A different perspective on the real value of employee tenure

As we head into summer (at least in the Northern Hemisphere!) and the pace eases slightly, hopefully giving us a little time to reflect, develop and plan, I wanted to share two posts that relate to HOW we achieve our goals and WHAT we can and should expect from those around us in the process. Both this post on the real value of employee tenure and the next post on people (dis)engagement behaviours are meant to be thought-provoking. It may make uncomfortable reading for some, but the point is to challenge our approach and change it accordingly!

So what is the real value of tenure?  For the longest time, I’ve struggled with the perception that the longer you stay in a company, the more value you create.  In fact, most of my career (certainly in the last 15 years) have focused on coming into a business and driving forward transformation, which means addressing the various SPoF (single points of failure), “we’ve always done it this way” attitude and the many challenging behaviours associated with that.  It’s true, I enjoy disruption, I see it as a positive opportunity to make things better, and that often means changing the mindset, little by little, of those who have been in the business or function the longest.

So does that mean that I don’t value tenure, or that I see long tenure as a negative thing?  Absolutely not!  My father taught at the same school for 42 years, empowering (in some families) 3 generations to read, write and better express themselves.  But the long tenure question has sat uncomfortably with me for quite some time, until recently, a simple question popped into my mind – shouldn’t tenure result in increased value and impact over time?

My experience of long tenure has not always delivered on this – in fact, in some cases, the longer someone stays with a business, the less positive impact they have, value dwindling over time.  Here are four scenarios to back up my statement:

Whilst in many established businesses, there are always people who are the go-to for certain information and knowledge, I’d hotly contest that this is adding value – better to document the information and disseminate it more widely.  This creates capacity for the knowledgeable person to add value by applying their knowledge to new or complex situations, allowing all to learn at the same time.  No company should be dependent on or beholden to any one individual – the world won’t end because your key person gets abducted by aliens!

In a similar vein, when someone says to me, “But Herbert has been with us since the company started“, that in itself does not mean that Herbert has always added value and continues to add value – it just means that he has received his pay check with the company for a long time.  “Dodging the chopper “during various headcount reduction cycles over the years doesn’t mean you are valued by a company, or add value to a business (although it may suggest that you know how to play a good political game.)  The more people you know, the more information you (with)hold, the better you are at surviving company re-structuring.  In turn, this may perpetuate the belief that you are indeed too good to lose.

Assuming that as the longest serving member of a team, you are the most senior, and thus the most eligible for the looming promotion (and associated grade and pay rise) is still a commonly-held belief.  Witness the nervous reaction of inexperienced line managers at the prospect of NOT making that person their 2IC (second in command.)  Or worse, I’ve experienced on more than one occasion when someone doesn’t get that promotion, they are incredulous, escalating up the chain and refusing to accept the other person was better placed to be promoted.

Finally, celebrating tenure is another tricky topic.  Service awards for staff loyalty can serve to reinforce the “hanger-on” behaviour, increasing with length of tenure.  The eye-rolling as the cake / wine / company branded gift is presented to the long time employee, with obligatory round of applause and team photo with long-standing team member holding / cutting a cake do little to motivate new or old colleagues.  It’s an empty gesture that serves little purpose in your bigger business goals or people engagement strategy.  It’s more like a pat on the head you’d do to a dog than a real celebration of business impact and value!

For me, tenure is a double-edged sword that needs careful management.  The knowledge built up over time IS important.  Business impact for the better comes from the new colleagues with fresh ideas and different perspectives as much as the longer tenure colleagues with business perspective and years of lessons learned.  So here is a thought that can respect tenure AND celebrate the success of everyone who makes a positive impact – it’s time to celebrate achievements and delivery, not tenure and longevity!

When did you last see a company wide system for achievements and positive impact, driven from the top down?  Is this something that could help drive better behaviours amongst your business, your teams, your managers and with you on a personal level?  Without making this into a cottage industry, can you introduce something simple to replace the “long service award” dullness with an exciting and all-engaging celebration of success ad collaboration?  For me, this is the key to unite new and established in connecting different lengths of tenure.

For those with tenure, I hope to challenge you to continue to make a positive difference, and continually question whether the value you bring is increasing over time.  For those with shorter tenure, I hope to challenge you to leverage the business knowledge of those with long tenure together to make even more impact within your organisation!

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