Does It Make Sense to Be a Loyal Employee?

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  • Does It Make Sense to Be a Loyal Employee?

    Juan M. Elegido

    Received: 8 February 2012 / Accepted: 4 September 2012 / Published online: 13 September 2012

    Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

    Abstract Loyalty is a much-discussed topic among

    business ethicists, but this discussion seems to have issued

    in very few clear conclusions. This article builds on the

    existing literature on the subject and attempts to ground a

    definite conclusion on a limited topic: whether, and under

    what conditions, it makes sense for an employee to offer

    loyalty to his employer. The main ways in which loyalty to

    ones employer can contribute to human flourishing are

    that it makes the employee more trustworthy and therefore

    more valuable as an employee; makes it easier to form

    authentic relationships in other areas of the employees

    life; expands the employees field of interests and gives her

    or him a richer identity; provides greater motivation for the

    employees work; makes it possible to have a greater unity

    in the employees life; improves the performance of the

    organization for which the employee works; contributes to

    the protection of valuable social institutions; and, in so far

    as many employees share an attitude of loyalty towards the

    organization which employs them, it becomes possible for

    this organization to become a true community. Last, but not

    the least, loyal relationships have an inherent value. The

    article also reviews the main arguments that have been

    offered against employee loyalty and concludes that none

    of them offers a reason why it would be inappropriate in all

    cases for an employee to be loyal to her or his employer.

    The force of these arguments depends on the specific

    attributes of the organization for which the employee

    works. The main conclusion of the article is that while

    being a loyal employee involves risk, it has the potential to

    contribute significantly to the employees fulfilment. The

    main challenge for employees is to identify employers who

    are worthy of being loyal to.

    Keywords Loyalty Meaning in work Impliedemployment contract Employee commitment Community


    It has become commonplace that the old implied employ-

    ment contract under which employers offered employment

    for life in return for the employees undivided attention and

    devotion is dead (Anderson and Schalk 1998; Cappelli

    2005; Dunford 1999; Hallock 2009). Supposedly, modern

    economic conditions put a premium on employer flexibility

    and employee mobility and have rendered that implied

    contract unviable. However, serious questions have been

    raised on how prevalent that supposed implied employment

    contract ever was, at least in the Western world (Hall and

    Moss 1998), on the extent to which the old contract is gone

    (Jacoby 1999), and on the economic advantages of the free-

    agent model (Hallock 2009). However that may be, my

    own experience and that of other academics who teach in

    programmes addressed to management practitioners is that

    many young managers do not think of their relationship to

    their current or future employers in terms of loyalty. Much

    of the motivation for my writing this article stems from my

    belief that these young managers are missing something

    potentially important for their lives when they so casually

    dismiss the possibility of a loyal relationship with their


    Irrespective of the prevailing values in the world of

    practice, the issue of loyalty is very much alive in business

    J. M. Elegido (&)Lagos Business School, Pan-African University, 2, Ahmed

    Onibudo Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria



    J Bus Ethics (2013) 116:495511

    DOI 10.1007/s10551-012-1482-4

  • ethics journals and books. The appropriateness or other-

    wise of giving or expecting loyalty in modern corporations

    is kept being discussed, as the many references provided in

    this article attest. However, no clear conclusion seems to

    emerge from the recent studies on loyalty. Thus, among the

    more prominent articles on the subject, Baron (1991),

    Carbone (1997) and Duska (1997a) firmly reject the

    appropriateness of loyalty for employees, Hajdin (2005)

    does so for a large number of cases and Pfeiffer denies that

    employees have a duty of loyalty, excepting only cases in

    which such a duty may derive from an explicit pledge or

    the creation of expectations. On the other side, Schrag

    (2001), Corvino (2002) and Mele (2001) defend the

    appropriateness of loyalty to employers. Randels (2001)

    and Ewin (1993) offer qualified endorsements; for Randels

    loyalty to ones employer is only appropriate where the

    employer is a community and for Ewin where the employer

    has socially beneficial goals.

    Perhaps that lack of clear conclusions derives from the

    fact that the contemporary academic discussion of loyalty

    addresses many different issues. Among others: How

    should loyalty be defined? Do employers have a moral duty

    to be loyal to their employees? Does the managers loyalty

    to her or his subordinates clash with her or his fiduciary

    duties? Do employees have a moral duty to be loyal to their

    employers? If this duty exists, does it clash with other

    duties (i.e., that of blowing the whistle in appropriate

    occasions)? In which ways and within what limits should

    loyalty towards employers be manifested?

