Loyalty and Layoffs

I wanna talk to the fulltimers in the audience today. Huddle up close, gang. This is going to be a tough one. To paraphrase my close personal friend Blaise Pascal, “I write you a long letter because I’m too damn angry to write you a short one.”

But first, let’s start with a happy memory.

DATELINE: Summer 2002

I was happy on the DigiStar team at Evans & Sutherland. I was working at one of the premier graphics companies in the world. Does your team have its own movie theater? We had our own frickin’ planetarium. My teammates were brilliant and great to work with. I’d been promised a fat bonus–about a month’s pay–if I could finish the core of the control system UI in under 12 months, and I was a couple months ahead of schedule–in fact I pretty much already had it in the bag if you didn’t count UI polish and the odd bug or two turned up by QA. Plus did I mention we had our own frickin’ planetarium?

I logged into my computer that morning and there was a message from Jim Oyler, President and CEO, telling all of us that though we were losing still more “team members” today, that he knew he could count on “the rest of the family” to be brave and take up the slack. I was bummed to find out that the company had let more people go, but I was really happy at my job and sure, I’d be glad to help Jim Oyler, President and CEO, take up the slack.

“Hey Dave,” came the voice of Neil, my boss’ boss, from the entrance to my cubicle. “Can I talk to you in the conference room?”

“Sure–” I said, as I turned around and spied the huge stack of papers in Neil’s hand, the topmost sheet of which was boldly titled Exit Checklist.

“Aw, crap, Neil! I’m getting laid off?!?” I blurted out.

We were in a cube farm. Neil had the good grace to look around sheepishly, and in a low voice said, “Yeah. I’m sorry, man. Can we go talk in the conference room?”

“Dang it…” I said, more quietly. “This was the best job I’ve ever had. Yeah, let’s go.”

So just like that, out of the blue, the best job I’d ever had was over with no warning. Neil started the exit interview with “This came down from over my head. I can’t tell you how upset I am about this. Terence (Neil’s boss, our VP) specifically named you because your piece is finished.”

I joked about failing “to commit job security in the code”. Neil laughed, and as we went through the checklist it started to hit me how much I was going to miss everyone on the team. I started on the DigiStar team on Monday, September 10th, 2001–and we had all bonded the next morning as we watched the 9/11 attacks play out on the news. I don’t know if these people were “family” but they were close to me.

The blow was softened by my getting a ridiculous severance package–all my vacation days paid out in cash before I walked out the door that day, plus six weeks of severance pay–all after just 18 months at the company! We’d had 2 rounds of layoffs before in my stint there, and I knew the policy was 1 week of severance per year of employment, so I wasn’t about to argue. As I walked back to my desk to clean it out, my team lead stopped by to tell me that I had her to thank for the severance package.

“I told them they had to pay you your bonus or I’d quit. Legal said that we can’t give a performance bonus and lay someone off at the same time. I told them that you getting laid off was bullshit in the first place, and they agreed to round up your second year and convert your bonus into a month’s extra severance.”

Janet was an amazing team lead. She was a wicked smart programmer but also had a killer instinct for office politics. (In fact, she told me on my first day to do my best to “stay off Terence’s radar”, because he had a nasty habit of laying off contractors and new people.) She also had my psyche dialed in perfectly, and broke me out of my impostor syndrome in my first (and, it would turn out, only) performance review by saying: “The thing that makes you unique on this team is that more than anybody else here you really love this shit. I mean, I go home and read a book, and I can tell you go home and write more code. You are the only employee I have ever managed that I think could get away with giving me a snow job. You could straight up tell me you spent the last two weeks dewarbling the frobblebats in the compiler and I would believe you.”

“Seriously?” I asked.

“Seriously. But don’t ever try it or I will fire your ass.”

I loved Janet, but I also feared her. I also respected her and would go to the mat for her in a heartbeat. I didn’t understand for years later that this was because she regularly went to the mat for her teammates, and when she did, she almost always won. I was too young to really understand how much political capital Janet had just laid on the line for me–a soon-to-be ex-employee that she would probably never see again–but even still I was deeply moved by the gesture.

They could have frogmarched me out of the building, given me squat, and told me I had to like it. Instead, they gave me generous severance, outplacement counseling, free admission to a really good jobhunting seminar, and best of all they let me take all day to clean out my desk and say my goodbyes. I took them up on the offer. It was 4:45pm when I finally walked out the door to go pick up my last check from HR. They had to fish it out of the mail drop because everyone else in the layoff had cleared out before noon, so HR had assumed I must not have come in to work that day and probably didn’t know I’d been laid off.

It didn’t really hit me for about a week that I’d just been screwed out of the best job I’d ever had by an accountant who couldn’t keep the company books straight and an executive team who couldn’t steer the company in any straight direction, let alone a viable one. And that I’d sat at my desk and silently eaten up every word of propaganda spewed out of the mouth of Jim Oyler, President and CEO, about being brave, taking up the slack, and most sickening of all, of “being a family”.

Meanwhile, Back in the Present…

Fast forward to today. A former client of mine held an all-hands meeting today to announce that they had lost their primary revenue stream and that the business was no longer a going concern. As a result, for all 400+ employees of the company, today would be their last day. There would be no severance package. They would not be receiving their last paycheck today, but at the regular payroll time when the accounting department–which was also now unemployed–could be bothered to get around to it. The company had a “Paid Time Off” policy instead of a vacation policy, which is legalese for “we don’t have to pay out any vacation time when we let you go.” In short, 400 people got told they were out in the cold with nothing more than a creepy speech about being proud of what they’d accomplished. He even asked them to not say bad things about the company in the days ahead because it would cheapen and demean them all.

I really, really want to go off on a tangent about all the bad things I have to say about that company and its top management in particular. It wouldn’t cheapen the fine folks that worked there and believed in the company one whit. But I’m not going to, because believe it or not, I have something much more important to talk about right now.

