Covid-19 and Employer Loyalty

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Introduction

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about loyalty – Maybe it’s the Covid-19 blues or something more? Is Covid-19 exacerbating workplace loyalty? It is common knowledge that work will not be the same after the Covid-19 crisis. Employers will be different. Employees returning to work will be different. People have had a lot of time to think deeply, and to interrogate their priorities. Employees will be looking out to see that things are done differently in the workplace. Staff would want employers who truly care about their development as individuals, and not just about the business. And this goes beyond bonus payouts, sending goodwill messages and disseminating health and safety advices. These are good, but beyond these, devotion to the growth of your people is essential. It is usual for employers to demand loyalty from staff, but how can employers show loyalty to staff? What was the measure of workplace loyalty before the pandemic? Is it any better now or worse? As I sat down to write this piece, my mind drifted to my Country’s 33-word pledge of loyalty – “I pledge to Nigeria my country, to be faithful, loyal and honest. To serve Nigeria will all my strength, to defend her unity, and uphold her honour and glory, so help me God.” – A strong expression of allegiance to my nation. Rendered by standing at attention with the right hand placed on the heart, and the other held high. As children, it used to be fun to scream it out every day at the School Assembly in front of the National flag. The words were a persistent admonition of the allegiance we owe to our country. It was not clear then, as children, what the nation owed us. With time what the nation owed us became clearer. As we observed citizens of other nations, and the way the world works. As we understood the resources we had, and the responsibilities of the government entrusted with the guardianship of those resources. Freedom? Security? Education, Basic Infrastructure? All these took on new meaning.

Loyalty to Country

According to the World Economic Forum – governments primarily exist as a protector; providing security of lives and property, protecting citizens from violence. When a nation becomes fragile, and increasingly have ungoverned and insecure regions – it depicts the failure of government. Much as when employers ensure employees’ health and safety (HSE). Also primal, is the concept of government as a provider. Government as a provider of infrastructure, to enable citizens to flourish socially and economically. Providing the means of physical travel, such as good roads, modern bridges and functional ports of all kinds, and even the means of virtual travel, such as broadband – 3G, 4G, and the notorious 5G. Note that Countries such as Norway, Netherlands, Hungary are already providing faster internet speed like 7G or 8G. At best, these are public goods governments provides, that are necessary to ensure a well-functioning society and a competitive economy to enable citizens create their own economic haven. Much as when employers provide training, and functional work tools to employees. Anne Marie Slaughter, an American international Lawyer and foreign policy analyst, author of “The New World Order,” puts it well by saying “wherever possible, governments should invest in citizen’s capabilities to provide for themselves.” Anne-Marie is described as “a think and action tank dedicated to renewing the promise of America, calling it to live up to its highest ideals”. Shouldn’t we all have these same appellation after our names? We read of governments making huge priority investments in research, and in the education of their citizens – programs described as “cradle-to-grave Education.” A government that can bolster the ability of its citizens to provide for themselves, particularly in the vulnerable period of youth, old age, and circumstances of sickness, disability and unemployment due to economic forces beyond their control, earns allegiance in quantum.

It is common knowledge that the first five years of the life of children are particularly essential, as the brain development in those years determines how well children will be able to learn and process what they learn for the rest of their lives. We observed as some of these governments – determined to “catch them young” – finance an entire infrastructure of child development from pregnancy to the beginning of formal schooling, including child nourishment and health, even parenting classes, home visits and appropriate early education programs with stipends for their infant citizens. Focus is also given to harness the potentials of their youth. These governments provide special developmental programs accessible to all. I may be guilty of painting an ideal picture of a government that believes in the talent and potential of its citizens, and develop a strategic blueprint (actionable blueprint, not left in the archives, gathering dust); a government that is applying a large portion of its tax revenues to investing in its citizens to help them reach their potential, is really raising an army that may be willing to lay down their lives in defence of such a nation. And with several foreign governments offering these incentives and more to young productive immigrants, plus citizenship, the result is the immigrants’ divided loyalties. How do you maintain allegiance to a country or an organisation, when these have been brought to question – promises broken, and expectations dashed repeatedly? At the risk of sounding like a desperate, jilted ex-girlfriend, I ask – “How do you remain loyal to somebody who just keeps on taking from you and demanding more, and never gives back commensurately?” What will be a proportionate relationship between citizens and a country that will produce deep seated loyalties? How do you keep faith? What would a synergised relationship with my country or workplace look like? As you begin to expect less and less from a country or a workplace, do you also feel loyalty wearing off?

