning a friend happened to link to an article entitled Do you want to join us? Read this first and reconsider, by John Mihaljevic, the managing editor and owner of BeyondProxy LLC. It’s a very clear statement about what you’re signing up for if you go to work for BeyondProxy, with quotes such as:

 

Then there is the issue of equity. Here I have to say, “equity in what?” My company is my life — my working/creative life anyway. You are not getting equity in my life. Certainly not immediately, and certainly not if you leave.

Pay is another huge issue. The day you join BeyondProxy, we take a hit to cash flow. Not only do we become less profitable from one day to the next, but the demand on my time and attention escalates. I love my independence, lack of schedule and, frankly, lack of responsibility for other people’s livelihoods. I have three kids, and that’s quite enough responsibility for me.
 …
By removing the anxiety-inducing logic chain “no pay, no food, I die”, the salary frees you up to do what you love and not worry about your existence. In this sense, I am taking a risk on you by committing to paying you no matter your near-term contribution to the business. I might do this for three months or for a year, it depends.
 …
and finally:
If the point of “exit” does come and the value of the business is clarified in concrete terms, then I will think about each individual contribution by going back to the things I value most in a business context: hard work, long-term orientation, and loyalty (boldface mine).

 

My friend asked why you wouldn’t want to go to work for such a no-BS kind of guy. My own reaction to his article was very different; I wouldn’t want to invest my emotional energy in John+, the man or the company. I  appreciate his honesty, but honesty is a base expectation I have from my employers even if we have worked out a straight exchange of money for time (this base expectation is, sad to say, usually not met these days, but that is another problem not for this article). What struck me as funny was that, after being so brutally honest about the deal you get if you go to work for John, he stated that he values loyalty.

 

I’ve been a technical R&D manager at various companies doing remote sensing and geospatial R&D for over twenty years. I manage small-to-moderate groups of people with mixed skill-sets, working on image processing software projects. I’ve been at my current workplace for six years, which is a long time by my industry’s standards these days. I have a team of about 10 people that I work closely with on technical projects, many of whom I recruited because we’ve worked on previous jobs together, and I found them to be excellent performers and human beings. I am a technical technical manager: I have a math Ph.D., I do R&D myself, and I do software development, in addition to my managerial work. I can’t imagine trying to manage teams like mine without commanding respect on a technical level.

 

John might find me a valuable employee, based on the criteria he states. I have a work ethic, and so he would get value for his money. I’ve never sought to cash out of the workplace, so I always work with a long-term orientation. But loyalty, unlike the other two criteria, is not about the work: it happens between people, and it is reciprocal.

 

My personal loyalty is worth a great deal. If I have given you my loyalty, that means that I consider myself to have some responsibility for your well-being, and I will give you what I have to give at the cost of my free time and comfort. If you have a difficult personal problem, I’ll keep your confidence and help you figure out how to solve it. I will invest in teaching you what I am able to teach, which is quite a bit, and I will be patient even if you struggle with it.

 

It means I’ve taken your measure as a human being over some length of time. I’ve probably watched you being loyal to me or someone else, and giving more than was completely comfortable for you to give (short of outright self-sacrifice, which I don’t expect and don’t give). It means I’ve given you a piece of my heart.

 

Here’s how this relates to what John wrote: if you come to work for me, then that means I’ve given you the chance to earn my loyalty, and granted you the first couple of points up front. The minute you walk in the door, I’m invested in your well-being. As long as you give the work your sincere best effort, I will consider myself to have partial responsibility for your livelihood and your success. I will work to find the right tasks and focus areas for you. If it looks like your project is going to dry up, I will take action to get you transitioned to a project with more longevity. I will take extra steps to teach you what you need to know if you are struggling, and I’ll do my best to protect your livelihood until you get on your feet. To summarize, I’ve granted you some equity in my life.

 

The downside: if you are a pure opportunist, you’ll probably reveal that to me very quickly. At that point, it will be really clear that I’m not the right manager for you, and you’re not the right employee for me.

 

I enjoy my work, but I’m not primarily loyal to either my work or to my company: I am loyal to people. I believe that most people come in to a job with the expectation of giving more than a straight exchange of work for money. Even if they are madly passionate about what they’re doing, they want to work with people they like and trust, and the relationship will go south in a hurry if liking and trust are not present.

 

I worked at Microsoft in the stack-ranking 2000s, where everything was very competitive and merit-based (in theory), and the incentives were such that teammates were turned against each other; there is nothing okay or right about such a work environment, even if everyone knows up front what they are getting into. I saw decent managers, caring people under ordinary circumstances, corrupted by this system and throwing their own people under the bus without a fight; I also saw a few managers who did their best to protect their people in an environment that made that exceptionally difficult. Those who were corrupted told themselves that they weren’t responsible for the implementation of the system, that they were just playing the business of management according to the stated rules of the game. It’s all okay if you have no responsibility for the livelihood of the people working for you.

 

I think that John is probably a decent guy, who has probably been burned by his employees a few times, and who just wants to get his deal out on the table and scare off anyone who  might burn him in the future. But he’s also scaring off the people with heart. He tells us that his company is about him, his own investment, and the work that it does; but the work alone will never earn or deserve loyalty,  no matter how worthy or interesting  it is. John loudly says that what he wants is to exchange your dedicated work for a straight-up salary. But in a softer voice, he also asks for a more emotional kind of energy over the long haul. I think that, whatever we tell ourselves about the coldness and money-drivenness of the modern working world, this is really what most of us want: a team of people around us that we can get to know and trust.

About carolynpjohnston

I am an applied mathematician and developer, with 20 years of R&D experience in the mapping and remote sensing industry. I develop algorithms and systems for extracting information from imagery, producing map data, and improving the accuracy of maps produced with the aid of remote sensing imagery.
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