A Publication of WTVP

There's a paradox in management in the early 21st century, whether we live in central Illinois or just about anywhere in America. More and more, managers are insisting on employee loyalty to the business. For temporary contractors, consultants working for a single client, or presenters in an educational institution, agreements demand the person providing the services enter a non-compete agreement. Those agreements can cover other businesses in the same industry-or any business in any industry.

This trend is a bit like saluting the flag on Flag Day-though the contradiction these days is that courts support people exercising First Amendment rights by not saluting the flag. Disloyalty is "in" among some in our society, even in the midst of challenges to our democracy-or, in the view of some, because of it.

Employee loyalty can take several different forms. It can involve compliance with or obedience to managers or business owners. It also can mean a sort of "gag order" regarding trade secrets or business developments, whether the gag governs media contact or other businesses. There's value to knowledge and practice, especially when a business owner or a company manager claims the idea or process is unique to the business and is a fundamental profit center.

There can be a personal element to employee loyalty, which can be exceptionally difficult to handle with grace. I've had to deal with consulting clients where an egocentric owner or manager demands compliance just because he or she is the boss. It's like the bumper sticker on some automobiles: "Because I'm the mommy/daddy, that's why!"

There's increasing attention to loyalty regarding ownership of intellectual property. In the electronic revolution, there's considerable challenge to the concept of intellectual property. People-especially those in their teens and twenties, don't recognize that digital content has an "owner." The assumption seems to be that if it's digital, it belongs to everyone. Yet there's value in the intangibles of intellectual property.

These issues are ethical at the core. Is it ethical to demand employee or contractor loyalty? Must employees or contractors forego personal freedom to serve a corporate citizen? If they leave the job or move on to another contract, is it acceptable to restrict their movement and ability to generate income?

These are difficult questions because two fundamental ethical issues are at stake-two basic values. First, does an employer or contractor have a prior right to demand that employees fully respect corporate ownership, even if that demand impinges on personal freedom? In other words, must a person surrender some freedoms to go to work for a business, organization, or institution that pays them for their services? This is a basic ethical stance: corporate good transcends personal freedom.

Yet a common theme in employment in the 21st century is that we all are "free agents" who're able to come and go as we find opportunities to put skill and knowledge to work. Sometimes I've told businesses they have volunteers who happen to be paid-just like I tell nonprofits they have volunteers who function like employees. Why can't people use their talents and competence wherever they please? Egoism, whether we like it or not-or live it or not-is an ethical stance.

So where does loyalty to an employer or client enter into the equation? From an ethical standpoint, it is to recognize two fundamental elements in an employment or contract relationship: exchange and commitment. Both the employer and the employee, or the client and the contractor, have shares in these practices.

Exchange means that, as an employee or contractor, I'm turning over some freedom, power, and self-service to work under and for something greater than my own interests. In exchange, the employer or client is rendering payment and the ability to contribute one's knowledge and ability for advancement of self and organization.

Commitment means that, as an employer or contractor, I don't view employees as expendable resources that can be tossed out when the company or business changes direction. It also means wages and fees will be paid in a timely fashion, and written and implied promises will be kept. An employer or contractor doesn't "harvest" knowledge and then set an employee loose. But an employee also has a commitment to respect the fact that his or her contribution of knowledge or practice is for the greater good-not just for personal advancement. The employee or contractor isn't out for self alone.

In the end, loyalty means parties understand there's mutuality in any working relationship. In the end, we owe something to each other that's greater than self-directed ends. We aren't free agents or corporate czars. We're collaborators in creating value for one another and for the people we both serve-our customers, our students, our citizens, our economy, and our society. IBI