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The Workplace Covenant

May 9, 2009 | by

"What do you expect from your job?" In asking this question, we often forget to consider what our employer expects from us.


"We are at the center of a seamless web
of mutual responsibility and collaboration...
a seamless partnership with interrelationships
and mutual commitments."
-- Robert Haas, CEO of Levi-Straus


More than any other question, I am asked why I left my professorship at Harvard Business School, a decision few people seem to understand. My reason was simple: I was unhappy. Why? Because I knew why I had been hired and what I was expected to do. And it was not what I wanted to do any longer.

Friends continually question me: "Hey, once you're tenured, I thought you could do what you want?" While to an extent that is practically true -- and I can cite many examples of where that has happened – it is not for me. "If someone is paying you to do a particular job," I reply, "I feel a moral responsibility to do it and not play around with what I could do given my position and power."

"Pray not that God is on our side, but that we are on God's side."
-- Abraham Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural speech

A core precept of Judaism is responsibility -- to God, family, community, self. Our theology is not so much about the nature of God, but more about the nature of God's demands on us. We believe that God makes moral demands on us.

God hopes we will reach our potential for humanity by being good to others, and in so doing, grow closer to Him. This moral demand, this sense of the Covenant, tells us that God will hold up His end of the bargain and keep the world running smoothly only if we do so as well, acting like moral, caring human beings.

I find the beauty of Leviticus 17-26 in that this moral code was set down in the priestly, middle book of the Torah. Juxtaposed with the burnt offerings and other sacrifices to God is a moral code of conduct -- a code which God expects us to carry out in return for a life of freedom and glory. Our religion, it might be said, is a two-way street.

There is no truth unless there be a faith on which it may rest."
-- Rabbi Yochanan ben Zaccai

I have listened to hundreds of managers' confidential complaints about what their companies do not do for them. I have heard about how salaries are below competition, but not how the benefits are generous. I have heard about how there is no 401K matching plan, but not that six weeks of paid vacation are mandatory each year. I have heard about the lack to support tools given to succeed, but not that there is a culture that supports trying new things and failing honestly, with no repercussions.

Similarly, I hear from bosses what their staff is not doing for the company. How they can't make decisions on their own, how they don't treat the company's budget with the respect of their own pocketbooks, and how they fail to take initiative when necessary.

In response, I have developed what we call a "Loyalty Constitution."

"Life is a negotiation."
-- Wendy Wasserstein

The loyalty constitution is not a legal contract, but instead a list of expectations on what the community (company) should provide its members and what its members (employees) should provide in return. The constitution becomes a living communication device that is regularly updated. It serves not only current employees, but also can be used as a screening device in hiring.

In an age of "free agents," of employer's complaining about the lack of employee loyalty and vice-versa, a loyalty constitution helps keep you on track so that the needs of both parties are being met. Below are three tips for developing your own loyalty constitution, whether for yourself or your company:

  1. Know What Your Employer Expects


    What do I need to do to be doing the job expected of me? To get promoted? To get a raise? Make sure you understand as explicitly as possible what that is. In fact, you might want to try a 5-15 report every Friday.

    A "5-15" report to your boss that takes no more than 15 minutes to write and 5 minutes to read. It can cover things like what went well this week, what didn’t go well, and some ideas or questions for improvement. It is then your boss's job to get back to you on Monday to make sure you are both on the same page.


  2. We are All Bosses, too


    Just as you have expectations of your company and boss, your staff has expectations of you! Make sure you are meeting their expectations instead of being too busy to responding to their needs and making clear your expectations (as a representative of the company). If you don't, you will lose your best people.


  3. Celebrate Small Successes


    Community bonds are cemented in sadness, yes, but also by celebrating lots of successes. Little things. Fun things. The more opportunities you create for celebrating, the more you strengthen the resolve behind the loyalty constitution.

    Too often we don't recognize what it is that truly makes us happy, what it is that makes it all worthwhile. We all will spend about 100,000 hours at work. After you deduct the 10,000 hours each of us will spend rebooting Windows, what are you going to do the rest of the time? Whatever it is, make sure you enjoy it.

    Find something to celebrate with your staff this week and watch how bonds can deepen even in this age of speed, downsizing and free agents. After all, aren't we all here to be with a community of people whom we care about and who care about us?


    "The task is to achieve compatibility between our occupation and our work,
    between how we 'make a living' and how we live."
    -- Rabbi Byron Sherwin


To read more about achieving joy through responsibility, read Chapter 1, "Make Happiness a Habit" of Dr. Albion's New York Times' Best Seller, Making a Life, Making a Living: Reclaiming Your Purpose and Passion in Business and in Life (Warner Books, 2000). The first chapter and excerpts are available on his Making a Life, Making a Living® Website at

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