Should or can an employer or—in much rarer cases—an employee demand loyalty?

But exactly what is this vaunted “loyalty” that is being demanded, expected or even merely hoped for in employer-employee and company-customer relationships?

Loyalty is a funny thing: Once you offer it, by definition you can’t retract it, if it’s accepted—because then, of course, it wasn’t loyalty in the first place and, also of course, you would then be in breach of some kind of quasi-contract, subject to whatever penalties apply.

That is, unless the loyalty is a “gift”. But if it’s a gift, no boss, employee, spouse, fiancée or anyone else—not even a swan—can demand it.

This much is clear from the basic definition of loyalty as “offering, providing and showing complete and constant support for someone or something”.

Gift aside, all of this suggests that loyalty is either like some kind of contractually assured signing bonus offered by an employer, e.g., a traditional Japanese big “zaibatsu” or “keiretsu”  lifetime-employment corporation, or a quasi-dowry offered by a prospective employee looking forward to a lifetime job, like a lifetime marriage, while courting a company.

Loyalty as Investment

But, think of loyalty as an investment—which is what it commonly is, come to think of it. It is an investment because it is a scarce resource allocated in expectation of a larger return to oneself than would be obtained without it. This naturally raises the question of investment “liquidity”—of how easy it is to “cash out”.

Some investments are highly liquid, others less so, and still others are very illiquid—gold, heavily-traded stocks and 10-year T-bills, respectively, for example. In the most liquid contractual case, the loyalty lasts only as long as the job does. Completely illiquid is the lifetime loyalty implied and required by permanent confidentiality clauses in contracts.

The knee-jerk, idealist assessment is that real loyalty is an illiquid investment—if viewed within an investment framework. You shouldn’t be able to “cash out” whenever you feel like it, again, because that is inconsistent with the very concept of loyalty.

But if loyalty is a highly illiquid investment, locked in, so to speak, as long as you are locked into the job or into the employee, then it may be completely undeserved and nothing more than part of contract fulfillment and delivery of “consideration” and compensation.

Now that hardly comports with our romanticized notions of loyalty—whether it is the loyalty of a spouse, two swans, a samurai toward his feudal lord, a Lakers fan, an employee, a recruiter or an employer.

Again, by definition, loyalty is either deserved, enforced or “misplaced”. Unfortunately, in a corporate contractual investment-paradigm context and interpretation, “misplaced” cannot apply, since the loyalty is a self-validating contractual obligation.

Well, then it’s “deserved”—right? Nope. “Deserved”, like “misplaced”, also has no place in that contractual framework. “Earned” does, e.g., income; but not loyalty, since loyalty, unlike mid-contract earned income, is a precondition of contract acceptance, despite any appearance of also being a contractual reward for it.

So this presents a dilemma: either the loyalty a boss or an employee under contract demands, expects or hopes for cannot be categorized as “deserved” if defined contractually; or, if romanticized, cannot be demanded, in the absence of any legal enforcements.  That leaves “forced and undeserved”.

Bottom line: workplace loyalty cannot simultaneously be romanticized, deserved and a right if viewed either contractually or as an investment.

At best, it’s a contractually enforced obligation.

Loyalty as Gift

Well, then, what if the loyalty is a gift? You know, “pledge my troth”, “fall on my sword” or “chop off heads” for you kinds of expressions of eternally vowed fealty and loyalty, say, of a Camelot knight or even of a Camelot serf?

Reiterating the point made above, if it’s a gift, it can’t be demanded—unless “gift” is a euphemism for kingly “tribute” to be paid by cringing vassals. 

From this perspective, things can get rather awkward: For example, the fidelity and loyalty pledged at a marriage ceremony—is it a mutually exchanged “gift”? If so, neither party has any right to complain, if the gift turns out to be defective, breaks, or is lent to or replicated with a third party.