Most of the (now ex-)employees of my (now very ex-)client are in a blind, terrified scramble right now because they made a critical career mistake: They put their loyalty in the company. They put so much loyalty into the company, in fact, that they stopped nurturing themselves and growing and building their careers as a separate entity apart from the company. This was not entirely their fault; the company aggressively encouraged this. But let me be perfectly clear: that was straight-up pure evil.

Loyalty to a Corporation is SICK.

Being struck from the rolls at Evans & Sutherland out of the blue permanently broke me of any notion of job security, but more importantly it broke me of the concept of loyalty to a corporation. I’d been freelancing on and off for a decade, but after that day I went hardcore.

As a freelancer I occasionally experience friction with the full-time employees over tribal identity issues. I get called a mercenary. I’m told I’m not loyal. They say I’m not a company man, a patriot, a true believer. My point is that it gets made known to me, in many ways and forms, that I may work there, but I am NOT “part of the family”. Well, let’s get two things straight right now:

  1. You’re goddamn right I’m not
  2. And neither are you, you dumb shit

A corporation is not a living creature. It has no soul. It has no heart. It has no feelings. It can neither experience towards you nor enjoy from you even the concept of loyalty. It is a legal fiction, and it exists for one purpose only: to make profit. If you assist in this goal in the long term, your ongoing association with the organization is facilitated. If you detract from it consistently, you will be cut. Family is “where they have to take you in no matter what you’ve done.” A corporation is… well, it’s sort of the exact opposite of this.

Being loyal to a corporation is sick. It is genuine madness.

But Isn’t Loyalty a Good Thing?

Sure it is! Just be careful where you place it.

We Have an Awesome CEO…

No! Bad peon! No career enlightenment for you! The CEO of your company is a paid sociopath. I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course, but it is literally their actual job description to place the interests of a soulless legal fiction over the needs and desires of living, breathing, human beings with actual feelings. He or she probably isn’t inherently evil. But if they can find a way to make the company 100% more profitable by firing you, they have to do it. That is exactly what their job is. They are the chief stewards of an intangible set of legal rules comprising an attempt to get money.

I’ve worked with some genuinely charismatic CEO’s, and it’s hard to not feel loyal to them. And that’s okay! I am totally fine with you being loyal to another person! But seriously, out of everybody at your company, the CEO is your worst possible choice. If they don’t fire you when they should, they can be held liable for incompetence by the board of directors. And well they should! Because the board of directors are the circle of acolytes gathered around the altar of the soulless legal fiction, and if the soulless legal fiction needs your blood to survive, the circle makes sure the CEO doesn’t flinch from the knife.

So before you give your loyalty to a CEO, ask yourself this one critical question: would this person still have my respect and admiration if they fired me?

I’ve only been in that situation once, and I thought about it beforehand, and the answer was yes, and the answer is still yes. I would go back to work for him a heartbeat. Though I’m not sure he’d have me back, come to think of it, because I engineered my own termination at that company… and that wasn’t even in like the top five weirdest things that happened between us.

So, yes. You can be loyal to a CEO. But be loyal to them as a person, not as a position, because the day will come when you have to part ways, and it will break your heart how easy it is for your CEO.


What About Being Loyal to The Team?

I’m just gonna say it: Nope.

Surprised? Haven’t you been listening?

Your team is just another organization, a concept, an ideogram on an org chart. The Team is just a story you tell yourself about the collection of people that work in the same room as you. It’s just another fiction. Ask yourself this question: if the CEO replaced everyone on The Team with incompetent nephews (important: their incompetent nephews, not yours; I can see how that would complicate the issue), would your loyalty to The Team remain undimmed when the servers go down at 11pm on a Friday night?

The people that work in the same room as you are real. It is totally okay to love them. In fact, I encourage it! Be loyal to them! Go to the mat for them. But for heaven’s sake, don’t be loyal to “The Team”.

For the buzzword bingo players out there: you are “a team player” if you love your teammates and show them love and loyalty. But anybody claiming to have loyalty to “The Team” is engaging in office politics.

What About Loyalty to the Project?

Um. Let me get back to you on this one. I’m on a good rant here and I want to say no but my pants will just outright burst into flames if I do.

I fall in love with projects. My wife says I get married to them. For hundreds upon hundreds of nights she has known the loneliness of an empty bed as I toil the night away on the latest hot young project to catch my eye, so I guess she’s qualified to make that judgment.

You know, I was about to take this all the way to an adultery metaphor but I’m going to stop here instead and just say it’s probably bad for your relationship. I would tell you not to fall in love with a project but I’ve tried six times and I just can’t do it without making dreamy eyes.

But again, that’s love. Not loyalty. I might discount my rates to work on a really amazing project, but would I charge less because I felt I owed it to the project? Not a cent.

Be Loyal to One Person: You.

I guess I should say “be loyal to one person at your work” because it’s totally fine to be loyal to your family, your friends, your neighbors, your favorite sportsball team, your fellow citizens, and a whole host of other people that for one reason or another, you love.

Be loyal to yourself. Or, if you prefer, be loyal to yourself first. Show your strongest allegiance there. I don’t mean conceit, and I don’t mean selfishness, and I don’t mean be a jerk to other people. You cannot know or show true love until you truly love–and by this I mean proactively care for–yourself.

So if the company wants you to work nights and weekends, you need to ask yourself right now if your job is worth it. If the answer is yes, great! Choose to work late. If it’s not, choose to stand up, grab your coat, and clock out. You’ll either still have a job in the morning, or you’ll have stopped putting off that hunt for a better job that you’ve been cheating yourself out of.

And if you’re not sure? If you’re sitting on the bubble, trying to decide? That little L-word is going to pop up. And when it does? You squash it. Loyalty to a corporation is madness, and any CEO worth their salt will try to get you to buy into it for exactly as long as it suits their needs to keep you around.

Own Your Career. Because This WILL Happen To You.

