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What does “tour of duty” employment mean for HR?

There’s been a lot published over the last week on “tour of duty” employment. The noise is coming from the publication of a new book by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh called The Alliance.

So, what does a tour of duty means in the context of the employment relationship?

The crux of the idea is that the employment relationship today is broken. Companies demand employee loyalty without guaranteeing job security. At the same time, employees promise loyalty but are quick to move if offered a better role or pay-rise. Everyone says the right things. But nobody is making promises they intend to keep.

A tour of duty moves the relationship from a transactional relationship to a mutually beneficial alliance. As Hoffman puts it: “Employment should be an alliance. [That means] a mutually beneficial deal, with explicit terms, between independent players”

What’s important here is the acceptance that the employee and employer don’t have the same agenda. Neither party is pretending to make a lifetime commitment. Instead, both set out about what they expect the other party to deliver over the next 2, 3 or 4 years. There’s plenty of examples of how Reid has successfully used the approach at LinkedIn. See this Wall Street Journal interview and in the original idea-piece in HBR.

So without further ado, let’s talk about what tour of duty employment might mean for HR.

Expect a two-way focus on performance management

Performance management becomes a two-way conversation with serious consequences for both parties.

The employee has always been responsible for hitting KPIs. But now the company is also responsible for delivering promised development. Examples include mentoring, a leadership course, or an offshore posting with increased responsibility.

In a tour of duty world, performance management has to hold both the employee and the employer accountable. It’s no longer just a one-way conversation.

Now, a failure to deliver great performance management is a breech of contract by the employer. You’re assessing the employee on their performance. But they’re also assessing whether you’re advancing their career as promised. It’s no longer a one-way conversation. Stop for a second and let that sink in.

Clear objectives are (still) critical

Both employee and employer are signing on with a specific outcome or mission in mind. So it’s critical to make sure this mission is clear.

Nothing will doom a tour of duty employment relationship faster than a mission that’s subject to misinterpretation. And that runs both ways. Both the employee and the employer need to be able to state what the other party is getting out of the relationship.

Again, SMART goals and objectives are performance management 101. But in this environment the consequences are significant. Misalignment or plain old laziness will all lead to quick turnover.

You have the ability to increase retention of specialist employees

One of the common misconceptions in that a tour of duty approach will reduce the tenure of employment. With one caveat below, I don’t think that’s the case.

There’s a good analogy in an emotional relationship. Through having hard conversations, we can fix issues at an earlier stage. We continue to recommit if it’s working. And we don’t hold onto the illusion of staying together if the relationship is broken and we’re not BOTH achieving what we set out to.

For knowledge workers in specialist positions, there’s always the opportunity to ‘cheat’ on their employer. Recruiters call regularly. Employees know the options and opportunities.

Tours of duty make clear that you’re just as invested in their growth as they are. And that’s a really meaningful differentiator.

But poor execution creates turnover risk

If you do this badly, you’re going to significantly increase your workforce turnover. It’s the equivalent of reminding employees just how little they’re getting out of their job. Picture this conversation:

“Hi Bob, remember how we promised you all these things about how great this opportunity would be for your development and career? Well we actually didn’t deliver on any of our promises… Now how did you go with your KPIs?”

So here’s my recommendations to you

If you’re already best practice in performance management then this is something you need to be thinking about. Talent supply and generational trends mean you won’t have a choice. Your competitors will start making these kind of commitments. And they will be a real differentiator for employer brand. Gen Y loves the authenticity of “you don’t have a job for life but we’ll make sure you get as much out of this as we do”.

If your company does tours-of-duty well, the approach will help you retain your best employees for longer. It will help you do this at a lower cost. And it will make clear which managers are delivering great employee development.

Finally, a word of warning! If you’re just starting on your performance management journey then you need to get your house in order first (as Josh Bersin shows nicely here). Start with the basics. That means clear expectations and regular, documented conversations.

To extend the military analogy – you can’t go to war until you’ve trained the troops.

Photo credit: MONUSCO (Used under Creative Commons SA 2.0 licence)