The same goes for boss and employee: If employee loyalty is not contractually stipulated and enforced, e.g., in the form of a  sanctioned lifetime confidentiality clause that survives the term of the employment contract, and is, instead, purely a gift, not only does the boss have no right to complain, he also can be considered an ingrate for not appreciating the loyalty that was offered, as long as it was.

Naturally, a clever boss would say that “past loyalty” is a contradictory concept, since, after all, it is supposed to be “constant” as well as “complete”—exemptions and exceptions allowed only for those who are deceased.

Simply put, “loyal once” won’t make sense to this kind of boss or mind. The affinities with samurai thinking should be obvious: For both of them, true loyalty is not only unconditional, it’s also permanent.

The Conditional Unconditionality of Loyalty: Learning from the Birds

That sounds like swan logic—but without swan insight. Switching the focus to a different kind of bird, say, a migratory species, a very subtle conditionality of pair loyalty can be discerned: It’s all about territory, the need for pair cooperation and reproductive success.

Here’s why: It has been observed that many migratory birds return to the same nesting sites in repeated migrations. When these sites are crowded upon arrival, there can be mad scrambles for the best sites— away from predators, shielded from powerful ocean winds, etc.

If the two birds in a previously mated pair are “loyal” to each other, upon arrival after an exhausting flight, they will not have to waste precious time and remaining energy in courtship looking for a mate to nest with before looking for a nesting site. While others dance, they nest, proving that “the race is to the swift swift.” [No. That's not a typo.]

Hence, the evolutionary pressure on these kinds of birds to mate for life, or at least for more than one breeding season, is intense, since failure to do so carries grave risks of having vulnerable, inadequate nesting sites and fewer surviving offspring.

In his in-depth study, “Fitness Consequences of Long-Term Pair Bonds in Barnacle Geese: Monogamy in the Extreme“, published 2001, Jeffrey Black, of Humboldt State University, says,

“I stress that the usefulness of mate fidelity in goose societies is linked with their high degree of site fidelity to foraging and breeding sites.”

So, far from being Walt Disneyesque unconditional bonding, the loyalty of such migratory and other bird pairs is conditional in the extreme, in being manifestly spurred by competition for prime nesting sites and the need for efficient cooperation.

As for the Disney mated-for-life swan, a University of Michigan species-diversity site has this to say:

Mute swans do not mate for life, contrary to the stereotype of the ‘pining swan’ who has lost its mate. In fact, some have been observed to have as many as four mates, or even ‘divorce’ one mate in favor of another. However, established pairs are more successful breeders than non-established pairs and mute swans do mate with only one other swan during each breeding season.”

Loyalty of a Camelot serf or knight was no different, and as far from unconditional fealty as can be imagined. The serf, for his part, offered loyalty—where it was not extracted under threat of expulsion from the manor or worse—in exchange for protection from barbarian hordes, robbers and even other serfs.

No romantic notions then and there—just common sense and sound judgment in making the best deal under the circumstances. The knight’s loyalty?—well, now you should be able to figure that one out yourself, bearing in mind the iconic disloyalty of the adulterous Lancelot and Guinevere in the legends of King Arthur.

A similar analysis applies to the concept of a “loyal customer”.

A light bulb should be popping on in your head right about now: Unconditional loyalty is about as unlikely as unconditional love—psychoanalyst Eric Fromm’s overrated Art of Loving gospel of “unconditional love” notwithstanding.

If love or loyalty were truly unconditional we’d all be loyal to or love door knobs, passing clouds, a rusty nail, a basketball or other people’s kids, since there would be no conditions whatsoever restricting our choices, not even “just one”, e.g., that sole customary requirement being that it’s our or my kid.

So, can a boss—or an employee, or a swan—demand loyalty? Yes—but only if it is contractually specified and enforceable as a precondition of employment.

In which case, forget any delusions of the loyalty being deserved, idealized, romanticized or unconditional.

And forget about it not only absolutely…

…but also unconditionally.

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