So, job candidate, where do you see yourself in five years?
Yes, I know that's the worst interview question ever invented. But what's your answer?
What's that? It sounded like you said, "Elsewhere." Oh, that is what you said? In five years you see yourself elsewhere? Well, at least you're honest.
The concept of workers spending decades at one company isn't dead, but it is, at best, infirm. Economic pressures and the rapid pace of technology make long-term loyalty — from employer and employee — increasingly unrealistic.
So unless you can say with 100 percent certainty that your company will be loyal to you — and nobody can — your loyalty should be only to yourself and your career.
Some will say that's cynical, a mercenary approach to work. I prefer to call it pragmatic. But whatever you call it, hiring people who probably aren't in it for the long haul is the new normal, and smart companies need to alter their expectations to fit that.
In a new issue of the Harvard Business Review (I read it mainly for the erotic bar graphs), there's a spot-on article called "Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact."
The authors write about the effect of globalization and the Information Age: "Stability gave way to rapid, unpredictable change. Adaptability and entrepreneurship became key to achieving and sustaining success. These changes demolished the traditional employer-employee compact and its accompanying career escalator in the U.S. private sector."
They go on to assert that there's a better approach to this relationship than my proposed "every man for himself."
First, they suggest companies hire people into two- to four-year "tours of duty." Maybe it's the development of a new product or work on a specific project with a defined timeline. The experience will help the employee develop in his or her career, and the company will get the best out of a motivated employee.
After the tour is up, both sides reassess — the worker might stay for another tour or leave for another opportunity. Either way, it will have been a win-win.
I spoke with one of the article's authors, Chris Yeh, vice president of marketing for PBworks, a California-based company that helps businesses operate more effectively, and he said this approach refines the definition of workplace loyalty based on present circumstances.
"Work endeavors used to take longer, so you needed the tight bonds and loyalty, you needed the coherence to create something that might take longer than a human lifetime," Yeh said. "Whereas today you could create an entire company and sell it within 18 months. So I think the concept of tours of duty gives both a compression of loyalty and an expansion of loyalty. You have this very intense period of time where you are really completely in it."
The other ideas Yeh and his co-authors present involve greater openness. They say employees should be encouraged to build networks outside their own companies, and businesses should maintain good relationships with former workers, creating strong alumni networks.
External networks are being developed via social media, whether it's LinkedIn or Twitter. So why shouldn't companies embrace that with the hope of benefiting from the exchange of knowledge? It's a "rising tide lifts all ships" way of thinking.
"We live in a world where ideas are intermingling and going back and forth far more than before," Yeh said. "Because of the fact that we have this incredible pace of change, you have to keep innovating and being open."
Stephen Burnett, a professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, agreed with many of these points but cautioned against a "one-size-fits-all" model for employer-employee relationships.
"There's a fair amount of research out that shows companies that are very successful over long periods of time tend to keep their employees for very long periods of time," Burnett said. "It may well be that younger people have shorter time horizons, and they're not expecting to stay someplace 30 or 40 years. But there is a lot of evidence that companies with enlightened human resources policies in terms of investing in people and encouraging people to stay and work their way up the ladder do well at retaining people."
Regardless, he said, it's critical for younger workers to know that what they're doing will help them develop in their careers.
"To me, loyalty is something that a company earns by the way it treats people," Burnett said. "People tend to be loyal to other people, not necessarily to the vague notion of a company. If the people they work with every day, if they love being around them and it's a good environment, I think that's what gets you loyalty."
I agree and certainly don't expect everyone to start having careers that are a patchwork of short-term gigs. But ideas like "tours of duty" help us think about the realities of the working world. They draw the idea that a job should be a mutually beneficial experience into focus. Hopefully with a clear vision, the experiences and opportunities that employees desire will line up better with what companies provide.
And five years from now we can see ourselves where we'd like to be: employed and happy.
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