Your career is yours and yours alone, whether you want it to be or not. The sooner you own it, and take responsibility for all of the consequences of said ownership, the sooner you will find yourself creating your own safety from the corporate predators who pillage and destroy in service to the soulless legal fiction they call your master. Not their master, by the way. Yours.

Anybody who wants to relieve you of the hassles and responsibilities of owning your own career wants to shackle you to an oar. They want the exact opposite of what’s good for you. They want you to toil away blissfully for years–which you will do!–until one day the drumbeat stops. You’ll step out into the sun, blinking tears away in the brightness, and realize that the deck crew is gone, they’ve taken all the rations, pirates are attacking, the boat is sinking, and all you have to show for the last three years of rowing is a pair of sackcloth britches and a piece of rope to hold them up. They didn’t even let you take the time off to get your MCOR (Microciscoware Certified Oar Rower) so you don’t even have that to put on your resume. And also the piece of rope is technically company property so you need to leave that on the boat before you throw yourself to the sharks.


I’d like to think that if the soulless legal fiction at the heart of your company suddenly became sentient, it would also immediately grow a conscience and feel terrible about all the things it’s done and not just automatically be utterly evil.

But it’s not sentient, and it’s not even necessarily evil–as long as its business model isn’t predatory, immoral or illegal. It’s just a collection of rules put down on paper. It is a thing. And not even a physical thing. A real thing, yes, but not a tangible one. Just a logical construct, fit only for one purpose: acquiring profit.

Being loyal to that is mere insanity. But being loyal to that over yourself is sickness.

Please, choose right now: Get medicine. Own your self, and your career.

Start saving yourself.

174 thoughts on “Loyalty and Layoffs

  1. Nicola Musatti

    I agree completely with what you write and I believe it’s something that should be taught to every employee around the world. I’d just add that, while you’re sacked *from* the soulless legal fiction, you’re *sacked* by real people, and likely a very small number of them. Another reason to be very careful about in whom you place your loyalty.

    1. David Brady Post author

      +1! Mike Monteiro tells a story about a CEO complaining to him about “just having the worst day ever because I had to lay off 50 people.” That’s exactly what I mean by “paid sociopath”. There are 50 people in the building who are having a MUCH worse day than you, buddy.

      Back before I worked with a VERY clear contract about how much I get paid and when, I ended up spooling up a lot of work hours with a company that suddenly started making noises like it didn’t want to pay me. The project manager promised me repeatedly that he “personally guaranteed” that I would get paid, because it was unconscionable that they would ask me to work and then not get paid. He insisted that “we just don’t work that way”.

      I have an .mp3 recording of the phone call from him “personally apologizing” to me when the CEO told him that no, I was not going to get paid.

      The reason I mention this is that the project manager was a really great guy, and I really liked him, and I gave him some of the bad kind of loyalty–the kind where I sacrifice loyalty to myself. It ended in him being forced by the CEO to act like a sociopath to me, and he had to choose between sacrificing his job or my paycheck. I hate that he got put in that position, and I totally understand his decision. But I don’t think we’ve spoken six words to each other since that call, even though I hold no grudge against him. It’s a shame, because he’s a great guy, but I think my presence reminds him of what he was forced to do.

      If I had set more clear boundaries right up front and gotten them in writing, it wouldn’t have cost me that friendship. And you’re right–we were both totally real people in that situation. But because we were dancing on the puppet strings of a soulless legal fiction (yes, yes, I really like saying that phrase, sorry) we were forced into direct conflict and the outcome of that conflict was predetermined by the power structure written on an org chart.

  2. Jon Riddle

    Great post. I found myself unexpectedly jobless after 9 years with a company, and it was quite a wake-up call. Do you ever find it hard not to slip back into the false sense of security with longer-term gigs?

    “Your career is yours and yours alone” should be stapled to everyone’s forehead when they enter the workforce. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but one everyone is faced with eventually.

    1. David Brady Post author

      In a word? Yes. Fortunately the lesson changes once you learn it the hard way. I got pretty comfortable in a 9-month gig last year, and when the word came down that it was ending, I realized I hadn’t been keeping my professional network warm. That stung a bit, but it was a far cry from that first time in 2002 when I sat there in outplacement counseling learning that the horrible plummeting sensation I had in my stomach could be arrested, but only if I learned what a professional network was

  3. Paul Baker

    Fantastic post. I posted similar thoughts about four months ago. The one thing that has always worried me is being viewed as a mercenary and if that (ironically) hurts your ability to get contracts. Can you share some of your thoughts on that?

    1. dbrady Post author

      I have so many thoughts on that that I think I have a whole ‘nother blog post coming. Short version, however, is that in my experience a good contractor is much better than a good employee… but a bad contractor is much worse than a bad employee. Convincing a client–especially one who’s been burned by bad contractors–that you’re the good kind is work, but worth it. I’ll try to elaborate more when I write the post.

      1. Trip

        Great points. I’d imagine that once you build a name for yourself as “the good kind” that referral business makes that initial conversation with a prospective client a bit easier. I’m really looking forward to that post. Thanks again for putting these thoughts out there!

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  5. Samuel

    Thanks, David. I survived three rounds of layoffs at the (previously) best job I had ever had. After the first round I realized no one had my best interest at heart. After the second layoff, I woke up,and found that the company I loved had died some time ago. After the third I was just left with anger and hatred toward management and the mouth-breathers they kept around.

    Being a survivor sucks too: you’re left with the extra workload, the guilt of not having been let go, the fear of still getting let go, and a sucking chest wound in your morale.

    I’ve been independent (i.e freelancer) for two years, and will do everything I can to keep it that way.

  6. Aristotle Pagaltzis

    It didn’t used to be like this. Companies used to be understood as group endeavours of their workers, in which one for all and all for one; and in such a culture, loyalty is rightly expected of workers because the whole would look after its own and so it could demand the same in return.

    Then a systematic campaign was held; the job-for-life culture was destroyed, etc (c.f. Charlie Stross) it became enshrined in law that shareholder value was the aim of a corporation, etc. As a result, any obligation of the company toward its workers was systematically eradicated. Companies no longer exist to take care of the workforce that comprises them, but to make profits for faceless investors.

