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7.3 Company Loyalty

Learning Objectives

  1. Define company loyalty.
  2. Elaborate three degrees of company loyalty.

Two Kinds of Loyalty

There is narrow company loyaltyAn employee’s willingness to stick with an employer instead of seeking work elsewhere. and broad company loyaltyAn employee’s conviction that an organization—it’s ideals and actions—has intrinsic value distinct from its ability to serve the employee’s interests by providing a paycheck and associated benefits.. The narrow definition pertains to employment: the loyal employee sticks with the company instead of looking for work elsewhere, especially during economic booms when jobs are plentiful and moving on is easy.

This kind of loyalty, however, is in trouble according to an article from the Harvard Business School: “The very nature of the relationship between employers and employees has undergone a fundamental shift: Today, workers not only don’t expect to work for decades on end for the same company, but they don’t want to. They are largely disillusioned with the very idea of loyalty to organizations.”Lauren Keller Johnson, “Rethinking Company Loyalty,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, September 19, 2005, accessed May 19, 2011,

Part of the reason for the shift—and part of the reason employees don’t stay at companies for decades—is that many employers don’t hesitate to fire their workers at the drop of the hat when it serves the company’s interest. On the other side, according to the article, it’s also true that today’s workers don’t hesitate to move on to a new job when a better one, or maybe just a different one, comes along. Regardless of who went first, the fact is company loyalty—whether it’s going from the company to the worker or the worker to the company—isn’t what (we are told) it once was.

The broad definition of company loyalty goes beyond employment questions and measures an employee’s willingness to sacrifice income, leisure time, personal relationships, family responsibilities, and general life aspirations in the name of the organization. To create this dynamic of sacrifice, two distinct kinds of relationships with the organization are required:

  1. Attachment to the organization that is noninstrumental. This means the attachment isn’t maintained only because it serves the employee’s concrete interests, such as the need for a salary to pay the rent and grocery bills.
  2. A deposited value in the organization that goes beyond any individual and their attachment; the organization’s value continues even without those who currently feel it.

Probably, there’s not a lot of this kind of deep loyalty in the advertising field. Agencies are constantly stalking new clients, even trying to steal them from others. For their part, most clients are constantly looking for better deals and ways to refresh their image, and they are usually open to proposals from new firms interested in handling their communication. More, companies that employ advertising agencies constantly “put their account up for review,” which means the current account holder has to compete with new entrants just to maintain the business. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part advertising agencies are constantly clinging to the business they have, seeking new opportunities, and always on the lookout for fast money. In that kind of cutthroat environment—one where it’s your job to sing the praises of Burger King one day and McDonald’s the next—it’s going to be difficult for workers to feel as though they should (or even can) be true to their current employer.

Other kinds of organizations seem more likely to instill feelings of loyalty. A religious hub—a church, a synagogue, a mosque—is one obvious example. Most priests are attached to, and deeply concerned by, the welfare of their church; they serve their institution and aren’t working there for the money (which probably isn’t great). Further, most also believe their institution has value beyond them: the importance was there before they arrived (or were even born) and will continue after they leave. Taken together, these elements create space for true employee loyalty to the organization. Something similar—the existence of a space for labor that’s not about money and similar rewards—could be found surrounding many who work for Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders, political parties, the CIA, the United Nations.

Other professions open on both sides of the line—that is, there’s ample space for an instrumental relationship (I keep this job because it makes me happy) and one based on broad loyalty. Some medical doctors are in it for the money but others for the care, for the principle that bringing health to others is a good cause. Law is another example. Ambulance-chasing lawyers just want payoffs, but some judges believe in the law as something larger than themselves and a basic force for civilization that’s worth serving. Moving down to street level, there are police officers who just like a steady paycheck and others in the field to serve and protect: they see their work as improving the lives of others and the general community.

Three Degrees of Loyalty

Within a dynamic of employee loyalty, there are three levels of dedication: obedience loyalty, balanced loyalty, and free agency.

Obedience loyaltyWithin the field of broad company loyalty, the feeling that the organization’s existence and goals are far more valuable than the employee’s welfare., which is an extreme case, works from the idea that the organization is worthy and the employee is comparatively worthless or only worthwhile to the extent he or she serves the organization. This extreme will be reached only rarely, but there are glimmers of it in some professional activities. One quick way to identify these kinds of labors is to check whether the truly dedicated are willing to sacrifice even their lives for the cause their organization embodies. The armed forces come to mind here. Some political organizations command this devotion, especially in revolutionary times. Some workers’ devotion to their labor union has been sufficient to put their lives in danger. The exploring scientist Charles Darwin believed in accumulating knowledge and put his life at risk in the field as he tracked rare species and ecosystems.

