Experience or Repetition?

Several years ago, I attended a LeSS annual conference in New York City. During one of the panel discussions, a panel member said something that hit me. He said, concerning agile consultants, I think, “do you have 20 years experience, or two years experience and 18 years of repetition?”

Working at the time in a large financial services company, I understood his point immediately. Experience, defined as time on the job, is not a particularly useful metric, and yet we use the metric all the time. At the firm I was working with, we’d have annual lunches where the employees who’d reached 25 years of service (which was remarkably common) would attend along with management and the senior leadership. Applause, names mentioned, all the sorts of things you’d imagine at such a corporate lunch.

The messaging was that the length of employment was something to be celebrated. Perhaps it is. After all, number four on Deming’s 7 Deadly Diseases is management mobility and labor mobility. Deming argued that it takes time to learn how to work together and work in the context of a particular organization. Moving quickly from one organization to another reinforces short term thinking. The managers, or employees, are long gone by the time the results of their interventions are known. That’s undoubtedly true. It simply takes time for a team to become a team.

It’s probably better to say that length on a team or in an organization is one part of the equation. The other part, less discussed and less rewarded with annual lunches at the Macaroni Grill, is continual learning and improvement. Because of narrowly focused job roles coupled with crushing hierarchy, it’s entirely possible for an employee to work at a company for decades and improve remarkably little over that time.

A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research about the longevity of employees and productivity found that longer tenure didn’t correlate with higher productivity, but it did correlate with higher job protection and pay.

Based on our survey results, we reach two central conclusions. First, for a large majority of both union and non-union employees, protection against job loss grows with seniority. Reasonable estimates are that over 80 percent of nonunion employees and almost 100 percent of union employees are employed in settings where senior employees are favored substantially in a reduction in force decision so that junior employees are laid off instead of senior employees considered to be worth less on net to the firm.

This generally tracks with my experience in large enterprises. There are protections, either specifically enumerated or unwritten rules, about employees with many years of service. Although they may not be protected with near iron-clad agreements as may be the case with Union contracts, it’s fundamentally more difficult to remove them from the employment roles than the new employee even if that relatively new employee is more valuable to the firm.

There are many theories as to why older workers would be protected like this. On a purely economic level, companies should want to lay off the employees with more years of service because they are more expensive and no more or even less productive than newer employees. On a social level, employees with more years of service have had time to build relationships with the powers that be. They probably started with some of the current leadership who’d rather not deliver the bad news to a long time colleague. There is also an interesting view that this protection later in career is part of a long term commitment. Employees start with a firm and in the early years make less than their marketable skills and productivity would demand so that in later years they can make withdraws from the bank of productivity stored up. It’s an interesting concept, but I’m not sure if it tracks to modern experience.

Negative Organizational Consequences of Long Tenure

In some cases, longer tenure can result in negative consequences for the organization. In one study of public sector tax auditors in Brazil, it was found that shorter tenured auditors had high levels of moral development. One theory is that the longer-tenured auditors had more time to develop relationships and understand the existing culture, which favored corruption. Unless the auditor had an absolutist ethical sense, the time on the job, or experience, was detrimental to taking an ethical stand. Another way of putting it is the often-heard phrase, “because we’ve always done it this way.” This happens in most corporate environments, even those devoid of corruption. Employees are remarkably adept at learning the cultural cues of the organization what things to bring up, when not to push back on a decision. In many cases, these cues are subtle in others; they are a direct threat by leaders to keep employees in line. I’ve witnessed this with mid-level managers bent on moving up the ladder. It has a quick and bracing impact on the employee; they get the message loud and clear.

In the end, an organization ends up with two things. First, employees who have learned to simply keep their heads down and not make waves. This means the organization isn’t getting the benefit of the talent and drive of its employees. The second thing, and potentially more dangerous, is that employees will either not see disaster or fail to alert management to avoid it because of the culture.

Negative Personal Consequences of Long Tenure

In addition to the organizational problems associated with long tenure, employees themselves are also at risk. Without continual learning and improvement, the employee will find themselves without marketable skills, at least without marketable skills that are worth what they are being paid at their current company. Employees grow to feel they are stuck in the organization, unable to even think about leaving. This is bad enough, but I believe many managers have a sense of this, and the less enlightened ones will use this as leverage. It reduces the perception that management must think of the needs of the employees. After all, if they can’t go anywhere, why try to improve the work environment? Ultimately it’s up to the employee to ensure they are improving and learning.

A Leader Wants Employees Who Can Leave

Having a great organization includes many factors, but one I believe will help predict the long-term health of the organization is the percentage of employees who could leave if they wished; employees with skills and talents that other companies would pay for. Having employees with options means there is less risk of having someone in the organization who doesn’t want to be there. There is also the risk, for management, that important talent will leave; therefore, it’s critical that management takes into consideration the needs of the employees. It won’t make the company perfect, but it is a necessary counterbalance to the bureaucratic drift that occurs in far too many modern companies.

If you’re a leader you want your employees to be in a position to leave. You want 20 years of experience.