    But of course for the exact same reasons, it was beneficial to continue to employ the language of loyalty and demand it of workers, as if nothing had changed.

    As Charlie notes, though, it is (finally) fading as a relic notion. Because what else could happen? If one side reneges on the deal, of course the other will eventually wake up and do likewise – even if it takes a more than inordinate length of time.

    1. dbrady Post author

      Agreed. That’s a great link, btw. I saw another one this weekend about how businesses now see loyalty as a one-way street, and the unavoidable consequence of this is that the employees feel betrayed and initiate a tit for tat strategy. I believe there is a cure for this, and it is establishing appropriate boundaries–and fighting back clearly and uncompromisingly against inappropriate ones. That’s for a future post, though.


    2. Developer Dude

      “Companies no longer exist to take care of the workforce that comprises them, but to make profits for faceless investors.”

      In general, I don’t think most organizations ever really existed for the purpose of taking care of their workforce. Almost any organization I can think of that ever existed that had a “workforce” (i.e., people employed by the org) has existed with the some other goal in mind; i.e., to produce a good or service, and the workforce was a means towards that end.

      Now the “job for life” culture did exist (my parents generation often worked in that culture), and for some orgs it kind of still exists for some part of their workforce, but I never expect to work in such a culture, at least not in the sense that it applies to me – and I don’t think I would want to given what I have seen in such cultures.

      I go to work each day expecting to be given the pink slip at any time – and I have setup my finances accordingly. It gives me a lot of freedom from stress and worry, allows me to take risks in accepting projects/assignments I wouldn’t feel comfortable with if more was on the line financially. It’s the best way in my opinion – if it can be managed.

    1. dbrady Post author

      Seen. I’ll move the images/ folder over tonight. For now I just wanted to get the text of the site up. I’ve reread this post about 9 times, and half the time I see the top of that tweet image and think “Oh, there’s an ad embedded in the text”. Heh. I need to CSS that somehow so it looks like part of the article. (I originally had about 4 tweets I was going to embed, so there would have been a theme, but ah well.) Anyway, thanks, and I’ll get that updated before tomorrow.

  7. Heather

    Great post, thanks. “But being loyal to that over yourself is sickness.” – yes, and one that combined with other forces nearly destroyed me. Luckily I am on the mend.

    It seems to me that we are right back in the Gilded Age, and one possible solution is unionization of different types of office workers. I don’t know how feasible that would be. But I’ve been a freelancer myself (publishing industry, not software) and I know the difficulties of that route. As workers we need some kind of voice/clout (to get healthcare, benefits, etc) and either that can be the gov’t, or it can be unions, b/c it obviously isn’t companies anymore. I know some freelancers think of themselves as entrepreneurs or small-business owners, but really, unless you produce and sell your own products *apart from work for your clients,* I think this is a pipe-dream (if you like, an opium pipe proffered by the soulless legal fiction πŸ˜‰ ).


    1. dbrady Post author

      First of all, hi and welcome, and congratulations on your ongoing recovery! πŸ™‚

      I wonder if unionizing could even work nowadays. The culture of jobhopping and impermanence that we live in today might make that difficult. Guilds might work, like SAG, where it’s expected of people to hop around from gig to gig, but I dunno. I read a article a few days ago that suggests that employers have unconsciously colluded to create this environment by destroying the whole “job for life” mentality. Gen X watched their parents have and lose these jobs, and lamented that they’d never get them; to Gen Y the job for life is an entirely mythical creature. I’m a tweener (70’s child), but I tend to associate more with Gen Y on this one–I’ve accepted and embraced the notion, and I often think people are crazy when they’re in what is obviously going to be a sub-5-year gig and they’re putting their career on hold for it.

      I both agree and disagree about freelancers being entrepreneurs without a product; I have found it useful to my long-term growth to think of my freelancing work as “a services company” as it helps reinforce independent thought when I’m an a company with an oppressive culture. But I agree 100% that I do not own my own business, I own my own job. If I don’t clock in and turn the crank, no money comes out of the machine. That’s a job. If I owned a business, I could take a day off and the crank would still go around and money would still come out. (And yes, I’m working on a product right now. πŸ™‚ )

      Thanks again for commenting!

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  9. Paul Ehrenreich (@paulehr)

    In the past 13 years of my career as a full-timer i have been laid of due to incompetence and “restructuring” too many times to count. Because of this I have learned that no matter how good you are and how indispensable you think you are, if it’s going to give some asshole the ability to make their bonus to get a new yacht that quarter, your ass is gone.

    1. dbrady Post author

      That is a VERY cynical attitude, Paul. You’ll go far in this industry. πŸ™‚

      I don’t think all CxO’s are sociopaths, but yes, I’ve been in that raft before as well. I have literally negotiated with an investor whose primary concern was ensuring that his partner got his $1.2M payout every year to support his lifestyle. As the deadline for the partner payout loomed, attention shifted from building “an insanely great” product to “just ship something, anything, so we can make a quick buck”. So naturally he started by shipping off a few engineers… :-/

    1. dbrady Post author

      I don’t know that I’m an authority there, but the short answer I’ve read in several places is to show your boss that you are making far, far more money for the company than you are getting paid. For specific tips and techniques, I really enjoyed “Negotiating Your Salary: How to may $1,000 a Minute” by Jack Chapman. He’s got some good YouTube vids up as well.

  10. radsaq

    The thing is that corporations don’t exist to make money. The only “legal fiction” is the erasure from common memory that there is no requirement for corporations to be profitable or that they are beholden to stockholders: http://www.amazon.com/Shareholder-Value-Myth-Shareholders-ebook/dp/B007PIZ8IO/

    It’s an important distinction because it highlights the fact that corporate executives act like sociopaths because they *want* to, not because they *have* to.

