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Employee Commitment Which Contract Do You Prefer

August 1, 1996
Related Topics: Retention, Featured Article
We Americans are particularly good at viewing the past through rose-colored glasses that obscure the less-pretty details and romanticize the rest. The Revolutionary War, which was actually a tax rebellion by petulant upstarts, is now seen as a noble experiment to create a finer political order. The Civil War, in reality a brutal and costly fight over states’ rights, has been recast as the last gasp of chivalry (see "Gone with the Wind") and the dawn of racial equality. Even the Great Depression, a period of economic despair and blight, is often seen as an opportunity for us to discover the nobler side of ourselves (see "The Grapes of Wrath").

This tendency isn’t all bad. Whatever their original impetus, the Revolutionary and Civil wars left legacies of good to the nation, and the Depression taught us new ways of working together to solve problems. But there are inherent dangers, too, in gazing too long at the rose-colored view. One risk is that the present looks less and less appealing in comparison to the ever-more-perfect past. It’s one reason that we—the wealthiest, safest, healthiest, best educated society in history—now face the great malaise that has infected us.

I raise the issue because our penchant to romanticize the past now threatens our ability to see earlier business practices clearly. In particular, there’s been a wave of nostalgia for what’s being called the old employment contract, now characterized as an era of benevolence in which doing a good job was rewarded with lifetime employment. Yes, but ¼

Was the old employment contract really all that wonderful? No. Our wish to make it so is borne of our innate distrust of change and the need to cling to something familiar. In doing so, however, we lose sight of our own progress.

The progress is most apparent to me when I think about my grandfathers, both of whom were signatories of that so-called contract and both of whom suffered, to some degree, from its now-forgotten clauses.

My father’s father was a lifetime civil servant, locked into a hierarchy that re-warded length of service more than initiative. Without a promotion to the next level there was little or no hope for significant salary increases or other compensation. Yes, he enjoyed job security and a steady paycheck. But he was bored for at least the last 15 years of his working life, and may never really have reached his potential. I don’t think he would’ve found a contract that included lateral moves, skill-based pay and other current practices all bad.

My mother’s father had a less linear career, but spent most of his working life as a salesperson. At 65, he was forced to retire, despite the fact that he was then the company’s top salesperson and among the top nationwide in his industry. Yes, he enjoyed job security until that point, but what good is a contract that runs out before you or the company really want it to? I don’t think he would find a contract that allowed top performers to keep working all bad.

Yes, the economy has forced us to give up some appealing ideas, lifetime em-ployment among them. We have gained as much as we have lost, however, and we’d do better to remember that and to communicate it to employees. We can win back their commitment if we help them see beyond systems and protocol that stopped working and to recognize the benefits of the new system. For some ideas on how to do that, please see the cover story.

Personnel Journal, August 1996, Vol. 75, No. 8, p. 4.

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