Remember. No loyalty
In 2016 the corporation I was working for signed a contract for building a unified business solution for all of its companies. The project was developed by an external entity, a very well-known name in the industry. We, the IT department employees, were supposed to maintain the new system once it was done. For a brief moment I thought something new and interesting was behind the corner. Then, a few years later, I abruptly woke up to a feeling I had made one of my biggest professional mistakes.
The whole deal revolved around a out-of-the-box commercial system with all of the “best” qualities of a super-duper-serious enterprise product: limited access to source code, licenses costing small fortunes, paywalled knowledge bases, questionable design choices in the codebase, and finally, costly training courses.
Aaaaaand we need to talk about those training courses.
To make effective use of the new shiny toy, some of the people in our department had to complete training courses paid by the company. The content of each of the two modules involved setting up the platform and doing simple programming tasks within a pre-configured environment. Among the people who attended them were a few Java programmers and yours truly as a front-end developer.
And did I mention those courses were paid by the company? Oh yeah, I did.
My company had a rule that for any course, training or anything else they were paying on behalf of their employee they demanded signing a loyalty clause. Basically it was a way of saying ‘all right mate, we pay for this expensive thing, but you are obliged to work for us for another 2 years. If you decide to quit before 2 years have passed, you pay that money back to us’. The exact duration of each loyalty clause was dependent on the value of the gig that was sponsored by the company.
I agreed. Or to be more precise, I wasn’t objecting, as the decision was already made by my boss and I was too scared to say no. I barely even knew the course agenda.
As a front-end developer refusing to touch any backend programming in my company, I struggled to keep up with the course. According to the instructor, both courses were at some point attended by people with no programming background, but I honestly have no idea how it was even possible. Anyway, I completed both courses, received my certificates of completion, all was good.
Time was passing. The course price was divided into 24 monthly installments. I made a Google sheet to calculate how much penalty I would have to pay on any given day if I decided to quit. It took a year and a half until numbers dropped to the levels I could afford paying back from my pocket.
I also started interviewing with other companies. Not a single one cared about my loyalty clause as long as they didn’t have to participate in paying it back (yes, I was this stupid to explicitly ask about that). A few ghosted me as soon as they learnt about the clause. And I didn’t have enough leverage to negotiate satisfying salary yet.
In 2019 the big project was officially declared dead. The system was never deployed. The contract was eventually terminated. Sensationalized pieces of news were published online. Lots of time and money was wasted. Some heads among the upper management were cut. 2016 was back again, with metric tons of legacy projects waiting for a major overhaul.
Somewhere in 2021, long after my loyalty clause expired, my former boss said during a beer meeting that our company never enforced loyalty clauses when people were quitting.
Even though that statement may have been merely anecdotal, something broke inside me. Seriously. It hit me like a hammer.
When I write these words, I’m a week away from quitting the company. I terminated my contract after 7 years. Should have done that at least three years earlier.
If you’re a recruiter and you mention certain keyword related to this story, I won’t reply to your message. I don’t care if I’m highly sought after due to attending some highly specific courses. I am full of regrets about all of this. Things I’m doing these days I should have been doing three years ago.
But I can’t turn back time.
Okay. Serious talk time
Loyalty clause, also known as ‘lojalka’ or ‘umowa lojalnościowa’ in my native language, is a common way to secure employer’s interest whenever they agree to invest money in something that benefits their employee. After all, they don’t want to see their money going to waste if the employee quits next month.
There’s nothing wrong about this as long as both parties sign it willingly. Some of my former workmates agreed to sign those in exchange for funding their university studies and this is absolutely fine.
My case was different. My training courses, despite looking otherwise, were in fact voluntary. I had poor understanding of the whole situation. I could have said ‘no’ with no consequences. Two years was in fact a lot of time. Enough to put two or three different companies in my LinkedIn resume while still not being considered a job hopper.
I’m not saying loyalty clauses are bad. It all depends on the context. But they are a powerful tool that can make or break careers.
Don’t be me. Think what you sign. Or don’t sign it at all
In case it wasn’t loud and clear: loyalty clauses secure your employer’s interest, not yours. Losing money is ultimately way less painful than losing time. Money, unlike time, can be earned back. Have that in mind before you put your signature on the document.
If the loyalty clause is related to any current project in your company, ask what happens if you say ‘no’. Chances are that the Earth won’t stop spinning, the sky won’t fall on your head and the company will keep doing its stuff whether you agree or not. Don’t be a scared fish like me. Go on, ask.
Calculate if you can afford paying back the fee should anything happen in your life. Even if you don’t plan to quit your job, a lot of other things can happen in the meantime. You may even get fired. Don’t take your current job situation for granted.
If you decide to pursue other career goals while your loyalty clause is in effect, be sure to know how much money you have to pay back for breaching it. Maybe you can leverage that knowledge during your salary negotiation. I didn’t figure out how to do it effectively, but I’m not saying it’s impossible.
And finally, make long-term decisions about your time and money yourself. Don’t let others decide for you. Your boss, pressuring you to sign that goddamn loyalty clause, might have been pressured by their principal to do so. Corporations are a weird mixture of human-shaped cogwheels, money, politics and general thoughtlessness.
Or quit your company, launch a startup and start researching time travel technology. I’ll be your first client.