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Opinions of Tuesday, 5 February 2019


The pain of workplace loyalty: The Elder Brother Syndrome

Loyalty is defined as the quality of staying firm in your support for someone or something. It implies sticking with someone or something even if it goes against your own self-interest.

In business, loyalty carries the expectation that you will be rewarded for this allegiance. This expectation, no doubt, encourages employees to spend the best of their working years with a single employer almost to the point of retirement.

Half a century ago, an employee could stay at the same company for decades, and the company reciprocated with long-term protection and care, according to Tammy Erickson, an author and work-force consultant. Many were guaranteed long-time employment along with health care and a pension.

But does this expectation really hold true in today’s workplace, where television sets, table-top refrigerators, and citations are packaged as long-service awards to many employees whose only hope of maintaining their standard of living is an unpredictable state pension scheme?

Today, many companies cannot or will not hold up their end of the bargain-so why should employees hold up theirs? Is staying loyal to one organization worth the commitment any longer?

In the words of Peter K. Murdock of the Forbes Council, “More and more, employees define loyalty as it pertains to the job at hand. They are hired to perform specific tasks and will learn and do them the very best they can. Once they feel they have mastered this role, they will seek out a new opportunity in order to have more responsibility and/or higher wages.

The mentality is, "You pay me to do X, I do X, and we are even." Whether the next step comes from within their current organization or they have to make a move, they have fulfilled their obligation and were loyal in doing so. Hence, whether one works for a company 10 years or 10 months, they consider that “loyal.”

The workplace has become transactional for the employee. More and more workers are taking the view (and rightfully so) that they are the sole drivers of their own careers”.

It is reported by Gallup that millennials are three times more likely than non-millennials to change jobs and 91% do not expect to stay with their current organizations longer than three years. In a Workforce survey, 80% of respondents agreed that their definition of loyalty in the workplace has changed over time. In today’s job market, it is not uncommon to change employers every few years. After all, companies are not as loyal to employees as they once were, so it is only natural that employees’ loyalties have also shifted.

In this article, the author attempts to answer the question whether loyalty in the workplace is worth one’s time, drawing on the lessons of a famous biblical allegory in Luke chapter 15 verse 11 to 32.

Most people today are somewhat familiar with the parable of the prodigal son; even for those who know little about or have no belief in the Bible. William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest English Poet and Dramatist of all time, for instance, borrowed plot points and motifs from the parable of the prodigal son and adapted them in The Merchant of Venice and Henry IV. Many of the world's great art museums are well stocked with works featuring scenes from the prodigal son's experience, including famous drawings and paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Dürer, and many others.

Contemporary language is likewise full of words and imagery borrowed from the familiar parable. It is fairly common to hear a wayward child referred to as "a prodigal son" (or daughter). People also sometimes speak of "killing the fatted calf" (a metaphor for extravagant celebration) or "riotous living".

So much has been written and said about the Prodigal son that we sometimes forget or ignore the elder brother and the critical life lessons he teaches us. Whilst the younger brother demanded, received, and moved on to dissipate his share of the father’s estate, the elder brother stayed, laboured, and brought enhanced value to their father’s wealth. Not a day passed without the father mourning the loss of his prodigal son and longed for his return. Indeed, he returned to a welcome feast of celebration and pageantry to the disgust and outright contempt of the elder brother, who felt unappreciated for his loyalty and selfless service to his father.

Obviously, loyalty is a virtue; and like all other virtues, it is tasking, sacrificial and comes with a price. More often than not, it does not seem to benefit the loyal person very much, materially. If anything, they are much more likely to feel betrayed than their less-loyal counterparts. The Elder-Brother Syndrome

This is what I call “The Elder Brother Syndrome.” The feeling that faithful service should be rewarded in equal measure; that loyalty should be recognized and celebrated. The ones who stay true to the organization through hell and brimstone, working day and night to build business empires from the scratch, when others remained loafers and only jumped ship for greener fields at the least opportunity, expect a just recompense.

