Reid Hoffman on Destructive Dishonesty in the Employer-Employee Relationship

How comfortable are you with your job security these days?

What if you knew exactly how many years, days, and hours you had left in your current job?

What would that change?

The Alliance: Reid Hoffman's latest book on fixing the employer-employee relationship

That’s the startling possibility presented in The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age by Silicon Valley stalwarts Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh.

[T]he employer-employee relationship is based on a dishonest conversation.

The reality is that no company can offer lifetime employment anymore.

Nor should they necessarily, when the ground beneath their feet shifts so quickly, so often, and so relentlessly.

But no company seems to be willing to fess up to this fundamental truth about the new economy:

Instead, employers talk about retention and tenure with fuzzy language: their goal is to retain “good” employees and the time frame is … indefinitely. This fuzziness actually destroys trust—the company is asking employees to commit to itself without committing to them in return.

I call this the problem of Asymmetric Loyalty. And it’s disastrously unfair to the people who have to toil for stagnant wages answering to tone-deaf management in the modern workplace.

But this distrustful environment not only hurts the workers. Companies feel the backlash from employee mistrust too:

Many of your employees have responded by hedging their bets, jumping ship whenever a new opportunity presents itself, regardless of how much they profess their loyalty during the recruiting process or annual reviews.

As we know, mindless job hopping isn’t the path to happiness. It would be in both the employer’s and the employee’s interest to match the right employees with the right jobs in the right companies.

Unfortunately, the rampant lying that happens on both sides stands in the way of this common good:

Both parties act in ways that blatantly contradict their official positions. And thanks to this reciprocal self-deception, neither side trusts each other. Not surprisingly, neither side profits as fully as it might from their relationship. Employers continually lose valuable people. Employees fail to fully invest in their current position because they’re constantly scanning the marketplace for new opportunities.

The authors’ solution is to change the metaphor. Instead of thinking of your company as a family (a lie anyway), the authors advise thinking of it as a team—more to the point, like a professional sports team.

Free agency (the ability for athletes to pick which team they play for after their contracts expire) has changed the face of pro sports. It used to be that the team that drafted a player from the amateur ranks had the exclusive right to employ that player for his entire career. That all changed with the advent of free agency. Now, free agents can use their bargaining power to move from a bad situation or team to a better one.

The free agency model as applied to private sector employment in general is hardly a new idea. Dan Pink wrote a book called Free Agent Nation predicting the turn from employment-for-life to free agency way back in 2001.

But the authors of The Alliance propose an even more explicit embrace of this model.

To do so, they take a page from the military.

Hoffman and company call it a “Tour of Duty.”

The Tour of Duty Model: A Revolution or a Step Backwards?


When recruiting top talent, offering a clear tour of duty with specific benefits and success outcomes beats vague promises like “you’ll get valuable experience.”

One approach to uncertainty is to deny that it’s happening.

The other approach—the agile approach—is to embrace change.

In the changing landscape of employer-employee relations, co-author Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, pioneered the Tour of Duty model at his company:

If [employees] signed up for a tour of duty of between two to four years and made an important contribution to some part of the business, [LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman] and the company would help advance their careers, preferably in the form of another tour of duty at LinkedIn. This approach worked: the company got an engaged employee who worked to achieve tangible results for LinkedIn and who could be an advocate and resource for the company if he chose to leave after one or more tours of duty.

In essence, the Tour of Duty approach acknowledges the impermanent nature of modern-day employment. Instead of running away from this truth, the Tour of Duty embraces it as a feature, not a bug.

Employees get clear projects, increased security, and post-employment networking and assistance.

Employers get clear commitments, increased predictability, and meaningful contributions from even “short-term” hires.

Sorely-lacking training and development can also return to the fore. With transparent commitments, employer and employee can afford to invest in one another:

For example, investment banks and management consultancies have defined two- to four-year analyst programs. Everyone is on the same basic program, generally for a fixed period of time and for a single go-round. These programs are often explicit “on-ramps” to transition new employees from school to work, or from their previous employers to the new employer’s unique work environment.

My many friends in I-banking (including my best friend who was a low-level grunt at Lehman Brothers when it collapsed in 2008) are familiar with this model of employment.

Generally, these investment bankers sign up for a two-year contract with an option to pick up a third. The difference is, there’s no expectation that you’ll stick around. Many people jump to another bank or go back to school (B-school typically).

Can the contractual, time-limited method of employment that I-bankers use be adapted to long-term employer-employee relationships? The authors think so:

Many of the leading companies in Silicon Valley have also adopted the Rotational tour model to hire and train entry-level employees in “classes.” For example, Google’s People Operations (HR) department hires recent college graduates into a structured, twenty-seven-month Rotational tour that allows them to try out three different roles in three, nine-month rotations. Facebook follows a similar model for new product managers, who go through three rotations in three different product groups in eighteen months.

Baking rotations into the on-boarding/trial period of a new employee’s tenure gets at an important and overlooked reality about entry-level employment:

A lot of people have no idea what they’re good at or what they want to do.

I’ve argued before that finding your Hedgehog is easily the most important and transformative thing you can do for your career.

The Tour of Duty model embraces that search by making it explicit—if the Reid Hoffman’s of the world have their way, dabbling in different kinds of work would be embraced by companies instead of being actively discouraged.

The specific technique the authors call out in The Alliance is called the Triangle Method of career values (much like the triangle method of finding your voice):

Finally, some employees, especially entry-level ones, haven’t reflected on their career aspirations at all. If the employee has a hard time articulating his values, here’s a concrete exercise, via Anne Fulton from the Career Engagement Group, that you can use to jumpstart the conversation. First, ask the employee to jot down the names of three people he admires. Then, next to each name, the employee should list the three qualities he most admires about each person (nine qualities in total). Finally, he should rank these qualities in order of importance, 1 being the most important, 9 being the least important. He now has a list of personal values and can compare them with the company’s values.

Aligning your personal values with the company’s values? Sounds revolutionary.

Sign me up.

Bottom Line

Some of the managers with whom the authors spoke to about the Tour of Duty model worried that the system gave employees “permission” to leave their respective companies.

Here’s how the authors responded:

But permission is not yours to give or to withhold, and believing you have that power is simply a self-deception that leads to a dishonest relationship with your employees. Employees don’t need your permission to switch companies, and if you try to assert that right, they’ll simply make their move behind your back.

It’s time to change the way we talk about work and employment in the 21st century.

Our organizations are not our families. But neither are they mercenary groups where the individual members look out for themselves to the detriment of the group.

The agile organizations of the future are teams—people with mutual interests and shared values pulling together for a moment in time to accomplish something no individual member could do on their own.

Time to embrace the paradox.

What do you think? Could the Tour of Duty model reasonably be put into practice at a wide scale?

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