During the 1980s, previously robust
businesses began to falter. Deregulation affected transportation, telecom
and utilities. Layoffs resulting from
consolidation, mergers and bank-ruptcies became commonplace.
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.
Employees began taking
more ownership over
their own career progression. Top performers knew their value and
actively engaged in finding their best next steps.
Career mobility became
the norm as organizations
began poaching from each
other more than ever.
When I felt ready to move into a role solely devoted to compensation and benefits, that route was blocked where I was—
but a nearby company had an opening I was happy to accept.
Four years later, when I wanted to take another step forward,
I landed a job with Southwest as director of comp and ben.
Meanwhile, organizations started to focus on building cultures of excellence. A key strategy was attracting and retaining
top talent, so high-potential and high-performing employees
were highly valued while unproductive workers were let go. ( We
can credit Jack Welch with evangelizing this approach, which
turned GE into a talent mecca.)
Speaking of Jack Welch, boards seeking a higher return for
their shareholders looked outside their organizations for CEOs
who could turn the company around and drive higher returns.
With the arrival of new CEOs and turnaround cultures, the
C-suite was filled with bright new stars, and leaders in turn
brought in fresh talent from the outside.
Work not considered core to the business was often outsourced, moved offshore or automated. As technology evolved
exponentially, knowledge workers became the most sought-after talent, while administrative and manufacturing roles disappeared. Union membership began its slow decline as manufacturing facilities were moved to right-to-work states or
At the same time, a scarcity of workers with the right skills
was intensified by the
relatively small size of
Generation X. Employ-
ers competed for top tal-
ent with the same rigor
that they did for cus-
in Silicon Valley.
To attract and
keep high-per-formers, employers sought to connect employees’
hearts and minds
to the organization’s vision, mission
and values. Engagement replaced loyalty. Culture and social
responsibility became critical to driving behaviors,
building a team and delivering results. In many organizations, all employees—not just
those at the top—were invited to
HR, too, took a star turn. We
started to move from the back office to management positions
and often to the C-suite. We became the talent and culture
architects of organizations, regularly presenting to our boards’
executive compensation committees and leading discussions on
succession planning and talent review. Many of us joined corporate boards as talent became a key competitive differentiator.
Today, our most creative and talented workers have entrepreneurial spirits. In fact, many would rather be self-employed
than work in traditional jobs. Companies are responding in
kind, creating startup cultures within larger organizational
structures, offering innovative rewards and professional development programs, and providing more flexibility.
Employers no longer expect workers to stay forever, nor
do employees assume their company will be their professional
home for the long haul. Yet in many organizations, loyalty
between company leaders and employees persists in a different
way, with both promising to give one another the very best they
have for as long as their relationship lasts.
Libby Sartain, SHRM-SCP, is an active business advisor who serves
on the boards of ManpowerGroup, Shutterfly Inc., AARP and the
SHRM Foundation. She served as head of HR for both Yahoo Inc.
and Southwest Airlines and is a past chairman of the Society for
Human Resource Management’s board of directors.