What’s the price of loyalty?

I’ve been surprised to learn recently that two to four years is the norm for a UX tenure at any particular job. In fact, managers (at least the ones that I’ve talked to) don’t expect to hold on to an employee for more than three years.

As someone who’s had only four jobs in my 25-year career, this is hard to comprehend. I asked my colleagues what they thought:

  • “I’ve never had a job more than a two or three years. Because I’m always looking for something else but I never find it.” (I asked this person what he was looking for and he said he didn’t know exactly.)
  • “I don’t trust job candidates who’ve been at a single company for a long time. Dynamic people change jobs.”
  • “People don’t stay at jobs because they have no loyalty to the company any more. And companies aren’t loyal either.”

It’s certainly true that the majority of resumes I see from UX designers trend in the direction of many short-term jobs, some of them for merely a year or two. Indeed, I see many resumes from folks who’ve been at their current job less than a year. As a hiring manager, I have to wonder—why should I hire someone who’s clearly going to get bored or dissatisfied after six months with us?

The comments from my colleagues provide some tantalizing clues about the restlessness of today’s technology job seekers:

“I’ve never had a job more than a two or three years. Because I’m always looking for something else but I never find it.”

I’ve observed that for designers, the grass is always greener somewhere else. I addressed this phenomenon in a 2009 blog post, where I blamed in part the happy-talk, self-promoting social media channels we spend so much time in.

I think there’s a case to be made that the best designers are unsatisfied and restless—always wanting to better their craft and work on bigger and better projects. I also believe that most give up too easily. Jobs are plentiful in UX and there’s little pressure to stay put and try to make the best of your current situation. There’s a strong case to be made that an overabundance of opportunity has made us lazy and short-sighted—always grabbing for the next shiny thing instead of doing the hard work to polish the rough diamond in our hand.

With apologies to my colleague who made the statement above, if you don’t know what you’re looking for—how will you know when you’ve found it? A journey with no destination had better be about the journey, since you’re not likely to get there any time soon.

“I don’t trust job candidates who’ve been at a single company for a long time. Dynamic people change jobs.”

This is an interesting one. Certainly if there’s a culture of frequent job-hopping,  it could become a virtue among those who embrace that culture.

In the fast-paced world of technology, I can understand how staying one place can look like a lack of ambition or curiosity. With so much going on, you’d have to be a real dud not to be constantly taking advantage, right?

On the other hand, the pace of change is what makes it possible to stay in the same place but still be engaged in your work. You may not be moving, but every couple of years the tools, processes, and deliverables have completely changed. I ran my own business for 13 years and I was never bored because the industry changed around me several times, giving me an incentive to grow my skills and understanding. I went from print designer to web designer to kiosk designer to UX designer and business owner—the equivalent of a job change every three or four years.

“People don’t stay at jobs because they have no loyalty to the company any more. And companies aren’t loyal either.”

When my colleague said this, I heard myself saying immediately: “People were never loyal to the company. People aren’t loyal to companies—they’re loyal to people.”

Last year, Forbes provided some statistics from a couple of research studies showing that 32% of workers are actively looking for a job. People who are unhappy at work cite the following reasons:

  • They don’t like their boss (31%)
  • A lack of empowerment (31%)
  • Internal politics (35%)
  • Lack of recognition (43%)

I would argue (as does Forbes) that all of these reasons are due to having a lousy boss.

Bosses who inspire loyalty are caring and generous. They shield employees from politics and empower them to do their best work. They recognize and reward success and make employees feel part of something bigger than themselves. I’m lucky enough to have a boss like this.

I heard an interesting story a couple of days ago about a Swedish CEO who made all his executives train for and complete a 290-km, 12-hour bike race around a lake. His rationale was that this would prove who was serious and create a bond among the team. Despite how autocratic this sounds, the execs who stuck it out felt that the experience was worth it. Even the person telling me this story said that this CEO was a great guy.

It struck me that, somehow, the CEO must have convinced everyone that he truly cared. When you genuinely care, people will go to the mat for you and defend you all their days. It won’t seem worth it to change jobs, because when are you ever likely to find a better boss?