A President’s Lesson – Loyalty at Work

On 16 June, 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States. Subsequently, the world has learned much about his views on significant issues – stardom enables the molestation of women , white lives matter bigly, Vladimir Putin is a really great guy, and personal loyalty to Trump is a prerequisite for everyone within his orbit. His policy positions are more fluid.

Two prominent figures have fallen foul of the Trump loyalty test: James Comey, head of the FBI, who reported to the Attorney General, was allegedly asked inappropriately by Trump to declare personal loyalty to the President. Comey was subsequently fired.

The other, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters, has fallen victim to the mean tweets of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue after recusing himself from any investigations into campaigns for President of the United States, which clearly encompassed alleged issues of Russian interference.

Trump is not good at loyalty, an emotional tie of support or allegiance. He fails to recognise two of its defining characteristics.

First, loyalty is a two-way street. It is in effect a contractual relationship, no matter how disproportionate the power of the contracting parties. For the bond of loyalty, friendship, support, protection, money, or preferment is returned in good times and bad. For Trump, loyalty is unidirectional. All take, no give.

Secondly, for everyone loyalty exists in the plural. The bonds of loyalty extend to partners, family members, employers, employees, voluntary associations, clubs, political parties, entire countries. Occasions arise when these bonds clash or the priorities of one set of claims are considered to be greater than another.

In the case of Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, he regarded loyalty to the law and constitution as greater than the personal loyalty demanded by the President, a choice that Trump could neither understand nor tolerate.

Fortunately for Sessions, Trump’s ire is now redirected to Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, for his alleged failings in securing the repeal and reform of the Affordable Care Act. And there is, of course, the distraction of North Korea.

Less dramatically, the tensions of loyalty are played out on a daily basis for people at work in less elevated environments than the White House.

Organisations present a range of loyalty requirements of their staff. Loyalty to the organisation – represented by culture, ethics and institutional goals – bosses, direct reports and customers, to list the most obvious. There is also a further loyalty that involves considerations of self-respect and personal development. That loyalty is owed to one’s own role.

Each of us knows whether we are doing our job to the best of our ability – even without the guidance of a performance review – and whether or not we are likely to have the opportunity to develop further skills, marked by commensurate rewards, while remaining with our current employer. These aspects of work, competent, committed performance and the possibility of career advancement, are significant sources of satisfaction at work.

However, anyone making decisions about remaining loyal to role, organisation or colleagues, will ultimately be aware of the limitations of a contractual relationship. Contracts may expire or be terminated.

At its most benign, the contract expires and people retire with a pension, a small ceremony and the esteem of colleagues.

At its most abrupt, people are made redundant and those nice HR people who had been so keen to hire you, train you and retain you are now explaining you are no longer needed and the size of the cheque you are receiving is very generous in the light of the minimal requirements of the law.

The knowledge that all members of an organisation are ultimately disposable assets is liberating as well as disturbing. Either employee or employer can choose to terminate the contract. Indeed, in many countries it is far more difficult to fire someone than it is to resign.

In these circumstances, the obligations of loyalty to the organisation are clear: perform to the best of your abilities; treat colleagues and the corporate culture with respect, but when you see a better opportunity to further your career elsewhere, feel free to take it.

As playwright and poet, William Shakespeare once wrote: ‘to thine ownself be true.’

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