What distinguishes a career activist from other working men and women? And just as important, how is the way a career activist manages their own work experience in the 21st Century different from the way that employers managed the careers of their employees in the 20th Century?
Over the next four weeks, I’ll answer those questions with a series of posts on the four cultural values of a career activist. These values form the ethos—the culture—of career activism, one that both acknowledges and leverages the realities of the modern American workplace. They are not simply a reassembled set of old values, but rather an entirely new way of looking at the purpose of and possibilities in a person’s work and employment.
The first of these values – a new strategic imperative – was covered in my last post. In this post, I’ll explore the second cultural value of career activism – a new definition of loyalty.
Traditionally, America’s workers have been conditioned to believe that the workday belonged to their employer, and the rest of the day belonged to them. In practice, however, those two periods of time were never accorded equal priority.
Employers have long acted as if they purchase the talent of their employees—some even call their recruiters their “talent acquisition teams”—and that their ownership takes precedence over everything else. It gives them the right to intrude into not only the rest of a worker’s day, but also into the rest of a worker’s life. Their paycheck doesn’t buy just a 40 or 50 or 80 hour workweek, it acquires their workers’ holidays, vacation time and sick days, as well.
Employers, on the other hand, could lay off workers by the thousands and count on the Wall Street crowd to applaud their move as smart management. They could promise job security and describe their employees as assets, but if they reneged on their commitments and treated their workers as liabilities, they would be lionized by business school professors and the investment gurus on the paid programming of late night television.
Loyalty, at least as it has come to be practiced in many places in the American business community, is a one-way street. It serves the interests of employers by demanding the unflagging, come-what-may commitment of workers, but it leaves those same workers without any reciprocal level of support. Employees are expected to be loyal to the organization that pays them, but the organization is under no similar obligation to be loyal to its employees in return.
A New Two-Way Form of Loyalty
Career activists reject this inequality of loyalty. They believe they have as much right to their workday and to their wellbeing as employers have to theirs. Even more radical is their notion that a paycheck does not commit them to even eight hours of labor per day, designed solely to address the wants and needs of their employers. Career activists see their work, instead, as an investment in what serves their own best interests. They will spend countless hours on that task—on earning the deep and enduring satisfaction that comes from doing their best work—but not one minute on ensuring the quarterly earnings of some corporation.
Career activists, then, are uppity employees. They refuse to be any employer’s property. To these persons of talent, organizations are simply the transient users of their talent, and that talent is only on loan to them and only for as long as it serves their own best interests. In other words, the owners of talent are those in whom it is endowed. Each individual person is the rightful owner of their personal capacity for excellence. And, it is that person to whom a career activist listens. They pay attention to themselves.
Ironically, this seemingly self-interested approach to employment actually equalizes the benefits of loyalty. When a career activist does their best work, they also serve the best interests of their employer. They may be doing it for themselves, but the outcome of their effort provides a full and sufficient return on an employer’s investment in them. By being loyal to themselves—by ascribing as much importance to their own wellbeing as employers ascribe to theirs—they are being loyal, as well, to the organizations that depend upon their talent.
This balance of benefit is the new dynamic in loyalty. It establishes the right of a person to work for him or herself even as they are employed by a for-profit company, a not-for-profit association, an educational institution or even by their local, state or the federal government. It replaces the “you’re ours until we toss you out the door” credo of employer-centric loyalty with the “what’s ours is yours as long as we both benefit” outlook of career activists. And, that assertion of their personal equality in the workplace liberates them. It is their Emancipation Proclamation.
Thanks for reading,
Note: The above post was drawn in part from my new book, The Career Activist Republic. To read more, get the book at Amazon.com, in many bookstores and on Weddles.com.