The Good and the Bad of Professional Longevity in an Organization


One of my great aunts worked for 40 years at the same company, retiring in the 1960s. Such longevity is practically unheard of today. In my experience, there is good and bad around someone being at the same company for more than a few years.

Having been through a few reorgs and layoffs at companies, I am not often surprised any more at who gets the boot (including when it's me). More often than not being laid off isn't something to take personally. If you've been laid off as part of a larger reorg, it generally just means that there was a perceived redundancy or an 'opportunity' to shift work around and save some money. You are just a name on a row in an excel spreadsheet, and on that same row is your title and salary. Still, it is a little shocking to me when someone with years of experience with the company, and a solid reputation, is shown the door. It really shouldn't be surprising, because it really comes down to that salary. Someone who works their way up in a company is especially at risk, as their salary becomes low-hanging fruit at lay-off time.

When someone who has been at a company a decade or more leaves, a lot of institutional knowledge goes with them. Perspective on policies and procedures is lost along with well-honed expertise. When I have seen this happen the people were not replaced. Rather, their duties were split up among subordinates who continued to work for the same salary as before. For the company it's a short-term win on the financial side that also lowers morale and loses the potentially valuable insight of the terminated employee. 

At the same time, there's a bad side to keeping someone in a company for too long, and it's gotten to the point where I can generally identify a person who has been comfortably employed at the same place for a number of years. Their 'tell' is when they can't seem to imagine a different way of working. This can manifest itself in the surprise they express when you aren't familiar with some system that's not well-known outside the company (such as Bluejeans for videoconferencing), or with impatience at relatively minor suggestions that would require a change of policies and procedures. If the bottom line to their objection is 'this is just how we do it,' you're quite likely dealing with a long-timer. And it doesn't have to be a dramatic number of years. In once case it was for me, when I had a supervisor who had been with the company for over twenty years. In the others it was more a matter of seven to ten years. 

None of this is to say that employee turnover should be high, or that we should be changing companies every few years (though this seems to be happening quite a lot). I have known long-timers who retained the flexibility to see things from other perspectives, and I have encountered others who were frankly easy to do without. Sometimes it's a relief when someone leaves, whether voluntarily or otherwise. I also think that there is value to staying put, if it's a good fit, and for companies to take a long view and reconsider axing someone primarily because it would be so nice not to have to pay their salary. 

In order not to become hide-bound in their approach, professionals can regularly read (or listen to) business and related books that present new or different approaches to getting things done. They can attend conferences and take classes that challenge them. They should also definitely take their vacations and develop hobbies outside of work. These are they ways that we can keep out outlooks fresh and at least try to avoid developing a narrow-minded way of working that relies on precedent. 

We humans are risk-averse, and rightfully so. When someone is comfortably drawing a paycheck, it becomes very easy and convenient to rely on what is known to be safe. Any move that might rock the boat could jeopardize one's position, so the calmest waters are sought out to just go with the flow. This can be hugely detrimental to the company, however, that loses its ability to innovate. I understand that desire for a peaceful status quo, but look, you could get laid off anyway. If you've kept your head down there will be no one to speak for you, and no demonstrated advantage to the company to keep you. Being a reliable employee in a large company provides no job security on its own. 

And so that's where I come out with longevity in an organization. Avoidance of risk is the downfall of many a professional and a business, and at the same time companies actively harm themselves by removing people who actually do contribute to the company and who possess valuable knowledge and skills. At least if a person works to develop professionally and gets laid off they'll have kept their skill set current and be more prepared for the chaos of the job hunt and first days in a different corporate environment than someone who always laid low and clocked out just to go home and binge watch a series. 

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