    1. dbrady Post author

      This is actually a very good point. I took a pretty strong line in the post, but if I do a followup I’m going to talk about the dynamics of the boundaries between boss/employee and between boss/business, and what that does to a boss. I’ve seen some good people get forced into acting like sociopaths because of being trapped between the business and the employees. And… yeah. I’ve seen people gravitate directly toward that position because they were already sociopaths and just wanted the power to go with the attitude.

      I can’t find it now, but I heard that recent study shows that the human brain, when it perceives that it is in power, automatically shuts down some of its empathy centers. The million-dollar question is: is this necessary, and if so, is it a bad thing? Am I a horrible person for even considering this? πŸ™‚

      1. chanman819

        No, I don’t think so. Empathy (and all sorts of emotional attachment) interfere with recognizing sunk costs. Sociopaths just have less mental hurdles to cutting losses.

        Whether or not they make the right call or do things for the right reasons is a different matter.

        What I’d love to know is how this compares to what military institutions teach or practice. On the one hand, a military is an organization that absolutely demands loyalty for obvious reasons. On the other hand anecdotes recent and historical from those in uniform are redolent with cynicism and distrust in the chain of command. On the gripping hand… does that make PMCs/security companies/actual mercenaries the natural outcome of soldiers owning their careers?

      2. dbrady Post author

        First off, +100 internet points for “On the gripping hand”. πŸ™‚

        There’s a good article floating around right now about people like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning being the natural outcome of the schism between a government that still operates its intelligence apparatus like it’s the 1950’s: vet people and then monitor them in their “job for life”, and the reality that now up to 80% of our intelligence work is done by contractors who have 2 or 3 year careers at best.

        I think military loyalty and patriotic loyalty may be in a different class of loyalty, but I’m not sure why I feel that way. I certainly have far more mistrust of my government than I do of most employers, but I don’t see the same corporate agenda driving my country. Something else must make politicians into the creatures they are. At any rate, I need to examine those feelings and report back. πŸ™‚

        Either way, a followup blog post on why I think mercenary loyalty is the best kind of loyalty for everyone is probably about due. πŸ™‚


  11. Nicole (@NNNiNNNNNNNNNNN)

    About two months ago, my boss announced his intention to transition out. He’s one of those people who still maintains a friendship with people that he has had to let go in the past, and applauds people when they grow and move on to greener pastures. He was at the center of the odd culture of this place and made everyone feel like what they did mattered. This is my first job out of college, so I took a lot of pride in what I did and went at it with all that I had no matter what. With my boss gone, I thought I was going to be laid off. I was really depressed for a while, but one day I just couldn’t keep going like that. I kept my composure and began to focus on investing in my own skills. One day, the main owner of the company came into my office after firing one of my coworkers to tell me that he appreciated my loyalty to the company, this guy who never acknowledged me my entire two years of being here. Oh, okay. Sure.

    I’m glad that I came to this realization for myself, but like your experience, it was painful after giving it my 100% for so long. There is just no way of knowing what will happen next. But I know that whatever does happen, I’ll be fine.

  12. Pingback: Why I Am Such a Damned Mercenary | The Radio Face Report

  13. notam1

    A company that makes you feel this way is a company that deserves no loyalty from any human ever. This is not to say there does not exist a small minority of family friendly / employee friendly companies (mostly small cos). And yes, I am pretty sure the CEO would come to your funeral cos she just did to another employees. So your point is quite generic so to speak (mostly aimed at corporations). Basically loyalty to people more than corporations is more apt.

    1. dbrady Post author

      Thank you, and I totally agree. The CEO that I mentioned–the one I was loyal to and then fired me, I would still crawl over broken glass for that man, but because he was willing to do–and frequently did, at least figuratively–the same for all of us.

      I bet you anything that the CEOs and companies of which you speak also encouraged you to grow and build yourself, and if you found a better job would say “Wow, I’m really sorry to see you go, but I agree that this is a great opportunity for you, so I think you should definitely take it.” Those are some sterling human beings right there, because they are still working in service to that same unyielding corporate mandate, but they take a stand for their people, and understand a longer-term, bigger picture than their shorter-sighted cousins.

      I probably still wouldn’t be loyal to “the company” in a place like that, but are those the kind of people I would be loyal to? Absolutely.


  14. Eugene

    Absolutely fantastic post! Thank you!
    Being a “mercenary” for the last ten years and completely share the sentiment that companies are nothing more than a soulless entities trying to suck out every last bit of knowledge, commitment and time out of you.
    “Culture” and “values” are two other big fat lies used to get people deep into the spiderweb
    of corporate slavery; every time I hear those – reminds me of the old country propaganda (I am from former USSR). At least something to thank my old teachers for – makes me very alert and aware of this garbage, but I am still surprised how many people actually, at least on the surface, appear to earnestly believe in all that stuff.

    1. dbrady Post author

      Thank you! I would add that if the company’s vision is sincere and noble, maybe some of the propaganda is forgivable, especially if they simultaneously encourage you to continue growing yourself and building your own career. But yeah, you can always tell when it’s BS: the company execs go on a weeklong retreat to a fabulous vacation resort (on the company’s dime) and when they come back they put up a framed poster telling everyone what the corporate “Mission Statement” is. And everybody looks at it and says “huh” and goes right back to what they were doing.

  15. zeblonite

    Good article, but it’s missing something pretty crucial – loyalty to the difference you hope the project makes in the world. Many people go to work because they hope to make the world a better place in some way, large or small. There is nothing wrong and everything right with being loyal to what a project is trying to accomplish. Sure, you can misapply that kind of loyalty, but if you don’t believe in a project as anything other than a revenue stream, you may not want to hitch your horse to that wagon in the first place. I work for a not-for-profit entity, but even in the money making world you can and should see beyond profit and paycheck. Otherwise you’re just a one person version of the “only money matters” corporation.

    Before I read this article I would have called it loyalty to the project, but it’s more like loyalty to the reason the project exists. It’s a lot like the distinction you make between loyalty to the team and loyalty to the people on the team, and just as worth including in the discussion.