    To increase the chances of making progress in the

    investigation of loyalty in work settings, I will focus as

    sharply as possible the discussion and will confine myself

    to studying whether, and under what conditions, from the

    point of view of the employees fulfilment, it is advisable

    that he offer loyalty to his employer. I will not even pause

    to ask whether employees have a moral duty to show

    loyalty to their employers.

    The employee fulfilment to which I refer in this article

    should not be understood as being better off in purely

    financial or hedonic terms. Throughout the article, I have in

    mind an inclusive conception of human flourishing

    according to which a person has lived a fulfilling life if at

    the end it is possible to make an overall judgement that that

    life was a good life, even if many particular aims of that

    person were frustrated or had to be sacrificed, either

    because of unfavourable circumstances or to attain more

    important goals. Of course, there are many conceptions of

    what is a good life, but in the context of this article, I wish

    to leave this question as open as possible as the thesis I

    defend here is compatible with many of them. Broadly

    speaking, it should be possible to accommodate the theses I

    uphold in this article within many types of preference-

    satisfaction and objective-list conceptions of a good life.

    The point of departure of many academic discussions of

    this topic is the ordinary meaning of the term loyalty. This

    has hampered the emergence of shared views as the term

    loyalty can be defined in many different, though related,

    ways and none of these is specially geared to making it

    easier to arrive at definite conclusions in a process of moral

    reasoning. To avoid these problems I will try to be very

    clear about the concept of loyalty I use and, though I will

    endeavour not to stray too far from common usage in

    stipulating my use of the term, the main consideration I

    will have in mind in fashioning my definition is to arrive at

    a definition of loyalty that is suitable for the purpose of

    moral argument and takes into account the lessons of past

    discussions of professional loyalty.

    So, my plan is to start by putting forward a clear defi-

    nition of loyalty. Then, I will investigate whether, and

    under what circumstances, it makes sense for an employee

    to offer loyalty (in the sense defined) to her or his employer

    by exploring in detail the arguments that can be offered in

    favour of, and against, the thesis that professional loyalty is

    conducive to an employees fulfilment.

    A Definition of Employees Loyalty

    For my purposes in this article, I wish to stipulate that

    when I use the term loyalty, I will be referring to:

    A deliberate commitment to further the best interests

    of ones employer, even when doing so may demand

    sacrificing some aspects of ones self-interest beyond

    what would be required by ones legal and other

    moral duties.

    I do not put forward this definition because I think it

    corresponds better than other alternative definitions which

    could be offered to the way the term loyalty is commonly

    used. While this definition is not purely idiosyncratic, the

    main reason I offer it is that, at least under some circum-

    stances, acting in that way towards their employers is likely

    to make employees better off. I have crafted this definition

    with an eye to staking out a defensible moral position in the

    tradition of virtue ethics represented by philosophers like

    Aristotle, Aquinas and MacIntyre.

    I will now discuss the main elements of the definition I

    have offered.

    This definition describes loyalty as a deliberate com-

    mitment. By choosing this characterization, I am dissoci-

    ating myself from an understanding of loyalty that sees it as

    a sentiment, feeling, emotion or passion. I do not claim that

    using the term loyalty when one is referring primarily to an

    emotional attachment, as authors like Ewin (1993), Randels

    (2001) and Hajdin (2005) have done, is wrong as a matter of

    using correctly the English language. My main reason in not

    496 J. M. Elegido


  • following them is that I consider that the discussion of the

    emotion of loyalty (as variously defined by different writ-

    ers) has yielded meagre and unreliable (from the point of

    view of justifying practical directives) results. In my view,

    the relative failure of this line of investigation is not sur-

    prising. It is well understood that from a feeling, as such and

    taken in itself, no moral conclusions follow; and also that it

    is notoriously difficult to prescribe feelings. On the other

    hand, in focusing on loyalty as something deliberately

    chosen I follow many other well-respected authors such as

    Royce (1908), Mele (2001), Vandekerckhove and Commers

    (2004), Gonzalez and Guillen (2008) and Kleinig (2008).

