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The New Loyalty

What Bosses Can Expect (and what they can’t)

Dear Nan:
My assistant challenged me to get your opinion. So, here goes.
I think a boss deserves unconditional loyalty and she disagrees with me. As a boss, I value loyalty above all else. In fact, loyalty is my simple definition of professionalism. The fact is, none of our jobs are so tough that 100 other people could not do them. The only really special thing we bring to the table is our loyalty to each other because that is what inspires our team to be great performers.
Some call this chemistry. I call it loyalty. When one of us isn’t a saint and does something wrong or stupid, I believe loyalty trumps everything and you should do whatever it takes to protect each other.
– The Boss
P.S: I promise no one will get fired because of this disagreement.

Many thanks for your wonderful responses to this executive’s letter. I received almost five times the number I usually do! It was gratifying to see how committed all of you are to doing the right thing. And it was equally gratifying to see how most of my readers believe your bosses agree with you! About 20% agreed with the supervisor that loyalty trumps everything and the other 80% said loyalty was conditional.

However, all of my readers (even those who pledged unconditional loyalty) usually added the caveat “as long as I don’t have to do something illegal. Or immoral. Or unethical. Or against my personal beliefs about right or wrong. Or something that will hurt my company.” I am happy to report that the unconditional loyalty of the assistant of yesteryear has gone the way of the manual typewriter!

New Meaning of the Word

The word “loyalty” itself doesn’t even have the same meaning today. I believe this is true because, in the past, what it really meant was “blind loyalty.” And blind loyalty meant unconditional, unthinking and unquestioned compliance to your boss’s requests. No matter what, admins were expected to fall on their swords, take the bullets for their bosses and always be gracious about their role. In fact, it was standard operating procedure for the boss to blame a mistake on the secretary.

Today’s definition of loyalty is distinctly different. The concept of loyalty is clearly wrapped within the words do the right thing. This does not mean admins are not loyal today – because they are! They are loyal to their companies, their bosses, their teams and their job responsibilities. But they also recognize and acknowledge they must be focused on doing the right thing for their companies, their bosses and their teams, while at the same time staying out of trouble themselves.

Today’s New Loyalty

Admins today are fully aware of their new accountability in the workplace. They know they must protect themselves from any kind of illegal and/or unethical wrongdoing because they will be held personally accountable for their actions accordingly.

Savvy managers support their admins and want them to recognize and feel this accountability. They want their admins to take full responsibility and control of their jobs as professionals, be proactive on the job and alert to ethical infractions. More and more, managers are demanding a partnership with their admins in that they can expect to be challenged and creating an atmosphere in which the raising of ethical dimensions of a decision or practice is simply part of what it means to manage well. After all, if you and your officePRO 11 BY NAN DeMARS What Bosses Can Expect (and what they can’t) partner agree on absolutely everything, all the time, you need a new partner!

This attitude was clearly reflected in the last conversation I had with the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone. Wellstone, who sadly died in a plane crash in 2002 while campaigning for reelection to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota, told me, “I have a meeting with each new employee on the first day of their job, whether it is in my St. Paul or Washington DC offices: ‘If I get all puffed up with the importance of being a U.S. Senator and you believe I am sliding off the ethical and moral compass, I want you to come in, sit down and shore me up.’” Another executive told me she has the same “puffed with importance” conversation with her assistants all the time— because she wanted her employees to be her constant “monitors” to stay on the right track.

The Price of Loyalty

In The Price of Loyalty, Ron Suskind asserts that the price of loyalty is incompetence. Unconditional loyalty means issues don’t get aired and downside risks remain unassessed.

Several of my readers have arrived battle-scarred at this new definition of loyalty by having lived through the old days with the old customs. Patti Ferguson CPS/CAP, IAAP Minisa Chapter, Wichita, KS, reports, “Loyalty is a timely topic for me personally as I have just gone through a trial in federal court in which my former boss was convicted for several white-collar crimes. Because of my loyalty and what I thought was a vital characteristic for a successful boss/assistant team, he was able to get away with these crimes. Committing these crimes was probably easier because of his assistant’s (me) loyalty. It is very clear to me now that once my boss realized he had a ‘loyal’ assistant working for him, he took full advantage of my loyalty and used it in a most unethical way. During past interviews, I always described myself as a loyal assistant; however, I no longer consider that a plus for a good administrative professional and will not use ‘loyal’ to describe what I bring to the table as an administrative professional,” she writes.

Two high-profile assistants lived their price of loyalty situations on the world stage. Seventeen years ago, during the US Iran-Contra scandal investigation, Fawn Hall, Col. Oliver North’s assistant, shredded documents and smuggled documents out of North’s chambers just ahead of the law. Hall was lucky. At the last minute she got immunity (a luxury that probably would not be afforded her today). Fast forward to the Martha Stewart trial and her broker’s assistant, Doug Faneuil and his role in Martha and her broker’s convictions. Faneuil’s initial covering up for his boss landed him the role as the government’s star witness against both his boss and his boss’s biggest client.

Commitment Is The New Loyalty

Today’s definition of the word loyalty can best be described by the word commitment – to your personal and professional standards, your company’s mission and your bosses themselves.

Kay Enlow CPS/CAP and International President of IAAP states: “I believe our understanding of loyalty has shifted dramatically. I now think of loyalty as a commitment, not blind allegiance. I must remain committed to my personal values and beliefs – what I feel is right or wrong.”

Philip Propes, Superintendent, Ames Water Plant, Ames, IA, concurs by defining the old-fashioned loyalty as compliance: “There are 100 other folks who could do ‘the job,’ so it’s the commitment I’m concerned about. I would much rather have commitment over compliance. I may have good workers who are compliant, but I’ll have excellent workers if they’re committed.”

Your Ethical Priority Compass®

My faithful readers and seminar attendees are familiar with my Ethical Priority Compass® , which fits in well here:

Your Ethical Priority Compass®

Take care of yourself: Protect yourself from illegal, financial, immoral and even emotional harm by not participating in any unethical behaviors. In addition, stay true to your own morals and standards.

Take care of your company: Ethically, your organization deserves your loyalty 12 officePRO EXECUTIVE EDITION 2006 because it has provided you with your livelihood. Also, remain true to your company’s Code of Ethics and/or Mission Statement. These two pieces of paper can be your touchstones – they should leave no wiggle room for unethical behavior.

Take care of your boss: Your boss is your professional partner and needs your support and attention in maintaining an ethical workplace. This is a relationship that merits a lot of your loyalty, but it is not blind and it is not unconditional.

This Ethical Priority Compass® will help keep you on target. Mix up any of these priorities, and you run the risk of losing your job, reputation and self respect.

No More Eyes Wide Shut!

If traditional views of loyalty no longer serve us, and there is a new definition of the word itself, is loyalty no longer relevant? Not at all – in fact, some argue that loyalty is needed more than ever to keep you grounded in a fast-paced, rough and tumble world. We certainly need the sense of teamwork and camaraderie that comes with loyalty if we are going to be productive and positive-focused.

Let’s be smart about this. Loyalty must be earned – both ways! It is the outcome after mutual respect and trust have been earned. Loyalty is conditional – it does not extend to compromising personal ethics or the well-being of the company. And finally, loyalty is a two-way street: a boss can only expect to get as good as he or she gives.

Most professional assistants today want to take the high ground and do the right thing. Bosses today are no different. And, together, your boss/assistant partnership can help keep each other out of trouble.

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars