Full Speed Ahead: Redefining the Employer-Employee Contract

Today’s societal forces have shaped a new employer-employee social contract, writes Managing Editor Frank Kalman in the Spring 2017 quarterly journal.
social contract

In “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman outlines the dizzying array of forces thrusting society forward. The exponential increase in computing power, economic interdependency across the globe and seismic shifts in the Earth’s climate, he argues, are quickly converging and compounding upon one another, creating a society that is increasingly more difficult for institutions and individuals to navigate.

The rise of technology is especially influential. As Friedman writes, society has surpassed the point where the exponential advancement of technological innovation aligns with our collective ability to adapt. Just as a given technology has captured the zeitgeist, another innovation has already come along, disrupting whatever norms stand in the way. Those who fail to catch up risk being left behind. Such accelerations, Friedman writes, are poised to disrupt all facets of society.

In order to cope with such monumental changes, Friedman argues that society must match the multitude of technological innovations upending our world with a number of social innovations meant to help society adapt and thrive. Government and education are two institutions that will require continuous social innovation to survive the technological innovations of the day.

Another is the workplace. And a big part of what shapes the nature of work is the social contract between employer and employee. In the period immediately following World War II, when innovations and the pace of change came more slowly thanks to a glut of U.S. manufacturing jobs, stronger unions and more affordable in-house training, as well as a milder globalization landscape, the social contract between employers and employees was simple. Employees were promised that, if they showed up and worked hard, they would be rewarded with a salary, benefits like health insurance and a pension, and, above all, the promise of a middle-skilled job guaranteed to provide a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle.

But as decades went along and the pace of innovation sped up — past the inventions of the Industrial Revolution and into the innovations of the Information Age and, more recently, cloud computing — that social contract slowly unraveled.

Today, it’s not enough for workers to simply show up and work hard, follow the rules and expect to be rewarded, just as it’s not enough for employers to expect the same methods they’ve used to attract, retain and manage talent to be effective. As our cover story shows, the value proposition for both employees and employers is constantly evolving.

From compensation to management to culture to learning and development, today’s social contract has evolved in a way that places more emphasis on goals that align with employees’ ability to move in and out of organizations and jobs faster, and less on the expectation that they’ll embark on a 30-year career with a single firm. Additionally, employers are learning that the pace of change and fluidity in the skills market, as well as the continued rise of contract and freelance work, has made it easier for them to grapple with the once-formidable turnover and retention challenges of decades past. Many firms, chief among them LinkedIn Corp., the professional social networking giant purchased by Microsoft Corp. last year, actively encourages this “tour of duty” mentality.

The convergence of these trends has created a new social contract. On the one hand employees are looking for dynamic experiences and learning opportunities, sometimes more than a generous salary or benefits package. On the other, employers are looking to quickly capture high-skilled expertise to contribute to an innovation pipeline that will establish an employer brand that keeps their talent attraction cycle moving indefinitely.

Time will tell how this social contract will continue to evolve. Perhaps the only certainty is that what’s relevant today likely won’t be relevant tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of  Talent Economy. Click here to view the digital edition of the journal.