Company Loyalty Leads to Exploitation and Unpaid Work: Study

The rules of the economy aren't what they once were. Loyalty these days is preyed upon, sniffed out by managers who need to find someone to put in extra hours or otherwise take advantage of.
Manager exploiting worker

Back in the day, the conventional wisdom was that the path toward a decent life was relatively straightforward: You got a job, worked hard, moved up the ladder, made more money over time, and that was that. As a result, many a boomer parent likes to extol the virtues of loyalty—more specifically ,the loyalty of their child to their child’s employer of the moment. 

But given the modern work environment, it turns out, they are doling out advice that could lead to their child’s exploitation. Loyalty these days is preyed upon, sniffed out by managers who need to find someone to put in extra hours or otherwise take advantage of in order to get a necessary task completed. So says a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology


For the study, three researchers at  Duke University’s business school, Arizona State, and West Virginia University investigated the “possible negative consequences of being a loyal employee in the workplace.” What they found was that loyal employees are likely to be “perceived to be more exploitable” and enter into a “vicious circle of suffering” over time. 

The researchers undertook a series of experiments in which they put a series of scenarios to 1,400 managers online, who said how they would respond. Here’s one example:

For the study, Stanley recruited nearly 1,400 managers online to read about a fictional 29-year-old employee named John. The man[a]gers all learned that John’s company was on a tight budget, and to keep costs down, had to decide how willing they would be to task John with extra hours and responsibilities without any extra pay.

And how do you think that went? Worse for “Loyal John” (more exploited) than “Disloyal John” (less exploited).

 The researchers then continued with a series of experiments to test, say, “whether workers who agree (versus refuse) to be exploited are seen as more loyal in the eyes of managers.” Regardless of the particulars of a given experiment, all of the results led to the same conclusion: “Branding John as loyal always resulted in managers being more willing to ask him to shoulder the unpaid labor.” The reasoning seemed to be that managers believe “loyalty comes with a duty to make personal sacrifices.”

“It’s a vicious cycle,” one of the researchers said. “Loyal workers tend to get picked out for exploitation. And then when they do something that's exploitative, they end up getting a boost in their reputation as a loyal worker, making them more likely to get picked out in the future.”

Now, maybe that loyal worker is more likely to get a raise come the new year, but let’s be honest: That raise is likely going to be measly. And unfortunately for Loyal John, the real raises these days come when people jump ship to a competitor. Sure, there are a select few companies still where it works to just be good at your job and move up the ladder slowly, but they are of diminishing number. 

And perhaps the boss is a rational actor as well. Perhaps she or he is tired of giving important work to checked-out employees who don’t care enough to do the job well, and the amount of mental energy it would take to deal with Disloyal John just isn’t worth it to a busy manager who can’t be bothered. So instead, the manager exploits their loyal worker, giving them extra work for which they won’t see any more money.

In such a scenario, everyone is acting rationally—except, of course, the loyal worker. Happily, as Melville knew and many a Disloyal John knows, the solution may be as simple as saying, when asked to do more, that you would prefer not to.