The idea of company loyalty has changed quite a bit in recent decades. Back in the day, workers used to take pride in working at the same company for decades, or even over an entire career — nowadays, that’s almost unheard of. Companies too (at least most of them) say they want loyal employees, which makes a lot of sense. But what makes less sense is the way companies sometimes treat loyal employees.
You’d expect, with job changes being so common and loyalty to a company being so rare, that companies would cherish and value these loyal workers. But apparently, the opposite seems to happen.
“Companies want loyal workers, and there is a ton of research showing that loyal workers provide all sorts of positive benefits to companies,” said Matthew Stanley, Ph.D., the lead researcher on the new paper and postdoctoral researcher at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “But it seems like managers are apt to target them for exploitative practices.”
Stanley worked on the research with Chris B. Neck and Chris P. Neck, father-and-son researchers at Arizona State University and West Virginia University, respectively. They recruited nearly 1,400 participants who took on the role of a manager for a fictitious employee named John.
John’s scenario had him working for a company on a tight budget that wanted to keep costs down. This meant that John had to take extra, unpaid work.
There were different Johns. Some managers had John as a loyal employee, while in other situations, he was more of a newcomer. But no matter the employee engagement scenario, when John was loyal, he always got more unpaid work. Simply put, Loyal John was more abused than Unloyal John. The reverse also turned out to be true: when John had a reputation for accepting extra workload, managers rated him as more loyal.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Stanley said. “Loyal workers tend to get picked out for exploitation. And then when they do something that’s exploitative, they end up getting a boost in their reputation as a loyal worker, making them more likely to get picked out in the future.”
In other experiments, managers also had to read a letter of recommendation for John. The letters that praised him as loyal made managers more likely to pass unpaid work to John rather than the letters that portrayed John as honest or fair.
So what gives?
Part of this could be simply malicious. John will take the short end, he’s loyal, and he can tough it out and get it sorted. But researchers believe most of this is not actually malicious, but rather due to cognitive biases that we have.
“Most people want to be good,” Stanley said. “Yet, they transgress with surprising frequency in their everyday lives. A lot of it is due to ethical blindness, where people don’t see how what they’re doing is inconsistent with whatever principles or values they tend to profess.”
Ethical blindness is pretty much just what it sounds like: a decision maker’s temporary inability to see the ethics (or lack of ethics) of their actions. It’s like an ethical blind spot when people think they’re doing the right thing (or convince themselves they’re doing the right thing) when they’re probably not.
So what can we do to address this? The study stops short of providing solutions, although Stanley says it could be important to help managers realize what they are doing and be aware of their ethical blindness which is essentially leading them to punish more loyal employees. The crux of the matter, Stanley concludes, isn’t to do away with loyalty — but rather to find ways to cherish and appreciate it.
“I don’t want to suggest that the takeaway of the paper is to not be loyal to anybody because it just leads to disaster,” Stanley said. “We value people who are loyal. We think about them in positive terms. They get awarded often. It’s not just the negative side. It’s really tricky and complex.”
The ball is in the companies’ and managers’ court. If they want loyal employees, they should probably strive to do better.
Journal Reference: “Loyal Workers Are Selectively And Ironically Targeted For Exploitation,” Matthew L. Stanley, Christopher B. Neck, Christopher P. Neck. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Jan. 6, 2023. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2022.104442