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July 3, 2023

Staying At The Same Company For Years: A Sign Of Loyalty Or Laziness?

After 17 years of working at the same organization, Susan McPherson was sitting at her desk when she received the news that she would no longer be working at the place where she had built so much of her career. She was floored. “I knew the business was contracting, but I was shocked when they […]

After 17 years of working at the same organization, Susan McPherson was sitting at her desk when she received the news that she would no longer be working at the place where she had built so much of her career. She was floored.

“I knew the business was contracting, but I was shocked when they told me,” she said. “I thought, perhaps incorrectly, that my loyalty was worth something. I had built up a massive rolodex of contacts in the space we were in, and I was in the midst of putting together our first virtual conference.”

The next day, as McPherson grappled with the shock of her situation, an email came in. While her full-time employment status had been revoked, she was being asked to come back – this time, as a consultant.

“They needed someone to run the conference I had developed,” she said, matter-of-factly.

McPherson thinks she should have been able to see the layoff coming before it happened, but after staying at the same place for so long, she had blinders on.

“17 years is a long time,” she said. “I was holding on. It’s easier to talk ourselves into staying when it seems like the safer option. We often talk ourselves into things that aren’t necessarily best. I didn’t have enough confidence to leave on my own.”

Now McPherson is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of running her own company, McPherson Strategies. While she has few regrets, she often wonders, what might have happened had she taken the leap herself and started her business years earlier?

At a time when companies continue announcing one mass layoff after another, full time employment certainly seems less stable than it once did. Still, advice on how to build your career can vary. Jump around every year to get a salary bump and risk a cluttered resume that might signal to future employers that you can’t hold down a job for long. On the other hand, stick around at one company for too many years and risk stagnation, boredom and complacency. In today’s evolving workforce and shifting economic climate, is it better to jump around or settle in? And if we choose the latter, does staying at the same company for too long make us loyal, lazy or both?

“If you’ve only been in one industry, in one business, it can make you a little bit one-dimensional,” says Jamie McLaughlin, CEO of New York-based recruiting company Monday Talent in an interview with the BBC. “You might look at that [longevity] and go, how motivated is this person? Why haven’t they wanted to move?”

McLaughlin says that when an employee stays at one place for too long, “It can signal that professional development has stalled, or that workers have a smaller network.”

Christina Wallace, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and author of The Portfolio Life, offers a similar perspective.

“I’m not willing to offer a blanket judgment of ‘loyal or lazy’ for long-tenured employees—there are so many variables, it’s impossible to characterize from afar—but I do think staying at a company too long is risky,” she says. “You start getting comfortable. Maybe you slow down on networking or stop looking at what your market rate might be elsewhere. You don’t keep up with how job descriptions in your industry are changing and whether you’re doing what you can to stay current.”

“Crucially, you think your tenure means your company will be loyal to you, and that is completely false,” she points out. “No job is risk-free today, so it’s imperative you are intentional about how you actively manage that risk.”

Work trends expert Samantha Ettus thinks employees can find a happy medium. “These days company loyalty is a rarity, so when I see someone who has stayed at their previous company for three-plus years, it's meaningful,” she says.

But Ettus cautions against those who more than double that tenure. “If you are at a company for more than seven years, it flags a potential lack of ambition,” she continues. “If you have spent too long at one company it might make it harder to adjust to a new culture.”

If you do, On Brand author Aliza Licht warns, you might succumb to something called “last name syndrome.”

“Being loyal and committed to a company is not the mistake people make,” she says. “The error is when you suffer from what I coined ‘Last Name Syndrome,’ when you make a company your identity and replace your last name with a company's. For 17 years, I introduced myself as Aliza from DKNY. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. However, what happens when you leave? What does your name mean without the credibility of a well-known brand attached to it?”

All this caution against comfort and workplace complacency begs the question: if you’ve stayed at your job longer than seven years, must you urgently run off and find a new role?

“More often than not, the decision to stay varies with the person’s values and whether their work or company is still meeting their needs or not,” says executive coach Nihar K. Chhaya“Change is hard. To disrupt a job and look elsewhere requires more effort than staying put. The motivation to exert that extra effort comes from a clear reward from leaving or an escape of pain (or boredom, anxiety, not belonging, etc.) that exists where they are.”

Stephanie Cartin, co-founder of Entreprenista and Socialfly, points out that many of her early employees are still with both companies today, and have been instrumental to helping build the businesses over the past seven years.

"Staying at the same company for a long time not only makes you loyal, but it can also provide you with incredible growth opportunities if you are looking to move up in an organization,” Cartin says. “As a founder of multiple businesses, I can share firsthand that team members who have started with us from the early days have been given tremendous opportunities to grow into leadership roles."

Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, BetterUp’s Chief Innovation Officer and author of Tomorrowmind, agrees.

"There's no hard or fast rule about what long tenure signifies. At some companies it's still quite common to stay for years if not decades,” she says. “It can be tempting to move companies in order to accelerate progress but this can backfire, too. What matters most is to keep growing your skills and capabilities and to look for opportunities to do that, whether at your current company or elsewhere."

Plus, isn’t there safety and security in staying? Surely, sticking with the same company for years, with benefits, a steady paycheck and paid vacation days can offer a sense of stability that many find appealing.

“Feeling safe isn’t necessarily a good thing,” says Luminary founder Cate Luzio, who left a 20-year banking career to launch a global education and networking platform for professionals. “Always be cautiously paranoid, especially if you’ve been there a while. You need to make sure you don’t have blinders on.”

“Today’s economy rewards entrepreneurs in certain creative fields more than it rewards loyalty, especially at a media or marketing company,” says Pamela Pekerman, founder of Hustle Like A Mom, who stepped away from her career as an on-air brand spokesperson years ago to launch her current business. “The ceiling is already there. Invest in yourself as a business instead of putting everything into a corporation. If you have the opportunity to develop that side hustle, why not give it a try? We talk about corporations having an exit strategy, so why wouldn’t you work on an exit strategy for yourself?”

Regardless of one’s tenure at any organization, as long as you are constantly seeking new challenges, keeping your skills sharp, continuing to network and diversifying your income, you can create a full career where one company does not necessarily define you.

“I don’t believe folks staying at one company are lazy,” says Christina Blacken, founder + chief story strategist at The New Quo. “But no matter how long people stay, they need to diversify their sources of income. Depending on one salary, knowing how self-focused and transactional so many companies can be, is precarious. Being able to have multiple income streams and ways of monetizing their skills gives more leverage against companies who traditionally exploit and devalue labor while hoarding the resources and profits they make at the top.”

This is exactly why Wallace advises people to consider a portfolio career, diversifying their income in the same way financial experts advise investors to diversify their financial portfolio. You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, because that basket can disappear at a moment’s notice, even for the most loyal and longest-tenured employees.

“Jobs come and go,” Licht says. “But having a name that stands on its own is career insurance.”

Article written by:  Orville Lynch, Jr.
Mr. Lynch, a member of the legendary two-time Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame Award winning Lynch Family. Mr. Lynch is a nationally recognized urban media executive with over 20+ years of diversity recruitment and serial entrepreneur with numerous multi-million dollar exits.
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