Duty of Loyalty Hard work and our best effort likely make sense as obligations we owe an employer. However, loyalty is more abstract and less easily defined. Most workers do not have employment contracts, so there may not be a specific agreement between the two parties detailing their mutual responsibilities. Instead, the common law (case law) of agency in each state is often the source of the rules governing an employment relationship. The usual depiction of duty in common law is the duty of loyalty, which, in all fifty states, requires that an employee refrain from acting in a manner contrary to the employer’s interest. This duty creates some basic rules employees must follow on the job and provides employers with enforceable rights against employees who violate them.
In general terms, the duty of loyalty means an employee is obligated to render “loyal and faithful” service to the employer, to act with “good faith,” and not to compete with but rather to advance the employer’s interests.1 The employee must not act in a way that benefits him- or herself (or any other third party), especially when doing so would create a conflict of interest with the employer.2 The common law of most states holds as a general rule that, without asking for and receiving the employer’s consent, an employee cannot hold a second job if it would compete or conflict with the first job. Thus, although the precise boundaries of this aspect of the duty of loyalty are unclear, an employee who works in the graphic design department of a large advertising agency in all likelihood cannot moonlight on the weekend for a friend’s small web design business. However, employers often grant permission for employees to work in positions that do not compete or interfere with their principal jobs. The graphic designer might work for a friend’s catering business, for example, or perhaps as a wedding photographer or editor of a blog for a public interest community group.
Differing Concepts of Loyalty
There is no generally agreed-upon definition of an employee’s duty of loyalty to his or her employer. One indicator that our understanding of the term is changing is that millennials are three times more likely than older generations to change jobs, according to a Forbes Human Resources Council survey (Figure 7.2).3 About nine in ten millennials (91 percent) say they do not expect to stay with their current job longer than three years, compared with older workers who often anticipated spending ten years or even an entire career with one employer, relying on an implicit social contract between employer and employee that rewarded lifetime employment.
The Loyalty Research Center, a consulting firm, defines loyal employees as “being committed to the success of the organization. They believe that working for this organization is their best option . . . and loyal employees do not actively search for alternative employment and are not responsive to offers.”4 Likewise, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, professor Matthew Bidwell says there are two halves to the term: “One piece is having the employer’s best interests at heart. The other piece is remaining with the same employer rather than moving on.” Bidwell goes on to acknowledge, “There is less a sense that your organization is going to look after you in the way that it used to, which would lead [us] to expect a reduction in loyalty.”5
Why are employees less likely to feel a duty of loyalty to their companies? One reason is that loyalty is a two-way street, a feeling developed through the enactment of mutual obligations and responsibilities. However, most employers do not want to be obligated to their workers in a legal sense; they usually require that almost all workers are employees “at will,” that is, without any long-term employment contract. Neither state nor federal law mandates an employment contract, so when a company says an employee is employed at will, it is sending a message that management is not making a long-term commitment to the employee. Employees may naturally feel less loyalty to an organization from which they believe they can be let go at any time and for any legal reason (which is essentially what at-will employment means). Of course, at-will employment also means the employee can also quit at any time. However, freedom to move is a benefit only if the employee has mobility and a skill set he or she can sell to the highest bidder. Otherwise, for most workers, at-will employment usually works to the employer’s advantage, not the employee’s.
Another reason the concept of loyalty to an organization seems to be changing at all levels is the important role money plays in career decisions. When they see chief executive officers (CEOs) and other managers leaving to work for the highest bidder, subordinates quickly conclude that they, too, ought to look out for themselves, just as their bosses do, rather than trying to build up seniority with the company. Switching jobs can often be a way for employees to improve their salaries. Consider professional sports. For decades professional athletes were tied to one team and could not sell their services to the highest bidder, meaning that their salaries were effectively capped. Finally, after several court decisions (including the Curt Flood reserve clause case involving the St. Louis Cardinals and Major League Baseball),6 players achieved some degree of freedom and can now switch employers frequently in an effort to maximize their earning potential.
According to Payscale
According to PayScale’s Compensation Best Practices Report, the two leading motivators people give for leaving their job are first, higher pay, and second, personal reasons (e.g., family, health, marriage, spousal relocation).7 Of course, beyond money, workers seek meaning in their work, and it is largely true that money alone does not motivate employees to higher performance. However, it is a mistake for managers to think money is not a central factor influencing employees’ job satisfaction. Money matters because if employees are not making enough money to meet their financial obligations or goals, they will likely be looking to for a higher-paying job. And, of course, increasing salary or other benefits can be a way of demonstrating both the company’s loyalty to its employees and the role it believes employees’ best interests play in its mission—navigating the aforementioned two-way street. For some employees, simply being acknowledged and thanked for their service and good work can go a long way toward sparking their loyalty; for others, more concrete rewards may be necessary.
Finally, many people work for themselves as freelance or contract workers in the new “gig” economy. They may take assignments from one or more companies at a time and are not employees in the traditional sense of the word. Therefore, it seems more reasonable that they would approach work in the same way a certified public accountant or attorney would—as completing a professional job for a client, after which they move on the next client, always keeping their independent status. We would not expect gig workers to demonstrate employer loyalty when they are not employees.
In the competitive world of business, many employees encounter information in their day-to-day work that their employers reasonably expect they will keep confidential. Proprietary (private) information, the details of patents and copyrights, employee records and salary histories, and customer-related data are valued company assets that must remain in-house, not in the hands of competitors, trade publications, or the news media. Employers are well within their rights to expect employees to honor their duty of confidentiality and maintain the secrecy of such proprietary material. Sometimes the duty of confidentiality originates specifically from an employment contract, if there is one, and if not, the duty still exists in most situations under the common law of agency.
Most companies do not consider U.S. common law on confidentiality sufficient protection, so they often adopt employment agreements or contracts with employees that set forth the conditions of confidentiality. (Note that such contracts define a one-way obligation, from the employee to the employer, so they do not protect the at-will employee from being terminated without cause.) Typically, an employment agreement will list a variety of requirements. For example, although in most situations the law would already hold that the employer owns copyrightable works created by employees within the scope of their employment (known as works for hire), a contract usually also contains a specific clause stating that the company owns any and all such works and assigning ownership of them to the company. The agreement will also contain a patent assignment provision, stating that all inventions created within the scope of employment are owned by or assigned to the company.