Beth Mendel derailed her successful career in design when her husband’s company relocated him from New York City to Virginia. They moved their four children into new schools, sold their apartment in the city, and bought a new home in Virginia. Her parents even joined them in the move. Her husband’s job was to downsize the company’s operations in Virginia. However, a few months later, after her husband had successfully downsized the company, his employer in New York City called him back to headquarters for a meeting. They informed him that now that he had done his job, his job was done, too. As Beth put it, “He was definitely the hatchet man. And then he was hatcheted.”

Beth went back to work, while her husband suffered from depression before eventually finding work again. The experience was “horrible,” Beth recalls, but she seemed to accept the episode as just part of the new reality in work. “There’s always bumps in the road,” she said, adding, “What are you going to do?”

On the other hand, she upheld high expectations for herself at work. “I’m a very loyal employee,” she said. “I don’t just go to a job nine to five, and at five o’ clock, oh, it’s time, goodbye. No, that’s not me.” She does this even though she knows through personal experience that loyalty may not be rewarded by one’s employer.

In The Tumbleweed Society, University of Virginia sociologist Allison Pugh describes this as “the one-way honor system”: shrugging one’s shoulders about job insecurity as just the way things are, while at the same time asserting your own loyalty as a worker.

Another of Pugh’s interviewees, Mary, described how the president of her husband’s company had groomed him for a top management position, only to sell the company and walk away with a huge profit. She felt that the president had reneged on his promise to “take care” of her husband, but she didn’t begrudge him for the decision. “The president did very, very well and I don’t blame him,” she said. “He’s not a bad guy. I think he just didn’t know how to do it. You know he had this company but yet he probably felt—did feel responsible for these guys that had really helped him build the company.”

‘There’s always bumps in the road… What are you going to do?’

Both Beth and Mary are financially advantaged, and thus able to adapt relatively well to the insecurity. But what about the less advantaged? Given that more is at stake, you might expect them to have higher expectations of employers. But Pugh finds that insecurely employed, less advantaged workers also profess allegiance to the one-way honor system.  Phyllis, a single mother who had been laid off from several low-wage jobs, believes that even good employees don’t deserve special consideration from employers when family situations or emergencies arise. “I think that employee needs to get a good, strong support system…outside of work. Keep it outside. Once you walk in that door, you’re in a different mode.”

But some of Pugh’s interviewees still expected loyalty from their employers: the stably employed. It didn’t matter if they were working class or upper middle-class, those who enjoyed steady work with the same company talked very differently from the insecurely employed who were accustomed to layoffs. “Security, if at all possible,” responded Ed, a firefighter, to the question of what employers owed employees. “I see that as being responsible, because obviously nowadays I feel if you take care of your employees then they are going to take care of you.”

Ed goes on to describe an amazing sense of mutual obligation that his fellow firefighters feel for each other: “I look after my captain, my captain looks after me. I’ve got his back, he’s got mine.” He describes his relationships with his fellow firefighters as “family,” a metaphor that many of Pugh’s stably employed interviewees used to describe their workplace. Ed even says that his “work family” would take care of his “home family” should he die or become incapacitated. “If I died in that wreck out there, my kids and my wife would have been taken care of,” he said. If his wife needed the yard mowed, or needed a new roof, he said, somebody from the firehouse or the county would show up and do the job.

Similarly, Linda, a teacher, said about her coworkers, “People here are like my family; they’re a great support system.” Ed and Linda’s outlook is very different from that of the single mother who insisted that a worker needed to find a “support system” outside of work.

People like Ed don’t excuse the behavior of bosses by pointing to “social or economic trends beyond their control,” Pugh points out. In their view, neither employer nor employee is “free of the moral gaze,” and employment practices reflect “an employer’s decency and a company’s honor.” As Ed says about an employer’s responsibility to employees, “Okay, you hire them today, don’t think just to hire them today and fire them in two weeks. As long as the employee is doing their part, I think the promise from the other end is they have to do their part to help you. It is a two-way street.”

Some still expect loyalty from their employers: the stably employed.

At the same time, stably employed workers are realistic about the compromises and sacrifices they must make in order to keep their jobs. In Ed’s words, “You know, these guys, we argue. I hate some of these guys sometimes, some of the stuff they do, but when the chips are down, they’re there. They’ll come drag my butt out of a fire if they have to; I’ll do the same for them.” Pugh describes this as a stance of “pragmatism.”

Moreover, Pugh found that many of the stably employed, regardless of class, also enjoyed enduring marriages. (Echoing her finding, one study found that, for men, union membership is positively associated with marriage.) She suggests that the same ability to compromise that bodes well for them in their work also enables their relationships to endure.

Pugh’s focus on the willingness to compromise as the mechanism that helps people of all backgrounds endure in both their relationships and their jobs is a very promising insight. She acknowledges that we can’t know for certain what comes first: “the stable job or the ability to compromise.” It could be, she says, that people fall into one of two groups: those who can compromise, and those who cannot. In this view of things, the people in steady work and relationships would fall into the “compromise” group, and people jumping from job to job and relationship to relationship in the “no compromise” group. Ultimately, however, she lands on the side of believing that this is really a story about the power of work to shape our view of commitments, both at work and in relationships. As she says, “If we are not an ‘us’ at work, then, we are hardly likely to be one at home.”

But couldn’t it also be the other way around? It may also be true that employees who did not experience an “us” in their family of origin are hardly likely to find it at work.

Regrettably, Pugh’s insistence that the causal direction goes from bad work experiences to bad relationship experiences made her book, overall, very frustrating. For one thing, it went against how several of her own interviewees made sense of their stories and attitudes. It was also frustrating because, as I’ll explore in my next post, simply following her interviewees’ life stories could help us to see how experiences of betrayal in childhood and in intimate relationships might affect their willingness to compromise, both at work and in relationships.

It might also help crack a question that I’ve been wondering about for some time: why is it that some less advantaged people I’ve met find it difficult to keep even those jobs they describe as “good jobs”?