A 'job for life’ and the concept of ‘job security’ are out-dated concepts. You already knew that before reading this hack. You also knew we are living in a global knowledge based economy and that this has had a major impact on both how employers and employees view each other and their expectations of what they will ‘get and give’ each other.
As an employment lawyer I am frequently asked to review employment agreements or draft new offers of employment to codify expectations, so that any problems can be dealt with by reference to substantive text or dispute resolution mechanisms contained within the four corners of that document.
I am also frequently there at the end, when the relationship is concluded, be it through ill health, unacceptable conduct by one or both parties, or any other myriad of reasons why the ‘deal’ is no longer satisfying enough to keep both parties sufficiently interested in keeping it alive.
It seems to me, from my observations of the parties to employment relationships at all stages of the employment lifecycle (beginning, middle and end) that the critical issue for both parties is they want the other party to understand them, ‘get them’ at a fundamental level and connect with them to the extent that all parties to the relationship are psychologically satisfied enough that they feel their expectations are being met (and will continue to be met).
Most importantly, the parties don’t want any power the other party may have to be used against them (issues of trust and vulnerability) with both parties preferring there is a level playing field between them: therefore no party is more at risk than the other.
For the reasons set out above, people generally want this relationship codified for psychological comfort; this is above and beyond the necessity to have a written employment agreement (which in New Zealand is a legislative requirement).
What people overlook is that a lawyer is like a marriage celebrant, they can only assist people with the wording of their marriage vows but at the end of the day those vows are only words. We all know that at times and especially for the important things in life, words are simply unable express one party’s intentions and expectations of each other.
The relationship can also become further complicated as people and expectations change over time, thus making what might have been codified obsolete or simply not the ‘right fit’ for the current circumstances.
For example, in the new economy long term loyalty, where one party never looks at another party is unrealistic. It is all too easy to go on line and look up other interesting prospects. We can now make instant connections via technology that could not have occurred even 10 years ago. Further, people are mobilised and if a good option comes up in another location, distance is not necessary an insurmountable obstacle.
Also, employers can’t promise they are going to be around for ever as despite best intentions they cannot predict future events that will radically alter their place in the world. Many organisations that looked unshakable 10 years ago no longer exist (they simply over promised and under delivered) and others can only continue with the aid of third party interventions (such as many of the current car companies in the United States).
The power of imperfect knowledge and societal expectations that once used to be the glue that held parties to an employment relationship together ‘forever’ has become unstuck. The only way to overcome this fundamental problem is for all parties to the relationship to re-examine ‘the deal’ and decide what the new psychological contract is going to be in the new world order where information and opportunities for each party to look outside that immediate relationship are abound, often tempting and at times necessary.
Power! Normally in any relationship one party at any given time has more power than the other. We may not like to admit this but it is a fundamental truth. With the shifting dynamics of the world economy and technology, how that power is distributed is constantly changing and sometimes it is hard to determine who has what power and how that power might be used against the weaker party.
Thus, parties to an employment relationship in the new order need to be able to look to the long term relationship on a strategic level. I believe that a healthy psychological contract between employers and employees now requires the parties not to commit to being together for life (so, not job security as we used to know it) but requires what I call ‘relationship security’.
When I refer to ‘relationship security’ I mean that the parties will often go through cycles where they are at times needed by each other, at times vulnerable to each other, and at times in different positions of power but they never take advantage of that situation.
Why? Because in a knowledge based economy, for example an employer may not know what its needs will be in the future. It may well be that an ex will have valuable skills and historical knowledge that they may want to tap into in the future. Also, the employee wants to have doors left open, should they elect to leave but later want the opportunity come back, possibly on different terms and conditions.
This means that the distribution of power in the new psychological relationship should never be misused and is typically more evenly distributed, as both parties take a long range view of how they may need each other in the future.
‘Relationship security’ is the new psychological contract!
Employees and employers need to openly discuss their expectations and changing needs. Where the relationship is no longer working for whatever reason, the parties should feel free to let go of what is not working and embrace the fact that change will be necessary to enable a healthy relationship over the long term.
This may mean the parties need to take a break temporarily and explore other opportunities. Both parties should be mindful that they part with integrity and with a view to ensuring the trust that has been created is not misused. This leaves the opportunity for the fundamentals of the relationship to remain intact and consequently, the opportunity for a reunion on healthy terms.
Create an environment of trust where power will not be misused if one party initiates a dialogue about altering or ending the current psychological contract.
Understand that while it’s a global market paradoxically this makes it more important that long term relationships and alliances are fostered. While there are plenty of employees and employers in the international market, typically only a few are worth catching (and sometimes ‘releasing’ if this means your long term stock is going to increase).