    1. dbrady Post author

      ABSOLUTELY agreed. Thank you! One of the most “boring” tech jobs I had was writing shaker table controllers: test equipment designed to find mechanical design failures in cars and planes by vibrating them apart. That job was a perfect example of the distinction, as the CEO was literally insane (not figuratively, I mean DSM-V paranoid and bipolar) and is currently a permanent guest of the state of Arizona. But I got to work at a job knowing I was playing a small, indirect part in saving many human lives. It was one of only 2 or 3 jobs I can recall where I never lost that “I can’t wait to go to work today!” feelings.


    2. Anonymous Coward

      “Good article, but it’s missing something pretty crucial – loyalty to the difference you hope the project makes in the world. Many people go to work because they hope to make the world a better place in some way, large or small.”

      I find that this is especially exploited in the nonprofit world. I’d been loyal to the mission of my former employer, but the current management team? Not so much. I could rant for hours.

      1. dbrady Post author

        I wish I could sit both of you down in a Skype video chat and talk about this. Not to argue or fight, but to find the common threads of betrayal–and the common threads of trust and victory. Nonprofits are places where you tend to find True Believers, who genuinely believe in the mission. That works well when the CEO is genuine and the mission is true, less so when the CEO is a criminal profiteering on the heartstrings of others. http://charitynavigator.org is a great resource, but I confess it hurt my heart the first time I went there to check up on my favorite charity and found out that it was a con. THANK YOU BOTH.

        And I’m sincere about the Skype chat, if you’re interested. As cynical and angry as my post may have sounded, what I want is to find happiness in love in this crazy mixed up world, and I would love to talk with you both and tease out the common threads that help us all. If you’re interested, ping me on twitter (@dbrady) and I’ll swap contact info with you.

        Thank you!

  16. Bill

    Mr Brady – if your very readable rant were coming from the mouth of a character in a work of fiction, you would probably have a best-seller on your hands. So many people would agree with you. Seriously, your writing is so engaging and what you have to say is so important and so worth readyiing — why don’t we ever come across characters in fiction that tell it like it is the way you just have? You could write one and you’d make a fortune. And you could have lots of fun creating self-deluding characters who feel the opposite of the way you feel — the “loyalty crowed” — and who get screwed in the end. Do it.

    1. dbrady Post author

      Ha! Thank you very kindly. I’ve dabbled with fiction for the past few years. It suffers from the same malady as my blog posts: wordiness. But I’m working on it! πŸ™‚


  17. Dan Magaha

    Great post, David, and one that we in the gaming industry have been learning the hard way for several decades. One of the more deplorable techniques of execs in our domain is to exploit the creative passion that so many game devs have for their own gain, often repeatedly, even when organizations are still cash-flush, long before the inevitable layoff cycle.

    Unfortunately, many game developers are so driven by their passion to create, and so fearful of the unknowns of entrepreneurialism that they choose the cold comfort of loyalty to project and team again and again.

    1. dbrady Post author

      +1. I did my stint at Acclaim in the 90’s. Went in all starry-eyed, came out incredibly burned out and jaded. 😦 The evil thing back then (maybe still?) is the lottery mentality that they actively promoted: “We’re going to pay you less and make you work insane hours, but hey, if your game becomes a Best of PlayStation you’ll be rolling in big money!” I had multiple coworkers who had “won” the lottery and made about 2 years’ salary in bonuses. Sounds like a good deal until you realize that they were about 5% of the company, and they–along with the 95%–aged themselves prematurely by more than the 2 years they got paid for.

  18. John Prior

    David – the comments have touched upon the ideas of faceless shareholders, unionization, boss/worker relationships, etc.. All of these are very “antagonistic” ideas, which lead to non-constructive solutions (every man for himself, watch your back, us vs them, etc.).

    There is another way to organize capitalist, money-making entrepreneurial enterprises, and that is worker cooperatives, otherwise known as “labor-managed” companies. As someone raised in the US during the cold war, both of these phrases sound very “socialist/communist” to me, but as I’ve learned more about them I’ve realized that they remain true to the capitalistic ideals that I value (market-driven enterprise) yet have a simple twist that allows these companies to survive longer and treat their employees better than traditionally funded (VC or publicly-traded) US companies.

    If you would like to learn more (and you may have to take a swig of Budweiser and eat a hotdog to get through some of the commie-pinko sounding rhetoric), check out: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jun/24/alternative-capitalism-mondragon

    1. dbrady Post author

      Thank you, I will definitely check it out! I can see I have many followup posts I need to write. In this post I have purposefully demonized the corporate agenda to show how insane it is to sacrifice your long-term well-being to one. Ultimately that’s an issue of boundaries, that I think I need to clarify. Some other folks have pointed out that there ARE good CEOs and good companies out there, and I wholeheartedly agree; I still wouldn’t be loyal to the corporation in those cases but I would probably be insanely loyal to the people in it.

      Thanks for the link, I will definitely check it out. I love interesting ideas from far afield, because they make me think more than just hearing the stuff from people I agree with.


  19. Developer Dude

    In my opinion loyalty, like respect, is something that is earned. I’ve had a few supervisors who have earned both, and a lot more who earned neither. Until the chips are down and my supervisor/et. al. goes to bat for me, and/or does “the right thing” then I will give them the courtesy of doing my job properly and in a way that returns value to the organization for what they pay me – but….

    I will not give them loyalty until they earn it in some way I can recognize. I learned this gradually over the years, and it has served me well. I live my life and arrange my finances in such a way that I expect to lose my current job any given day. After having been surprised a number of times by unexpected layoffs I believe this is the best way to live.