The younger-brother types are the ones who are adventurous and risk-taking. They distrust institutions, shake off constraints, and desire to experience all that life has to offer. They do not remain at one place for long. To them, loyalty is transactional- reserved only for the highest bidder. When they ‘sin,’ they sin big and bold and everyone knows it. They are the bad boys, the deserters, the ingrates, who in everyone’s expectation ought to be punished as their ‘sins’ deserve.

The elder-brother types are the rule-keepers and people-pleasers who work stable, predictable jobs, hold traditional values and are risk-averse. Arguably, if only everyone could be more like them, the world would be a better place.

Justifiably so, the elder brother thought that he deserved more than what his father gave (or had given) him.

But wait a minute, you risk being disappointed like the elder brother if you have such expectations from your employer. This is unfair, you might be saying to yourself at this moment. But trust me, today’s corporate world is years from the day this parable was told, yet, the lessons from it are so true and relevant for every employee to be guided by.

Here are a few characteristics of the elder brother in the parable and how you can ensure that you do not bring upon yourself avoidable pain, anger, resentment, and indignation:

He thought because he obeyed the rules, he deserved to be rewarded - “All these years I’ve been slaving for you…yet you never gave me even a young goat…” The elder brother was mad because he did not think he was getting what he deserved for his faithful service. Have you ever felt short-changed by your employer? That your service has been overlooked and that you deserve a pat on the back? Well, if your boss spares a thought to shake your hands and say, ‘well done!’, lucky you. Truth be told, you are paid to work to the extent that your terms of employment and job description provide. Work hard, and your performance appraisal will acknowledge same; but do not expect any special treatment for doing what you are contractually obligated to do. The minute you feel un/underappreciated, think of an exit plan. You are only been tolerated, go where you will be celebrated (if ever there was a place like that).

He felt a sense of entitlement – Beyond his hard work and faithful service, as a first son, the elder brother felt entitled to a first share of the father’s estate in the event of a distribution. The fact that the father had overlooked this long-settled tradition and obliged the younger brother’s request had bottled up anger within him which gave vent on this day.

You are the longest serving employee; perhaps the oldest by age and the one who has trained virtually every colleague in the office. Sorry buddy, you have probably overstayed your welcome. Kill that pride and sense of entitlement before you become depressed and unnoticed. There are younger and newer employees who are daring, unconventional dare-devils who are challenging the status quo all the time. You will train them and they might soon overtake you to your chagrin.

He thought his brother’s ‘sinfulness’ was unforgivable - The elder brother was indignant that “this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes” was the object of his father’s renewed affection and celebration. His father might be willing to forgive and accommodate him, but not for all the tea in China would he.

Jack, trust me, new and exceptional talents enter the job market each year. Bright minds who care next to nothing about the ‘courtesy for boys and girls’ you were taught during your time. They party, go clubbing, they are unconventional, but they get the job done to the satisfaction of their bosses. Call them at midnight, and the work is done and delivered to your mail at the break of dawn. They are the nerds and geeks, who will provoke you with their value system and work ethics but are exceptionally skilful at what they do. Descend from the moral high horse, stop judging a book by its cover, and let your output speak for itself.

Do not get me wrong. The author is not by any means suggesting that loyalty is not worth a dime. The caution here is that being loyal alone in today’s global workspace is not a sine qua non for praise and recognition. Loyalty with the expectation of an equal measure of reward will leave you disappointed and depressed.

Like all virtues or moral codes, they come with a price. In many instances, it might look profitable to abandon them and look out for oneself; but staying the course is what makes them admirable, even in the face of pain and unfulfilled expectations. It may give you some grief in the short term, but it builds up "a storehouse" of respect from others and will allow you to be taken seriously or taken at your word when you demonstrate that you have it.

The philosophy is not "when I am loyal to this person, it will definitely pay off for me," - the philosophy rather is that "it is hard to be loyal, but I do it because it is the right thing, even though it might come with pain." You are loyal because you believe it is the right thing to do, not because it is the most efficient way to get what you want. The reward is simply in believing that it is the right thing to do and sticking to it. If you get rewarded for it, so be it!

Always remember that loyalty is a willing decision, loyalty is demanding, loyalty involves sacrifice, and remains a painful choice. Would you rather be a rebellious ‘prodigal son’ or a loyal disgruntled elder brother?