Not so dramatic or extreme, some professions and organizations can suck the emotional life out of employees. Or they may take vast chunks of the employee’s time. Undercover police work exemplifies by requiring a loyalty reflected as self-sacrifice to an extent few of us would contemplate. April Leatherwood, for instance, went undercover in Memphis for an entire year. Almost entirely separated from family and friends, she lived on the street, wore the same clothes every day, went without brushing her teeth, and rarely bathed. That was an ugly year of her life, one sacrificed for the job.Kristina Goetz, “A Year of Living Dangerously Takes a Toll on Undercover Memphis Officer,” Commercial Appeal, August 30, 2009, accessed May 19, 2011,

Balanced loyaltyWithin the field of broad company loyalty, the feeling that the organization’s existence and goals are valuable and independent of the employee’s welfare, but the employee’s welfare is also valuable and independent of the organization’s existence and goals. is a situation where both the employee and the organization recognize in each other an independent value. In this case, the employee can be expected to make sacrifices—possibly even do things he or she would normally consider unethical—in the name of serving the larger organization. One example would be a lawyer working in a public defender’s office, one who believes that the system of law and the rules of its enforcement are noble and should be respected to some important extent that is independent of the particular lawyer’s welfare and beliefs. The loyalty can be reflected in a number of ways. First, it’s simply the case that most public defender positions don’t pay as well as similar posts in private firms. Pushing further, the public defender may be asked to represent and defend a client she knows (or strongly suspects) is guilty. In this case, presumably, she’s being asked to do something she wouldn’t do in her day-to-day life—that is, serve the interests of a guilty man. More, presenting a full-blown legal case for the defendant’s innocence would essentially be lying and, again, something the lawyer might not typically do.

At the same time, this lawyer probably won’t be sacrificing everything; she’ll recognize that her life and aspirations have value also, and there may come a point where she decides the sacrifices demanded by the job are too great to bear. Perhaps she’s just had a child and needs to up her income, or, maybe a man she helped set free has committed a gruesome crime. However the situation might be, when the lawyer leaves the office of the public defender for a higher paying job at a large private firm, she has demonstrated a balanced sense of loyalty. She’s willing to sacrifice in the name of a larger organization she respects. But only up to a point.

Other demonstrations of balanced loyalty to the organization could include

  • buying the company’s products (though they aren’t the personal preference),
  • evangelizing in public life (telling your friends how great the company or its products are),
  • voting for the political candidate the company affirms will best serve its interests,
  • moving for the company.

Free agencyWithin the field of broad company loyalty, the feeling that the organization’s existence and goals are valuable only insofar as they serve the employee’s welfare. is the extreme on the bottom end: the absence of loyalty. Some theorists propose that this should be the default state for most employees for this reason: it’s ultimately impossible to be loyal to a typical company because profit-making institutions just aren’t the kinds of things that can properly demand or receive any loyalty. The entire idea of loyalty, the argument goes, only exists in a reality where individuals stand by others to some extent without conditions (example: parents who love each other and their children unconditionally). Money-making businesses, on the other hand, are incapable of that kind of unconditional fidelity. On the contrary, the only desire most private enterprises know is the one to serve its own interests by making more profits. If that’s right—if companies have no loyalty to give—then its employees can’t enter into that kind of relationship. Instead, in the business world at least, you and I are forced to pursue our own interests—a higher salary or whatever—just as the larger company pursues its own.

Translating this into the working world, the absence of company loyalty is the idea that workers find value in their organization only because it serves their own interests. Of course it’s impossible to know the souls of others, or exactly what their deepest values are, but there might be a hint of this free-agent loyalty in the Leo Burnett case. Two high-level and highly paid workers served the company well—and were compensated well—until they turned whistle-blower against the firm. When vice president Hamilton and comptroller Casey alleged that Leo Burnett was overbilling the government for their work for the US Army, they weren’t just doing the right thing, they were doing a lucrative thing for themselves since the False Claims Act promised 30 percent of damages the government obtained. If the money is the reason they turned on the agency, they exemplify free-agent loyalty. They worked hard for the organization because the pay was good, but the moment they saw the chance to get even more money by turning against it, they jumped. At bottom, that means, their loyalty is only to themselves.

Key Takeaways

  • Company loyalty defined narrowly concerns employees sticking with the organization instead of looking for work elsewhere.
  • Company loyalty defined broadly emerges from the idea that the organization possesses nobility that’s worth serving, even if employees don’t benefit personally from the contribution.
  • The three degrees of company loyalty are obedience loyalty (the worker exists to serve the organization’s interests), balanced loyalty (workers and organizations share interests), and free agency (the organization exists to serve the worker’s interests).

Review Questions

  1. Name an organization that might inspire obedience loyalty. Why is obedience inspired? What does the loyalty look like?
  2. Name an organization that might inspire balanced loyalty. Why is it inspired? What does the loyalty look like?
  3. Name an organization that might inspire an attitude of free agency. Why is it inspired? What does the free agency look like?
  4. Take a career you’re (considering) pursuing. On the scale from obedience loyalty to free agency, where do you imagine most employees in that line of work are located? Why?