The American Dream

Several pointers and anecdotal evidence suggest that, Covid-19 turned the tide to Biden’s advantage in the recently concluded US election – a lot of “trumpeters” jumped ship over Covid-19 and Mr. Donald’s handling of it. Are employees jumping ship because of Covid-19 and our organisation’s handling of it? So, I watched as the 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden took his oath of office. Forgive me, I don’t know why I am taking Panadol for another man’s headache. I watched it repeatedly on YouTube. I heard the baby crying in the background, and tried to decipher the expressions on the faces of everyone around him – including his wife, son, and daughter as he took his oath of allegiance. I noted particularly, the tension on the face of his daughter. What is this oath of allegiance that he is taking? What is the import? Incoming Presidents in the US raise their right hand and place the left on a Bible, while taking the oath of office. I understand that the George Washington Inaugural Bible, the Bible that was sworn upon by George Washington himself when he took office as the first President of the United States on April 30, 1789, is the Bible that has subsequently been used in the inauguration rituals of several other U.S. Presidents. I stayed glued to the screen watching Joe Biden recite the following 35-word or more oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, —”I (with his full names inserted) do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States – so help me God” – with his hand on the five-inch thick Bible, that has been in his family for nearly 130 years (a big deal right?) held by his wife Jill Biden during his swearing in. With the swearing over, I heard, “Congratulations Mr. President!” Followed by the loud cheers, the band playing, hugs, kisses, applauds, etc. My mind fast-forwarded to the work ahead – his next 100 days in office – Covid-19, the Economy, Police Brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, Climate Change Issues, China, Iran, Russia, Israel, the Taliban, the 2,500 US troops still in Afghanistan etc. – The next 1,460 days of his work in office. What will help him succeed? How will he leave office? What will the changing indices for success look like in four years’ time? To my mind, the United States of America had always been an epitome of loyalty to a country, and a country’s loyalty to citizens. We were used to seeing the pride and confidence the Americans exude in themselves, and in their government. Over the past couple of years that has changed. Joe Biden is coming in as President of a country with deeply divided loyalties – which he aptly described as “…uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” How would he work to gain the loyalty of the other divide? How will he demonstrate loyalty to a section of the country, who admittedly are still loyal to his predecessor?

A Workplace Pledge of Loyalty

I thought of all this, and I thought of the workplace. What exceptional actions can employers take, especially in this period of Covid-19 that demonstrates fidelity to staff? Employers cannot expect much loyalty from staff if they indiscriminately downsize, show favouritism, tolerate poor performance, skimp on training, or don’t provide room for advancement. Commitment is a give-and-take. How would employers show care to staff and demonstrate that the organisation is genuinely vested in their success? What does it mean to be a loyal employer? Is it by tending to employee’s every whim? Or by being all things to all staff? By trying everything possible to make an unwilling horse stay with you? During a crisis like Covid-19, people are even more critical to your surviving. You want your required staff to stay with you through thick and thin; be proud ambassadors, boasting about your firm – and even if they leave the firm, you want them to remain loyal. And to go to extraordinary lengths when needed, to help the firm succeed. To get this kind of loyalty, employers must demonstrate constant support for staff’s well-being. Even when they become ex-staff, show genuine interest in what they do, and provide support when needed.

Would it be weird to have a workplace pledge of loyalty, apart from the employment contract? A 15-20-word document? What will the document contain? Does leaving a workplace call to question staff loyalty? Maybe not. Maybe it is a question of how ex-staff leave? Maybe the loyalty of those still in the workplace is indeed, more questionable than those who leave. There may be some still at the workplace today, but their hearts have left ages ago. Therefore, it is wise to carefully manage exits – so staff who leave will remain loyal to the employer even after they exit. In Part 2 we shall examine more practical ways of keeping staff loyalty during an economic downturn. (To be continued).