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Jun 04

RFC: Professional and Personal Relationships

I was recently sent this e-mail:

Question I’ve been wondering about for the last couple of weeks, for reasons
that I guess are pretty transparent. What kind of loyalty is expected –
socially, not legally – in a job?

What I mean is this. As far as I can tell, people see it as their God-given
right to look around for a better job, and to take it with the minimum
allowed notice if they find one. However, the same thing is looked down on
in, for example, a romantic relationship (I guess there are plenty of
liberal-minded people who would even disagree with that). One difference is
that the decision to take or keep a job is usually financially motivated, so
a better financial offer is considered enough of a reason to abandon it –
but it also has a social ripple effect, because by leaving you add to the
workload (and not necessarily pay packet) of other people, or else decrease
the company’s productivity, which will come back and affect its employees;
either way that will have an effect on their lives, both financially and in
terms of stress, free time, yada yada… And in any half-decent job you’ll
have some kind of friendship with other employees and your employer; in any
other situation, doing something for self-serving financial reasons while
inconveniencing people around you would be seen as a betrayal of
friendship, wouldn’t it?

Of course, employment contracts tend to have clauses that allow you to
leave – specifying the amount of notice you have to give/get, whether you
can go and work for the competition, and so on – so in some sense your right
to leave is anticipated and accounted for. But there is (relatively)
clear-cut divorce law as well; that doesn’t make it open season for “keeping
your options open” all the time.

Does it make a difference what kind of work it is? If a bricklayer leaves
for a better offer, they can be replaced by the next guy that comes along
with (I imagine) a minimum of adjustment – not to say anything against
bricklayers, just that it’s the nature of the job that skills are
transferable almost universally. But in programming for example, it might
take a new employee months to come up to speed with the work done by someone
who left (especially if they don’t write good comments :); so it’s a bigger
investment, and kind of a vote of confidence, for the company to take you on
in the first place. Does that demand some kind of loyalty?

I’m interested in what other people think about this.

I’ll start. It’s true that there are certain similarities between the
commitment necessary for a job, and those required in a relationship.
As I’ve alluded to in the title of this post, however, there still is
– or should be, at least – a strong divide between professional and personal
relationships. As long as activities can be confined to those spheres,
then things aren’t going to get as morally problematic.

If you break your contract and go to work for a competitor because they
are offering you a hefty pay increase, then maybe you aren’t going to be
very well liked in your old company. Do it too often, and your professional
reputation may be shot. (Corporate slut, I believe the term is!)

Which is fair enough. When you are offered a role in a company, you
are making a commitment because the company is also making a commitment
to you in terms of training you and educating you. You’re also privy
to the inner workings of the business, and while you can’t legally
run off with trade secrets, there are intangible skills and techniques
(ie, experience) that you take out with you to other companies. You’re
understandably going to piss off more than a few people if you jump ship
at a critical time in the year and you’re a vital cog in the project.

Remember that it’s a two-way relationship, however. The company must
work to keep you as well. If the company doesn’t treat you well, then
it’s only fair that it doesn’t drag your career down a path
you don’t like. And since we’re talking about professional corporate
relationships here, we’re really boiling everything down to a sterile
cost/benefit proposition. What’s that phrase they keep flashing up at the
start of The Apprentice? “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

Companies don’t attract people merely by the size of the paypacket. The
perks, the people you work with (company culture), the opportunities
you are given to develop and the overall performance of the company are
some other factors. Perhaps the most important of those is the company
culture. There has to be a fit.

Things aren’t that cut and dried in real life, though, and there is a
fair amount of overlap between personal and professional matters. Whether
this is intentional (romance with a colleague, social events with
colleagues that aren’t work related) or unintentional (getting pissed off
with someone who is not pulling their weight in a team and taking that
grudge with you when you leave the office). Forming personal friendships
at work is expected. I mean, when you spend the majority of time of your
waking life at work, and you see these people virtually every day, you’re
going to befriend at least some of them! The better you fit the culture
of the company, the better you will get along with your colleagues on
both a personal and professional level.

And with any type of relationship, you’ll respect each other and if you
do have to jump ship, try to give sufficient notice. Not all companies
will dislike you if you swap companies. Some will be even supportive
(you’re alumni, after all, and could be working for a future client or
supplier). Personal considerations may play a part. Let’s say you’re
managing a small business with your wife, or a close friend. You get
a stunning job offer. Obviously your personal relationship with the
person is going to affect whether you take that offer, or don’t because
you know the stress it will cause the other person. But if we’re
talking about a large corporate enterprise, with people you may only
have known for a year or two, the strength of the personal relationships
is going to be a much lesser consideration in this case.

So, should there be loyalty? Unlike a marriage, where there are vows,
there are no such vows in business. Contracts are promises, but they
are not moral undertakings. Breaching a contract is not a criminal
offence (in a typical case), and if it’s worth your while to breach
one (accounting for money/reputation concerns) then there’s nothing
inherently bad about it in a moral sense. Professionally though?
It can be bad, yes.

Ok I’ve rambled on about this far longer than I intended. Comments?

  6:26pm (GMT +10.00)  •  Culture  •   •  Tweet This  •  Comments (1)

This post has a single comment

1.  Pete

Big companies? I’d have no qualms about it. Most companies are going to be around for a lot longer than I will be. Smaller partnerships tho, thats another story.

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