Are Employees Becoming Job 'Renters' Instead of 'Owners'?

SUMMING UP While some employees have a mindset of "renting" their jobs while others "own" them, James Heskett's readers tend to agree that companies plays a large role in determining those attitudes.
by James Heskett

Summing Up: Is Job Ownership Nature or Nurture?

Employees increasingly are becoming “job renters.” For some, it is a disturbing trend. It doesn’t have to happen. And the phenomenon isn’t universal. These observations by respondents to this month’s column raise an interesting question of the extent to which the trend is a product of nature (declining employee motivation, changing aspirations, shorter-term planning, etc.) or nurture (such things as leadership, hiring policies, organization, incentives, and the job environment they create.)

Several respondents explored reasons for a perceived decline in job ownership. Leadership took a large share of the blame. J Mac’s comment was typical of several: “I think the ‘job renter’ behavior is the result of the ‘management takes all’ culture in today’s corporations …” Ed Hare commented, “In too many organizations, people come to sense they’re as disposable as a BIC pen. Small wonder they’ll react as owners.” DRE added that job renting is code for job instability. “When you kill the opportunity to own a job, it is only a matter of time before the economic circle shrinks to (the) point of nothingness.” Randrew Almone provided perhaps the most graphic description of what he believes happens. “People notice what happens to owners … And when owners are not promoted, groomed, and are fired for irrelevant reasons, many prospective owners learn to keep a barrier between the job and themselves.”

There were suggestions for encouraging job ownership. Tema Frank suggested that “If you want employees to behave like owners, they need to be allowed to express opinions and have them taken seriously.” LuAnne suggested that, “If you want an ownership culture, invest in career pathing, education, and incentive alignment.” David Wittenburg commented, “It may not be possible for every employee (to) value the company as if it were his own. The next best thing is to make the customer the focus of everyone’s work. When customer service is enculturated through policies and programs, employees take actions that attract and retain customers.” Corey Rosen added, “If you really want people to act like owners, combine real employee ownership and an ownership culture.”

Employees may approach their work with a renter’s mentality. Casual MBA observed that, “From running a retail organization, I can tell you many employees in that space have a renter attitude, even if they’re tenured.” Bill Fotsch disagreed with the assumption underlying that observation, when he said, “My sense is most employees don’t come to a job as renters or owners. The management structure tends to create this… So my sense is the proportion of owners versus renters is under management control.”

These comments help shape an interesting question about whether employees bring a renter’s bias to the job or whether that bias is fostered by leadership, incentives and compensation policies, organization, or other factors endemic to the job. In a nutshell, the question then is: job ownership: nature or nurture? What do you think?

Original Column

There’s an age-old question: “Does anyone ever take a rental car to the car wash?”

For years, Bill Marriott instinctively has picked up trash as he walks through hotels managed by his company. I’m convinced that he does it because it sends a message to other managers about the importance of assuming an ownership mentality toward the business and its customers.

Flash forward to the recent disclosure by the leadership of Wells Fargo that it fired 5,300 of its employees for manipulating customers’ accounts. I assume it was done, often without their customers’ knowledge, in order to meet goals for achieving “deeper” relationships with them. The number of a bank’s services supposedly used by each customer is a way in which Wells Fargo (and many other banks) measure customer loyalty.

The behaviors of the bank’s leaders have already been litigated in the press and before Congressional committees. My interest is in the 5,300 who were fired. Were they fired for cheating to meet goals for customer loyalty (and ironically risking customer loyalty in the process)? Or were they fired for refusing to participate in a management ploy that could only create a net long-term loss for the company, measured in part by its broken trust with its customers? In my book, the first group exhibited “renter” behaviors. The second group, on the other hand, were behaving as “owners,” something my colleagues Earl Sasser, Joe Wheeler, and I have researched and written about.

In our work, we found that an “owner”—either a loyal employee or customer who takes responsibility for improving relationships, products, and processes as well as referring new employee candidates or customers—can be worth more than a hundred “renters—”those who are only involved with the organization to complete one or more transactions.

Owners are like found gold; great organizations seek, develop, and encourage them even though they may sometimes seem troublesome as they point out new ways of doing things or object to a dumb management idea. In the specific case of Wells Fargo, it might warrant finding those who were fired for objecting to what was going on and hiring them back.

The concern here is about psychological, not financial, ownership. The objects in question are organizations and relationships, not real estate or other physical assets. There are many situations where job renting can make good sense. Entire business models, such as Uber’s, are based on job renters. Employee loyalty and referrals are peripheral, not central, to their success.

Rather, the concern is about the future of ownership behaviors in organizations increasingly populated by a new generation of managers. We’re told this generation is fueling the shared economy, in which physical things are rented and shared. But will that provide any clue to how they will regard their jobs and the health of organizations and relationships?

Will they take a renter’s or an owner’s attitude toward the organizations they inhabit and increasingly lead? Will they adopt policies that encourage others to become owners or, as in the case of some of Wells Fargo’s leaders, renters? Are we becoming a nation of job renters? What do YOU think?


James L. Heskett, W. Earl Sasser, and Joe Wheeler, The Ownership Quotient: Putting the Service Profit Chain to Work for Unbeatable Competitive Advantage (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008).

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