Careers belong to individuals, jobs to employers

Legend speaks of a time when an apprentice joined an enterprise, learned the trade under various masters, enhanced his or her skills, moved up in responsibility and authority, and in the process spent an entire lifetime with that enterprise. The leaders of the enterprise took good care of their people, rewarding them for their loyalty and fealty; nurturing their talents; helping them on their journey to become better professionals.

It was the time when a concept called “career” was meaningful.

In the land of the rising sun, this concept was particularly in the ascendant till the 1970s and possibly the 1980s. People joined an organization and remained there till they retired. The same could be said of many companies in the United States and India where people worked in mills, assembly lines, manufacturing plants, and industries all their lives.

This is in contrast with today’s norm where people flit from company to company over the course of their work lives. In fact, times have changed so much that it is viewed as a weakness if one has only a single employer shown on their résumé. Modern recruiters would frown upon their “inadequate breadth of experience” and “lack of initiative and ambition” (more about the blasé recruitment techniques of the present day in another post).


The hands that sow the seeds

Employees are hardly to blame. They are merely adapting to the signs of the times as best as they can, to do the best they can, for themselves and their families.

It is the nature of employers that is responsible for much of this mindset and trend.

The way they behave and treat their people, employers of this age do not merit the dedication of people’s entire professional careers to them.

There is little genuineness or humanness in a significant number of corporations. When profit is the only thing that matters, when anything done for people is largely eyewash or intended for publicity, when the bare minimum legally-required is the standard for people’s welfare, then why would people stay?

This has begotten acute selfishness – on the part of employers and resultantly on the part of employees.

People offer their skills, but very often, not their passion or deepest drive. They stay only till they find another employer who offers more money and better prospects of climbing the corporate hierarchy.  

How can the average employee be faulted for such actions, when even CEOs keep jumping ship (loaded with ludicrously exorbitant severance packages) only to resurface in another company (for an even higher pay). At that level, there is the added advantage of being immune to poor performance in preceding companies. If that is the behavior of the so-called corporate role models, then why would a junior employee be expected to stay?


Movement is not taboo

Now, it is not always a bad thing for an individual to leave a company. There are many instances when it becomes the logical and desired course of action. When the culture, environment and practices of a company are anathema to an individual’s personal values, ethics and work style, it is best for one to move out and find a more compatible company. In fact, it is the hallmark of any intelligent person to resign from toxic quagmires in search of something they enjoy and like.

Sometimes, an individual simply yearns for a change – to sample the variety that a different organization in a different line of work, perhaps in a different city or a different country would offer. There is then the multi-industry and often multi-dimensional experience to be gained by such movement.

No! Movement, change and progression are not bad at all.

But we also recognize that such movement need not be the norm; it can be the exception. Some individuals would rather concentrate on doing the job well than constantly look for another job. Such people like the stability that comes from an assured job and income, based on which they can buy homes, raise families, plan for their children’s university education, their own retirement, and the like.

In the latter scenario, a significant portion of their thoughts, ideas and time go into perpetual job-hunting which means that subsequently fewer thoughts and ideas and less time go to the performance of the job on hand with the current employer.

From an employer perspective, high employee turnover means higher hiring and training costs, not to mention the cost of the time lost while people are navigating the learning curve.

In spite of these home truths that lie in plain sight, companies either don’t realize or won’t acknowledge that their practices sow the seeds that cause this trend.


Experience deserves respect

As people get older, there is the risk of them becoming less desirable in the workforce.

Many companies and fresh-out-of-college recruiters forget that experience is an invaluable asset to any organization. There are myriad instances in a corporation where youthful enthusiasm and fire cannot get the job done without the insight and steadying hand of experience.

Does it not then follow logically that senior employees must be treated well and with respect instead of as dinosaurs on their way to sure extinction? There are few things more insulting and hurtful in someone’s professional life than to be treated as a useless vestigial organ.

It is a frightening prospect after, say 20 years with a company — when one is accustomed to a certain office decorated with family photos and certificates of achievement, a certain route to get to the workplace, a familiar group of people to work with, and favourite restaurants for lunch around the office – to suddenly receive a pink slip and be frog-marched like a thief out of what was a second home.

Such a person would find one’s belief in a “career” with that one organization shattered.

Thinking philosophically, beyond the confines of corporate cubbyholes, everything in life has a purpose. Just as the young have a purpose in an organization, so do the older and experienced people. Is it so difficult to understand this and apply it to a corporation?


What employers can do

Companies may claim it is the employees who are the problem. They seldom stay, so why should an employer do anything more than the minimum for a revolving employee population?

We have an observation. Aren’t companies far more powerful than the average employee? Don’t companies have way more resources than the average employee? With power must come a sense of responsibility – a desire and willingness to do what is right.

Instead of waiting for employees to wag their tails and stay in a bad kennel, could not the master try and build a better kennel and home first?

If there is something positive to be done, wouldn’t an employer want to be the first mover?

If companies do want people to spend more of their working lives – their professional careers – with them, then they must offer opportunity, clarity, commitment and genuine compassion for people’s wellbeing. Measures could include the following:

  • Better employee relations.
  • Clear path to advancement (to cater to ambitious aspiring employees).
  • Opportunities to learn and improve themselves.
  • Tangible and intangible appreciation and rewards for good work.
  • Actions to make it a place that people look forward to spending the major portion of their day in.

The above suggestions straddle the people function and the PR function (if you want to know why we don’t use the detestable terms “HR” or “human capital”, please read this blog post).

One wonders why the “people” people are not leading such a charge. Why are many of them hiding behind policy statements, links to online orientation courses, payroll software, and PeopleSoft screens?


Corporate alumni relations charade

A new development is the institution of alumni relations programs by corporations. They maintain a database of people who have left the company and keep sending them newsletters and email invitations to allegedly exclusive events. Some companies shamelessly restrict such efforts to people above a certain level – only people with director, vice president, board member or other lofty phrases in their new job title shall be worthy of such attention.

Many employers forget that these so-called alumni made a conscious decision to leave, for a variety of reasons, one of which could be (and usually is) an unconducive work environment. It is quite possible that a significant majority of them do not care about the employers they have left behind, or even want to hear from them.

Inexplicably, it is often the worst-offending companies with noxious corporate cultures that have such alumni relations programs.

Yet, this effort is lauded as important to “maintain key relations” with past employees. The ugly truth is that such efforts are done with the purpose of somehow squeezing more revenue out of the new employers of these so-called alumni, or to attempt poaching them when they are doing well elsewhere.


The Verafluenti aperçu

When we start hiring, we will call the opportunities what they truly are – jobs.

We don’t expect people to stay with us all their lives – it would be unrealistic. We would love it if they did. But we are also pragmatic enough to recognize the rather slim probability of this.

If and when they want to leave, we would bid them a fond farewell with good letters of reference (assuming they have performed ethically) and wish them the best in their “careers”. For us, helping people become better professionals and human beings is far more important than trying to sound pompous.

In this age, individuals will likely have a career made up of several jobs with several companies. It may sound grandiose to position a role with one company as a career instead of a job – another instance of the corporate malaise to use jargon and self-aggrandize.

A career belongs to an individual. Jobs are what companies offer. We would be one such job in what we hope will be illustrious careers. We will do our best to make this one job with us as fulfilling, educative and useful as possible.

* * *

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

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