Ending the Fiction of Lifetime Employment

Steve Gifford Audacious Ideas, Books, Career Paths, Change, Culture, Giving Notice, Personal Brand, Retention, Steve Gifford, Succession Planning

You probably aren’t working in the last job you’ll ever have.  Heck, there’s a good chance you’re not even in the single digits of employers before you retire.  So, why do we pretend that we are?

That’s the interesting issue that is posed in this month’s Harvard Business Review, entitled Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Contract.  The authors lay out a business model in which employers commit to their employees, and employees to their employers, for a fixed, clear amount of time.  After that, they can renew if the arrangement still works, or part company.

Our employment culture as it stands today has more of a double standard.  Every employee’s time with the company will end, but we rarely recognize that fact by putting a date on it.  In fact, talking about going somewhere else is taboo; this is why good executive recruiters do a lot of work at night, when their prospects are more free to talk on the phone.  If you let on that you are looking to leave, we fear, you’ll get marked as being disloyal.

Of course, employers can be just as disloyal.  We in HR plan the layoffs in total secrecy, and let employees know at the last possible minute.  Layoffs come as a “complete surprise” to the employees impacted, exactly like the way giving notice is a complete surprise to the supervisor.

Hoffman and company propose a world where employees expect to be project-based, entrepreneurial, and working in a way that a four-year “term” will show clear results.  It doesn’t work for all jobs, or even most hourly jobs — in fact, I first heard about this article on the NPR show “On Point“, where the host actually asked them, “How would this work for other people, like janitors, or HR?”  Yup, that’s us.

But I’ve also done this, and it can work.  In the Army, no one stays in a job for more than two or three years.  You expect that someone else will come along and take your job, and you’ll move on to another one — continuity is something you’re rated on.  It actually puts your career under a little more control than either sneaking around looking for work, or searching for a job after becoming suddenly unemployed.  In fact, good commanders encourage their subordinates to find that great next job — it builds up a network for them that will pay off later.

Of course, this works well in a closed ecosystem where everyone behaves the same way.  For the “tour of duty” model to work, everyone in a given industry needs to be doing it.  Otherwise, employees risk being branded as “job hoppers”, and suffering a penalty for working at a company that sets these expectations.

Let’s face it, though: your current job will end, and that end will either be initiated by you, or by your employer.  Wouldn’t it be convenient for everyone if you two could agree on that time beforehand?  And, if it would, can we make it happen in our organizations?