When The Bonds Of Loyalty Are Broken

Corporate America's workplace is undergoing tumultuous change. Every week brings news of yet another corporation cutting 10% of its work force. Most of the layoffs are taking place in the service sector, and most are of white-collar employees. The traditional corporate career, which was once the cornerstone of American middle-class life, is rapidly disappearing. The long climb up the ladder by the Organization Man of the 1950s is being replaced by the job-hopping managers and freelance professionals of the 1990s.

This breakdown in the bonds of employment is generating intense ill will on both sides. Employees who have given organizations their loyalty and their best efforts feel betrayed when they are fired for financial reasons beyond their control. Employers, in turn, feel their work force no longer shows much loyalty to the organizations that have hired them.

Powerful forces of global competition and corporate consolidation are behind the drive of U.S. companies to slash their costs and become more efficient. Yet neither Japanese nor European economic rivals are playing by the same cutthroat rules. They, too, are striving for increased productivity, but not at the expense of their human capital. Most retain the lifelong loyalty and commitment of their employees. American companies will have to find new ways to motivate their employees to collaborate for long-term competitiveness.

A first step might be to acknowledge that if U.S. companies can't or won't guarantee employment, they should at least guarantee employability. In the new world of work, the best companies are offering men and women the ability to increase their portfolio of skills, experiences, and reputation, which provide marketable skills if they are laid off. That means offering top-notch training and giving visible rewards to individuals for jobs well done. A second step is to help people plan for an early departure from the corporate nest. Making pensions portable is an extremely important step. So is helping people plan for buying their own health, disability, and life insurance. Finally, companies might consider the unthinkable-permitting employees to moonlight in order to develop the kinds of entrepreneurial skills, self-confidence, and direct contacts with customers needed to begin their own businesses if the day of reckoning comes.