Loyalty isn't dead, employers have to earn it

Everything the companies on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For list do is aimed at keeping employees happy so they won't quit. But are workers less loyal than they used to be? The answer may surprise you.

By Anne Fisher , Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- The employers on our list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For believe in piling on the perks - anything from flextime and telecommuting to in-house gyms and free gourmet food. Says Robert Levering, co-founder of the Great Places to Work Institute (which compiles the list), "Everything these companies do is designed to inspire loyalty in employees. That's what it's all about."

Now that the economy and the job market have heated up a bit, corporate America is in one of its periodic tizzies about employee retention, and no wonder: Surveys say that as many as 75 percent of employees are job hunting. Our own online poll puts the figure lower, but still shows that a sizable 44 percent of respondents are either looking for a new job right now or expect to start sometime this year.

The 100 Best Companies report turnover that is well below the averages for their industries but are they the only ones who know how to entice people to stick around? Is loyalty dead?

You may recall that I asked you last September to write and tell me whether you think so. Since very few of us spend 35 or 40 years working for the same company and then retire with a gold watch - let alone a defined-benefit pension - I also wondered how you would define the word "loyalty" now, assuming it still exists. Many (belated) thanks to the hundreds of you who sent thoughtful, articulate and passionate answers.

And you surprised me: I expected a barrage of e-mails like the one from a reader named Scott, who wrote that "employee loyalty died in the '90s. It was murdered by companies who let self-serving senior executives enrich themselves with obscene pay packages while they destroyed the careers and retirement dreams of millions of people with pointless downsizing and restructuring designed to justify their own compensation while doing little good for shareholders." Whew.

Some readers also questioned whether employers really value loyalty anymore. "The attitude toward employees who have managed to stay with one company for many years has shifted from positive to negative," wrote Linda in Florida. "I'd much rather be the 'new person' today."

Yet the overwhelming majority - about 85 percent - of the e-mails that came in said that loyalty is alive and kicking. It's just taken a different form than in the old days, and no longer has much to do with how long a person stays in one place.

Wrote a civil engineer named Sarah, "I define loyalty as taking care of something or someone as you would yourself. It's not length of service, it's quality of service. Even if I stay a short time at a company, I'm loyal if I do good work and leave them in a good situation. Someone who works 20 years somewhere while stealing pens and playing solitaire isn't loyal at all."

A banker named Todd agreed, adding: "I think loyalty can best be shown by how you act when you're not at work. I promote the bank whenever I get a chance. If someone asks about working here or what products we offer, I'm more than happy to talk about it."

Another banker, Steven in Indiana, has worked for 11 companies since 1979. He wrote, "I consider myself a loyal employee, which I define as working hard for your employer, being an advocate for them and speaking well of them - even after you are gone and working for a competitor."

If the new loyalty is short-term, it's also much more of a two-way street. "Career-wise, I know I've been at my current job too long. But I stay because, even when the workload is heavy and budgets get tight, my boss is careful to involve, encourage and reward me," wrote a 20-something named Dana. "The day I quit getting that is the day I dust off my resume."

Other readers say they're loyal to their current employers - for now anyway - because higher-ups are willing to go the extra mile in encouraging flexibility and allowing for the demands of having an outside life.

Vinnie, at a New York investment bank, wrote that he turned down an offer for a job that would have paid 30 percent more because, unlike his current employer, the other company didn't allow telecommuting. "Employee loyalty exists," he wrote, "but it depends on what the company is willing to do for its employees."

Assuming my mailbox reflects how most employees see loyalty nowadays, the implications for companies are clear: Adopting some of the practices of the 100 Best and treating employees like royalty can keep turnover from skyrocketing. But even if you treat people as well as you know how (or as well as you can afford to), they won't hesitate to jump ship - while still considering themselves loyal to you, at least for as long as you've got them.

Do you believe employee loyalty still exists? Are you loyal to your employer? Does your employer take steps to retain employee loyalty? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog.

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