Pro HR

The Value of Longevity

I started working in HR a long time ago – I won’t say how many years because it ages me. Back then it was very common to have benefits in employment agreements to recognise length of service.

There was long service leave, salary scales with automatic increments based on service, generous service-based redundancy formulae, extra annual leave after so many years’ service, and so forth. These types of benefits are much less common these days, particularly in the private sector.

A number of reasons spring to mind – such as the opportunity for employers to gradually remove such benefits, along with overtime rates and penal rates and other historic ‘standard’ terms through individual bargaining. The aim of this was generally to reduce employment costs but also the drive to recognise performance over service.

We have a changed career paradigm now based on multiple jobs and often multiple careers rather than the ‘job for life’ concept of the past. Though of course not everybody did their time in one company or one job even in the good old days.

So what is the value of long service? Most people would agree that retention of staff is a desirable goal and the regular turnover of staff after relatively short periods of employment is costly to the business. It also has a destabilising effect on other team members. Having a few long serving anchors in a team can be very positive in an environment of constant change. Of course, very low turnover can also present problems, so as with most things achieving balance is key. Perhaps some of the service-related benefits we have removed contributed positively to staff retention.

Even in the new work environment people are impressed when a colleague retires with long service or reaches a milestone such as 20 years service. I don’t think this is just because it occurs less often. People respect the commitment and loyalty such service represents. Employees with long service have valuable organisational history

and experience. They know what happened when we tried a particular idea before and what we learned from it, or how a challenge or problem was solved in the past or where our current practises, or values or success came from.

I don’t believe long service and high performance are necessarily mutually exclusive. People who love their work stay current, enthusiastic and are great mentors and inspiration for other staff. They also can have great wisdom and optimism – they know we have come through bad times in the past and can survive.

There are times when employees remain in their job too long and are not able to, or motivated to meet the performance standard required – they may not be able to keep pace with technology, or the physical demands of the job, or are no longer a positive contributor to the team and the organisation. Some people give the impression they are biding their time until they are ready to, or can afford to retire. An HR colleague of mine referred to these people as “retired but not yet left”.

Back in the good old days we had compulsory retirement at age 60, which could be extended by agreement. This helped to resolve the dilemma of those staff approaching retirement who had not managed to maintain their skills or enthusiasm for work. There was a known end date that the employee and employer could plan for in advance which allowed a dignified exit for the employee at the end of a long career. In the current environment if the employee stays beyond the optimum time the employer is faced with a formal performance management process or restructuring or trying to negotiate an agreed transition to retirement. Even handled sensitively these options are not the ideal way for someone to end their career.

We know a diverse workforce adds strength so we want some ‘old heads’ alongside the ‘young bloods’. It is worthwhile giving some thought to placing value on service and loyalty in your retention and recognition strategies. In your performance

and development discussions consider how you can support long serving staff to keep learning and stay up to date at the same time as sharing their wisdom and experience with others. In career planning processes try to have open dialogue about planning for retirement well ahead of time so it can be a positive new phase for all parties.