Ibegan my HR career in the late 1970s armed with a newly minted MBA, a few hopes and reams, and no real experience in corporate life. My first employer was a subsidiary of a large corporate conglomerate (at the time)— Western Union Corp. Like many ambitious
young people, I planned to start at the bottom and work
my way up.
I was a generalist in a smaller subsidiary, and my work included
recruitment, compensation and benefits, payroll administration,
and compliance. I received ample training, mentors and support
from the corporate headquarters. I was dedicated to the job and
loyal to the company. And I firmly believed I had a solid career
path ahead of me.
Looking back, I must laugh a little. My father had advised
me not to go into “personnel.” He worried I would end up as a
sweet old lady just holding down a desk in the benefits department. He didn’t envision a future in which talent would become
central to business—and HR would become integral to finding
and cultivating that talent.
I feel lucky to have been part of HR’s evolution during some of
the most exciting and tumultuous times. I led HR at two employers recognized on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies in
America, including Southwest Airlines, which was rated No. 1
the first year the list came out.
What Loyalty Looked Like Then
Forty years ago, employees didn’t have many expectations of
their work, nor did they demand much from it. Conversely,
our bosses’ outlook was also simple: If we put in the work, we
would be rewarded with competitive pay and benefits, raises,
Most organizations paid 100 percent of the health
insurance costs for employees, and some, if not all,
covered family members at little to no additional
expense. Employers provided defined benefit pension
plans as workers built careers within a single company,
expecting to retire 30 or 40 years after their first day
on the job. Employees trusted their bosses to make good
decisions not only for the sake of the business, but on their
behalf as well.
For their part, employers expected workers to show up, do
their jobs, avail themselves of learning opportunities and progress up the company ladder in a stepwise fashion. Turnover was
low in most industries, with a few exceptions such as retail and
The Changing Tide
After a few years, I learned my first tough lesson in corporate
life. The subsidiary I worked for failed to meet the expectations
of its owners, and it was put up for sale. Multiple layoffs would
be needed. As I did the HR work needed to plan for a reduction in force, I was told to also prepare a termination packet
I was in my mid-20s then, and I quickly landed on my feet in
another job. Soon afterward, however, my father and father-in-law were also laid off—one from a major airline and the other
from a large bank. Both were in their late 50s, and finding other
positions was not so easy for them.
From those experiences, I realized the importance of becoming
my own strongest advocate when it came to my career. I resolved
to always be ready to change jobs, whether I was planning a move
or not. So I built a vast professional network and kept my resume
up-to-date with a progression of roles and responsibilities.
The pact between companies and their employees still exists, but it has changed.
By Libby Sartain, SHRM-SCP
‘Gradually, employees’ trust in their companies
eroded. Meanwhile, employers backed away
from their “build your career here” promises. So
began the death of the conventional employer/
employee loyalty covenant.’