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Lost Loyalty Haunts Employers Era Of Disposable Workers Weakens Employment Bonds

Come fall, AT&T; will launch an experiment allowing employees to roam like nomads from project to project, unaffiliated with old-style departments.

Texas Instruments shortly will offer a second kind of pension plan - one more easily transferred to a new job and more rewarding for employees who quit the company after just a few years.

The aim of the changes? To keep good workers. If that sounds confusing, it often is.

Like suitors who once spurned a lover and are worried about losing another, employers are struggling with how to retain talented employees - and keep them committed - at a time when many bonds of loyalty between them have weakened.

Downsizings, restructurings and vast changes in the way we work have demoralized employees and left them distrustful. Workers have been told - either indirectly or straight out - that they are free agents, responsible for their own careers.

Now, with jobs plentiful, more workers are taking employers at their word and quitting, leaving companies scrambling to rekindle the loyalty that only a few years ago many eschewed.

“We were focusing on the wrong things,” said Patricia Nazemetz, director of human resource policies at Xerox. “Employees have asked or expected us to back off” focusing on “the concept of … no-guarantees.”

Xerox, one of the first companies to realize that making workers feel disposable can cripple a business, now gives bonuses to lower-level workers, makes benefits more flexible and gives workers more of a say in their jobs to help persuade them to stay.

Other companies are shelling out bonuses and raises, making work more flexible - and bending over backward sometimes to such an extent that they seem to promote leaving.

Once upon a time, loyalty meant “sticking around for as long as the company would have you and doing whatever they want,” says Faith Wohl, a work-family specialist who works for Vice President Al Gore.

“That just doesn’t seem appropriate in the 1990s.”

The old kind of loyalty has been swept away amid a flood of changes from outsourcing to downsizing that often left companies trim and agile but employees anxious.

“I’m hoping for another 10 years with my company, but you never know,” sighs Kim Ebling, a customer service representative with a Buffalo, N.Y., insurance agency. “With any employer, there’s no security, no matter where you go.”

Workers today mostly are satisfied with their jobs, but don’t trust management, studies show. A recent survey of 2,500 workers by Towers Perrin reported 60 percent of workers wouldn’t recommend their companies to a close friend.

Amid the tumult has arisen the “new contract” - a term coined in academia and embraced by business to describe the changing relations between employers and employees. In the past two years, there has been much jawboning about how companies will train workers to be more “employable” but can’t promise lifetime employment. To workers, that has sounded mostly like “you’re on your own.”

“The whole thing of ‘come and work for us for 5 years and have a great time’ isn’t working,” says Patricia Milligan, a principal at Towers Perrin consulting. “The trouble is that’s exactly what people are doing.”

Nearly 13 percent of unemployed people in July left their jobs voluntarily, compared with 10.5 percent the same month a year ago, according to the government.

The Bureau of National Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based research and publishing firm, has been struggling with the issue of commitment since computerization led to an influx of young hires a few years ago.

The company has a reputation for stability: Employees joke that if you stay three years, you’ll retire there.

But when Chief Executive Officer Paul Wojcik gives his customary talk on two-way loyalty to new hires, he notices young people rolling their eyes. Median length of service is slipping, from eight years in 1989 to seven years in 1996.

Even workers who are happy have a different mind-set than their parents had. “I came into the work force very cynical,” says spokeswoman Karen James Cody, who’s worked for the company three years. “I’ve had a free-agent mentality since I’ve started work. Loyalty is a double-edged sword.”

Efforts to foster commitment range from increased compensation to attempts to give workers a better balance between work and home, and more flexibility on the job.

Most agree that old ideas of loyalty are gone. Yet striking a balance between commitment and agility is frightening, both to employers and employees. That’s why many employers aren’t sure what to do or say.

“Promises of job security sound hollow … if you’ve just seen 30 percent of your colleagues out on the street,” says Harold Salzman, director of research at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit.

Tags: business

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