Employees uphold one-way honor system, expect little in return

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Employees uphold one-way honor system, expect little in return

In the workplace, loyalty is not a two-way street, according to sociologist Allison Pugh

by Alison Wynn on Monday, September 2, 2013 - 8:13am

In most relationships, we believe loyalty is a two-way street (Source: Wikimedia commons) Most relationships are a give-and-take. We provide comfort and support to our friends, and we expect them to return the favor. We form faithful commitments to our romantic partners, and we expect them to remain loyal to us. However, according to sociologist Allison Pugh, loyalty is not a two-way street when it comes to the workplace. While employees believe they owe their companies hard work and devotion, they do not expect similar loyalty from their employers. Instead, companies in the new economy can fire workers with no social penalty.

Pugh, a member of the Clayman Institute's Redesigning and Redefining Work group, calls this paradox the "one-way honor system." To research her forthcoming book, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, Pugh conducted in-depth interviews with 80 people in her local area of Virginia and DC. She identified an imbalance between the devotion workers feel they owe their companies and the lack of loyalty companies provide in return.

Pugh identified an imbalance between the devotion workers feel they owe their companies and the lack of loyalty companies provide in return.

Despite the prevalence of the one-way honor system, it hasn’t been around forever, according to Pugh. In the context of de-unionization since the 1970s and 1980s, American society has adopted what Pugh terms an “insecurity culture.” Common cultural narratives about our economy paint insecurity as unavoidable. Consequently, workers expect they can be fired at any time, and the social contract that once bound employers no longer applies. In previous decades, workers could spend entire careers at the same company. Today, this type of loyalty is almost unheard of.

We expect less from employers than we expect of ourselves

Often workers do not expect their companies to reciprocate loyalty (Source: Flore de Preneuf/ World Bank on Flickr commons)Pugh’s interviews reveal that in our current American logic, intense commitment to work signals personal character and a good “work ethic.” For example, Stella,* a married catering manager, said she is a “very loyal employee.” “When I accept a job, it’s in my heart, it’s in my gut,” she said. “It’s part of my life; work is very much a part of me. I don’t just go to a job 9-to-5, and at 5 o’clock, oh, it’s time, goodbye. No, that’s not me.”

Stella’s perspective is quite common. According to one study, 70 percent of U.S. employees work beyond scheduled time and on weekends. More than half of these, and 62 percent of middle-management employees, cited “self-imposed pressure” as the reason.

However, Pugh finds that workers do not expect their companies to reciprocate this type of loyalty. Take Claudia, a saleswoman who recently had to declare bankruptcy. “I just think the employer is the superior, and they’re in control, they’re in charge,” she said. “And if they decide to fire you, they can.”

After a lay-off, employees blame themselves, not employers

This belief that employers should be able to fire their workers without any social penalty extends even to workers who have been laid off. Such workers tend to view the lay-off as their own fault rather than considering their employer in breach of a social obligation.

Even workers who have been laid-off tend to view the firing as their own fault rather than considering their employer in breach of a social obligation 

For example, Gary was laid off without warning three years after joining his company. One might expect that Gary would blame his company for mismanaging their money — or for hiring too many employees in the first place. But instead of blaming his company, he blames himself.

“I place it on myself for letting — for allowing myself to get blindsided that way,” he said. “I never should have let my guard down. […] It was my fault for being in the position in the first place.”

Though Gary could have faulted his company, he believes he should have expected such work insecurity. According to Gary's logic, if anyone is at fault it's him — he should not have taken the job in the first place.

When emotions don’t follow the rules, workers reshape their emotions

Many people look to a "mythic past," when careers were stable and predictable (Source: Flickr commons)Pugh also documents what she calls “meta-feelings,” or feelings about our own feelings. Because cultural expectations support the one-way honor system, some workers try to quash any negative emotions that challenge this system, even when dealing with a crisis like being laid off.

According to Pugh, many people invoke a "mythic past” to transform disappointment into nostalgia. For example, Clark contrasts his own lay-off experiences with his father’s more stable career progression: “My father… was at the same one job for twenty years and then another job for twenty-five years… I had been brought up during the whole thing in the fifties and sixties, where you worked for one company or at most two companies for the rest of your life, and the company took care of you.”

Clark’s nostalgia serves to mute potential criticisms of his employer. By emphasizing the distinction between past and present, Clark lets his employer off the hook and avoids advocating that we raise our expectations of how employers should treat their workers.

How can we change the one-way honor system?

By diffusing their anger, workers protect themselves from their own feelings. But, cautions Pugh, these workers also protect their employers and suppress a potential motivator for social change. The one-way honor system and the culture of insecurity continue unimpeded.

Pugh suggests a number of strategies to address these destructive forces. First, the United States could implement policies that protect employees and make lay-offs more difficult for employers to execute, akin to policies in Denmark, the Netherlands, and other European countries. Second, younger generations of workers may have the capacity to mobilize through social media and demand change from their companies. This generation is beginning to redefine their relationship to work by prioritizing work-life balance.

Educating employers about the bottom-line costs of insecurity could also help, allowing managers to make informed decisions about how they manage their employees. If leaders see the value of loyalty to their employees, they may give managers the tools to create cultures of security.

Through such combined institutional and individual strategies, workers and employers can break down the culture of insecurity and restructure the one-way honor system.

* In this article, all names of Pugh’s interviewees are pseudonyms.


  • 70% of U.S. employees work beyond scheduled time and on weekends; more than half of these, and 62% of middle-management employees, cited "self-imposed pressure" as the reason.
  • About 70% of fulltime working women (both white-collar and blue-collar workers) said they would continue to work if they suddenly had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, known as the "lottery question" (and used by survey researchers as a rough proxy for a work ethic).
  • Researchers have not found significant gender differences in measures of job involvement. 
Allison Pugh
Allison Pugh
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia

Allison Pugh is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. Her research interests coalesce around the accommodations people make  — particularly in their relationships at home and at work — to economic trends and their cultural meanings. She focuses on how people adapt in their intimate lives to increasing insecurity, commercialization, overwork, and risk. Her new book, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. 

Alison Wynn
Alison Wynn
PhD candidate

Alison Wynn is a PhD candidate in Stanford's Department of Sociology and a member of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team