    I want to make it, however, clear that by defining loyalty

    as a deliberate commitment, I am not trying to suggest that

    loyalty is, or should be, detached from emotion. As a

    matter of fact, the deliberate commitment will often be

    motivated by feelings of attachment (Organ and Ryan

    1995). In other cases, what started as a deliberate choice

    will eventually produce those feelings of attachment

    (Burris et al. 2008). Most commonly, the deliberate com-

    mitment and the feelings of attachment will have grown in

    parallel and, as I will discuss below, this fact provides a

    reason why the deliberate commitment is worth making.

    My definition also makes reference to the fact that

    loyalty may demand sacrificing some aspects of ones self-

    interest. The connection between loyalty and the willing-

    ness to make sacrifices for the person, group or cause to

    which one is loyal has been noted often (Duska 1997a;

    Ewin 1993; Michalos 1981; Oldenquist 1982; Pfeiffer

    1992; Schrag 2001).

    For loyalty as I define it to exist, the loyal subject does

    not have to be willing to sacrifice everything for the

    employer to which one is loyal; the readiness to sacrifice

    some aspects of ones self-interest will suffice. In making

    this point, I am trying to distance myself from authors like

    Royce (1908, pp. 1617) who states that [l]oyalty shall

    mean the thoroughgoing devotion of a person to acause, and Ladd (1967, p. 97), who defines loyalty as a

    wholehearted devotion to an object of some kind. It is a

    false dichotomy to assume that if my employer is not the

    centre of my life I can only relate to her or him in a purely

    arms-length and instrumental basis. Loyalty is better

    understood as a continuum than as a binary phenomenon;

    accordingly, in my definition, loyalty to an employer is not

    necessarily a matter of all or nothing but admits of degrees,

    of more and less, and the fact that it is not wholehearted

    does not imply that it does not exist at all. Thus understood,

    it should also be noted that loyalty does not have to be

    exclusive as could be the case if I had defined it in a more

    totalizing way. It is possible for a person to have several

    loyalties simultaneously. This aspect of my definition of

    loyalty is shared by Oldenquist (1982), Ewin (1993) and

    Provis (2005). Again, it should also be noted that, because

    of the relative modesty of the definition of loyalty I offer,

    no presumption arises that, as defined by me, loyalty has to

    be uncritical.

    The definition refers to furthering the best interests of

    ones employer. The employer does not necessarily have to

    be a business organization, and this marks an important

    difference between this article and many other academic

    discussions of loyalty in the workplace such as those of Ewin

    (1993), Haughey (1993), Mele (2001) Corvino (2002), and

    Hajdin (2005), among many others. The employer could be a

    university, an NGO, a research institute, a government

    department or agency, a health organization, or a church. It

    has great interest for my discussion that many young people

    nowadays are opting to work for such employers rather than

    for business organizations, often at a significant financial

    cost to themselves, for reasons connected to the issue I dis-

    cuss in this article (Perry 1997; Brewer et al. 2000). It is also

    important to notice that while, as we will see below, the great

    majority of arguments against employee loyalty are based on

    developments in the business world; in practice they have

    induced a general mistrust against the idea of loyalty to

    employers of all types. By bringing other types of employers

    explicitly into my discussion of this issue I hope to be able to

    assess openly all relevant considerations.

    The definition refers to the employers interests. These

    interests can be furthered in many ways, and it is important

    to stress that being loyal to ones employer is not just a

    question of persisting in that employment relationship for a

    very long time. One can express ones loyalty in other ways

    such as avoiding gossip, mentoring younger employees,

    going the extra mile with a customer, taking pains with

    ones work, and being ready to work overtime even when

    that is not personally convenient, among many others (Hart

    and Thompson 2007). We can even talk, as Alvesson (2000)

    has suggested, of post-exit loyalty when a former employee

    maintains a readiness to foster the interest of a former

    employer after the employment connection has been ter-

    minated. Also, the mere fact of persisting in ones

    employment for a long time will not necessarily express

    loyalty in terms of my definition as it may not result from a

    willingness to further ones employers interests, but may

    instead be the result of purely self-regarding considerations.

    It is well known that in most countries the economy

    nowadays is much more dynamic than it was some decades

    ago: companies are born and die more frequently and leading

    companies lose their leadership positions faster (Clancy

    1998). It is a necessary consequence o...