Purpose Based Employer-Employee Relationships

There is a fascinating idea put forward by the authors of ‘The Alliance’ called the Tour of Duty. They make the case for a new type of employer-employee relationship that addresses the fact that today’s employee is likely to move jobs every few years. The Tour of Duty (like in the military) is a purpose based (often time bound) employment contract. Instead of hiring someone for a lifetime of employment, the authors propose organisations hire new employees for 2 to 4 year projects with specific deliverables. At the end of the specified employment term, the employer and employee can assess whether they’d like to continue their relationship or if it makes more sense for the employee to move on. It’s an intriguing idea which I feel today’s talent market is ready for.


Lifetime Loyalty is Going Extinct

Depending on what workforce survey you subscribe to and which geography you’re examining, employee tenures now average between one to four years. The reality is, we might be seeing the last generation of employees who have stayed with the same employer for more than a decade. Today, coming across a long-hauler is like spotting a Tapir in the wild. It makes you stop and wonder, ‘Hey, aren’t they extinct?’

Understandably, most organisations have reacted by adopting more aggressive employee retention strategies. Yet, even Google who are famed for their employee perks continue to have a median employee turnover of slightly more than 2 years.


Why are employee tenures becoming shorter?

There is a danger of oversimplifying an answer. You might be tempted to yell out, “It’s the Millennials!” To stay relevant, let’s examine why employee turnover in corporate Malaysia may be shortening. Based on my experience as a recruitment consultant, here some of the likely reasons.

Candidate Driven Market

Corporate Malaysia is a talent short market. This simply means that there are more jobs than there are suitable candidates. As a result, candidates have the power to pick and choose who they work for. Hence, loyalty is low. Why stay with the same employer if there’s another organisation offering you better pay and better work?

Employees Demand Meaningful Work

Gone are the days when all an employee expected was a steady pay cheque. Today’s workforce (regardless of what generation they’re from) expects to be challenged. They want to do work that stretches them and that matters to their customer and the world. This desire to do meaningful work supersedes any notion of loyalty they may have for an employer.

Skeptical Employees

Finally, employees are becoming more aware of the transactional nature of employer-employee relationships. While in the past, employees felt that a job (often in the public sector or with a big bank) guaranteed their well being, today’s workforce is a lot more skeptical. They have seen their family and friends be victimized by the profit first, people second business culture (think massive layoffs during economic downturns). To a large extent this has reduced employee loyalty in today’s workforce.


So, what does a Purpose Based Employer-Employee Relationship Look Like?

A purpose based relationship is a employer-employee contract that is based on a specific mission with clear deliverables and milestones.

It would have 2 key elements:

  1. Clear Deliverables. Employees would be hired to deliver on explicit goals.
  2. Clear Milestones. Employees would be hired to deliver according to a set timeline.

The nature of the relationship will vary depending on the size of the deliverable and the duration of the milestones. For instance, a sales manager may be tasked with increasing sales by 20% (deliverable) within 12 months (milestone). This is very different from a CEO who is hired to double headcount (deliverable) over 5 years (milestone).


Implications at the workplace

A shift like this would have widespread implications at work. Some of the most direct implications would be:

A New Type of Job Description (Finally!)

The purpose based employer-employee relationship would kill the generic job description. Instead, JDs will be updated to list clear goals with clear deadlines. Employees will have a clearer understanding of what’s expected of them.

Purpose Driven Culture

The focus on deliverables and deadlines, is likely to result in employees taking more responsibility for their job outcomes. While in the past, employees may have had the luxury of waiting from their managers, purpose based relationships distribute the burden of the outcome on both employer and employee. This will result in the employees taking more responsibility for their deliverables.

Genuine Employer-Employee Relationships

At the moment, most employees can’t be fully transparent with their employers. The expectation of lifetime loyalty looming over their heads means they can’t honestly share their career aspirations, passions and long term goals for fear it may not be aligned with the current employer-employee relationship. For example, an employee who wants to spend a year volunteering in rural India never shares this deep desire with his manager or a high performer who is applying for a MBA program overseas keeps it a secret from her superior. This need to be guarded negatively affects relationships at work. The new purpose based relationship disrupts this status quo and allows employees to be vulnerable with their managers.


Is it practical?

The purpose based relationship is more than a HR policy, it’s a mindset. It challenges the traditional employer-employee compact and embraces the realities of engaging talent in the rapidly changing knowledge economy.

As you consider the practicalities of the Purpose Based Employer-Employee relationship, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a book I recently read titled ‘The Art of Possibility’ by Rosamund and Bill Zander.


A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding its business. One sends back a telegram saying,


The other writes back triumphantly,