    As for expectations of how an organization/boss/etc. will make decisions about when and who or why to lay someone off, I have also learned not to expect anybody to think the way I do about such issues. I have seen long valued employees with a lot of experience, technical skills, excellent work ethics, business domain knowledge and yes “loyalty” to the organization laid off simply because they had advanced far enough in the organization to make a pretty good salary and therefore were candidates for impacting the bottom line in such a way that their layoff would cut expenses enough to earn the executive in charge of the layoff initiative a bonus for that year. Never mind that the next year the productivity of the various teams would plummet while new people (making much less because they had much less experience and skills) struggled for months to years to get up to speed on the projects now infused with “new blood”.

    Indeed, anymore I arrive at the most likely scenario playing out by thinking what I would do and then assuming the opposite – and I am rarely dissapointed.

  20. Steve Smith (@ardalis)

    Nice post. You’re probably familiar with the book “What Color is Your Parachute” but if not, you (and your readers) should definitely check it out. It’s a classic that does a great job of explaining how much loyalty employees should have toward their employers, and helps answer questions like “how much notice should I give when I’m quitting” among many others.

  21. Pingback: On Loyalty at Work and at the Fraternity | Inquire Everything

    1. dbrady Post author

      I like this kind of loyalty. It’s crazy stupid loyalty: we buy team swag and fly pennants during the worst losing seasons, we root for players in slumps, we scream at refs making good calls against us… but this kind of loyalty doesn’t destroy us. It emboldens our passions and gives us something human to talk about around the water cooler. It’s pure tribal stupidity, but it’s so very good for us.

      Huh. I think I may have just talked myself into caring about sports. No, wait. The feeling’s passed. But still. πŸ™‚

  22. s. leicht

    i’m currently reading a book titled “the unwinding: an inner history of the new america” by george packer. i highly recommend it.

    corporations have had this attitude for at least eighteen years. IT is only just now noticing–i suspect because they’ve been the last group of workers on the auction block. (i was a graphic designer. the creatives always go first.) so, this isn’t anything new. workers are just now snapping to it. in a way? yay! i agree with you. one-way loyalty is never a good thing. however, i have to say that this spells some pretty horrific shit for us gen-x and gen-y folk. why? because being freelance is all nice and happy until the day comes that you hit the age that you’re no longer ‘shiny.’ i got news for you. that happens long before retirement age, particularly if you’re a minority.

    age-ism is alive and well.

    long term “me first” simply doesn’t work. it’s something workers have to do for now because we’ve all got to survive this bullshit. but something has to change in a big way and soon. this system is *not sustainable long term.* as charlie stross says in his blog. (and if you haven’t read it all the way through, you should.)

    selfishness is how everything unravels and our quality of life plummets. this is how the center doesn’t hold. *civilization is about grouping together for the mutual benefit of all.* so is democracy. (capitalism is *not* democracy, nor is it a system of government.) there’s a balance to it, of course. the consoling thing about this is that humanity goes through these cycles–if you read history, you’ll see that it always has. and again, i’m not blaming workers for coming to this conclusion. (i did this about ten years ago.) and no, this concept is nothing new either. ever heard of karl marx? his ideas start with ‘workers first.’ and before anyone jumps on that–no, i’m not a communist or a socialist. i feel the ideal is not one extreme or another. the ideal is a balance between self interest and the common good. i believe in democracy and the concept of checks and balances. (ah, ye old ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely.’) unfortunately, balance is a slippery thing. there isn’t an easy way to keep it. and there will always be people who seek to subvert the system for their self interests.

    1. dbrady Post author

      Amen all around. I’m entering my 40’s, and I’m feeling the effects of ageism both from within (harder to pull those all night coding binges) and without (employers can hire two kids for half my price, and assuming we all have the same skill–which we must, since we have the same job title–then 2 > 1, Q.E.D.).

      I think the system has tipped pretty far to one side. I generally believe in working within the system, but I’m definitely seeing the value here of rebalancing the system as a whole.

  23. Anca

    Thanks for this post. I worked for a consulting firm right around the turn of the century, and survived some large number of rounds of layoffs. I finally left and hung out my own shingle , first as a freelancer and now as an employer. I now get to see the other side of that coin as a boss, so I’m looking forward to more of your posts.

    It will be interesting to see how our generations (X and Y) manage to change the culture – hopefully we’ll either go towards teaming up as tech workers so that companies can’t jerk us around, and work on changing the laws so that corporations don’t get to act like sociopaths without some punishment.

    1. dbrady Post author

      I think the best CEOs–the ones worth giving loyalty to–are the ones who never try to pull the “blind loyalty” card from their employees, those who are up front with employees about the (un)reality of job security, those who are aware of the shear forces placed on them by the business needs and their employees’ needs, and/or those who take a long-term view of employment and try to “do right” by terminated employees so that when they need to take on new talent, their name isn’t mud. We hear about their companies as fantastic places to work, from actual employees and even ex-employees, and worker supply goes up for that business.

      The sad fact is that sometimes the CEO can act with utter impunity. Much like the way con artists have to “move on” to find fresh suckers. In the case of my friends, it’s my opinion that the CxOs may have realized that they would go find greener pastures somewhere where nobody had heard their name, so they could have felt there was no real cost to liquidating all the assets, keeping it all for themselves, and just dumping the human waste. 😦

  24. Juice

    I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course, but it is literally their actual job description to place the interests of a soulless legal fiction over the needs and desires of living, breathing, human beings with actual feelings.

    No, it’s his job to put the monetary interest of living, breathing shareholders above all else.

    1. 113yearslater

      Actually, most of the living, breathing shareholders of any corporation have more than enough “monetary interest” shored up. These people are filthy rich, and the corporation’s interest is to ensure that they wipe their backsides with $100 bills instead of $50s. Very few living, breathing people who start or fund companies actually need the money or have any serious monetary interests. They will not wind up on the street if the company tanks, I can assure you. They will move on to the next company in their portfolio, and the reason they can generally do this is invariably because granddaddy made some nice railroad investments and not because they are unusually well-fitted for success.

  25. Brendan Gregg (@brendangregg)

    Great post. There may be a part 2 to this:

    This concludes that a company is a collection of rules that exists to “acquire profit”. True. Realizing this, and helping the company succeed with this goal, is good advice. You may still lose your job, though, even though you are acquiring profit.

    The company acts through its management team, and their incentives vary based on other factors. Layoffs can be ordered by the CEO, which at big companies can leave junior managers mostly powerless to avoid: if they argue, they may be simply added to the layoff themselves. The layoff process will have been initiated to “acquire profit”, but the basis for who actually loses their job can be political, not profit.

    1. dbrady Post author

      Absolutely agreed. People are human, and that can be great good as well as great evil. From the comments here I may have to turn the followup into a series. πŸ™‚


  26. 113yearslater

    Learned this in 2003. Hand me a good margarita on the rocks, good tequila, easy on the salt, and I’ll name names. Loudly.

    I work for a tech nonprofit at the moment; the difference is stark and shocking. The CXOs have actual brains, and the end product result is what we’re judged on, not profits. I wouldn’t go back to a for-profit corporation at the point of a gun.

  27. segmation

    Days of being loyal to companies sadly may be over due to how companies can lay you off so quickly with no thought at all. Thanks for this awesome blog and I hope a better future ahead for you.

  28. Kate Lester

    Been in the same boat. It’s lots of fun being in a startup but unless your name is on the lottery ticket, they’re being started to be sold and you don’t share the wealth. I’ve tried full-time and even when I find a company I feel I could stay with forever, it gets sold and the new “layoffs” (let’s be honest, we’re fired) happen a week or two after the sale.
    I’ve contracted for many years and prefer it because I can usually keep my head down below the radar. Plus, I don’t have to go through those meaningless exercises called Performance Reviews.
    I keep my resume and technical skills as current as possible and never keep anything more in my desk that I can carry out in my briefcase.

    1. dbrady Post author

      That’s pretty close to how I run. I’m okay with embedding myself with a team at a personal level, so the goodbyes are often bittersweet, but at a professional level I’ve learned to not have too much trauma over cleaning out my desk.

  29. Pingback: Where do you place your loyalty? | So what?

  30. thoughtfullyprepping

    Good Article. There is no such thing as employer loyalty anymore yet they expect 110% loyalty back. Then you get canned. 9/10 times you get nothing, 9/10 times the reference letter they write is about as sincere as a kick in the teeth.
    Nice bit about the last 3 jobs I was “reluctantly” let go from?
    All three firms folded. Guess what? I laughed for days when I heard.

    1. dbrady Post author

      Ah, yes. Der Schadenfreude ist der Bestenfreude. πŸ™‚ A wise boss once told me to watch myself, and to remember that “loyalty only ever goes one way in a company.” Wise words. Cynical, but wise.

    1. dbrady Post author

      Hi Jeremy! Amen. It’s doubly true for startups here in Utah, for a specific reason that I’ll gossip with you about the next time we meet. πŸ˜‰

  31. sothisismejulia

    This post needs to be taught in college – same with money management. it’s crazy how mind-blown I am to read this and how I had to learn the hard way too. Thank you for your post!

  32. samglauser

    I LOVED this post. Thanks for sharing your story and wise guidance. I’ve worked with many executive teams riddled with poor performance, worse ethics and behavior, savvy on the political game and have been part of layoffs as a result. Cynical perhaps, but “leaders” need to lead, and to prove themselves worthy of my respect. πŸ™‚

  33. Photos close to home

    You must always be looking for your next job whether you’re freelancing or not. And you’re dead right about networking. After being layed off three times in ten years, I managed to stay employed for the final 30 years of my career because I finally wised up and learned how to network.

  34. gregschina

    Seems like sage advice.
    I’m lucky enough to be at the start of my career and intend to keep this in mind when it comes to all future decisions. I have, in fact, reduced my contract to four days a week so I have more time to improve myself when the time comes for a switch-a-roo.

  35. Pingback: Jobs, Worth, and Loyalty | eccentricity

  36. Marisha

    Wow! you have said it all… like really all. “But isn’t loyalty a good thing? Sure it is! Just be careful where you place it.” Makes it my personal favorite!

    And yeah… you write so engaging that I ended up reading your answers to comments!! Please do write a fiction.. as in full book on this – and I’ll try to be the first one to buy, in my country at least πŸ™‚

  37. buggz

    I thought I was alone. I completely agree with you on this article. I’m only 24 years old and I’m already finding this to be true. Too many people want to find a job instead building their skills and developing their own career. Corporations don’t care about you, they only seek to profit from your work. Great post!

  38. Vonn Scott Bair

    Good Evening: During one temping assignment I taught myself the basics of forensic accounting and uncovered a fraud that cost the company $900,000 per year. Per year. My managers could not conceal their delight even if they wanted to, but they didn’t. My assignment ended a few weeks later anyway; they had run out of money in their temping budget.
    After all of my years of temping, I had gotten so inured to the countless occurrences of the sudden *thanks for everything, but your assignment is over” speech that it never occurred to me that the lessons taught in this excellent post *need* to be learned. I just got used to the sudden endings and took care of myself. What bothers me is the fear that too many people will say, “Yeah, that’s too bad, but that’s just the way it is,” and never ask themselves if this is the way it must be. Vonn Scott Bair

    1. dbrady Post author

      Thank you! I’ve had similar experiences of having managers tell me I had “literally worked a miracle” and then give me nothing more than an “attaboy” for it.

      I find that the core problem is never questioning they way things are AND not doing anything about it. Either question can save you: “Does this REALLY have to be this way?” and if you decide that yes it does, then ask “Does it REALLY have to hurt this much?” The pain comes from the system hitting you where it hurts. If you can change the system, or change yourself, both can result in happier outcome. But you’re right, none of that starts until you ask those questions. And sadly if often has to hurt real bad and real long before the question even occurs to us.


  39. fatlosstechnique101

    Thanks for the article, it was a great read. I agree completely that corporation management couldn’t care any less about their employees. The only thing they care about at the end of the day is their own profit margins and bonuses.


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