Is it time to just accept that your best employees are going to leave?

Kevin Scott, senior vice president of engineering at LinkedIn, asks an important question of every job candidate he interviews: “What job do you want after you work at Linkedin?”

Yes, that’s right. Before employees even join the Silicon Valley company, Scott outwardly acknowledges that they’re not likely to stay put. And he implies his approval and acceptance of that kind of move.

It’s been the case for decades now that workers no longer expect to build their career within a single company. But it remains rare for employers and employees to structure their workplace culture and contracts around that shift. Workers continue to enter into work arrangements with indefinite end dates, much like the contracts their grandparents signed more than half a century ago. And employers continue to focus intently on retaining talent, even though data show their staffers are not likely to stick with them for the long haul.

Scott’s interview strategy is part of a broader culture at LinkedIn that is centered around creating employee-employer relationships that are better suited for today’s economy.

In a book published this week, “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age,” LinkedIn’s chairman, Reid Hoffman, along with co-authors Ben Casanocha and Chris Yeh, make the case that businesses across all sectors should similarly reinvent their compacts with workers.

The authors argue that employers should adopt a strategy in which employees work in two- to four-year “tours of duty”— discrete, specific periods of work. The employee and employer agree to meet at the end of the tour to discuss next steps for the worker’s career, which could be a different assignment within the company or a move to a new workplace. Both sides then work together to make that new position a reality. (If the thesis sounds familiar, it’s because the authors first put it forward in a Harvard Business Review article last year.)

Here’s how they describe the tour of duty model: “We see this approach as a way to incorporate some of the advantages from both lifetime employment and free agency. Like lifetime employment, the tour of duty allows employers and employees to build trust and mutual investment; like free agency, it preserves the flexibility that both employers and employees need to adapt to a rapidly changing world.”

Indeed, the information age’s tenor of constant change seems to be the best argument for the tour of duty model. The skills that made an employee an essential player at a tech start-up last year might make her more of a middling one this year if, say, the company has pivoted away from a certain coding language or changed its model to focus on software instead of hardware. It’s not that her skills have become outmoded, it’s just that they’re no longer as central at her particular employer. In a tour of duty model, both she and her employer would have an easy out, a clear path and forum for acknowledging that she’d be better off somewhere else.

Is LinkedIn’s tour of duty model poised to become a cornerstone of the American work contract? Or is it destined to be a workplace set-up more like “manager-less offices,” which are oft-debated by management experts but rarely used in the real world?

It’s too early to tell, of course. But Silicon Valley has often been a pacesetter on talent and human resources issues. In addition to LinkedIn, tech giants Google and Intuit also use tours as part of their workforce strategies.

Hoffman, Casanocha and Yeh also write in “The Alliance” that the kind of employee they believe is best equipped to help a company thrive is the one with the most entrepreneurial, flexible mind-set.

This may seem counterintuitive: Isn’t someone with an entrepreneurial spirit highly likely to leave my company? Why should I invest in them?

The authors turn to the story of a technologist named Benjamin Black. In 2003, Black, an employee of Amazon.com, wrote a memo saying that the e-commerce giant should use its infrastructure to sell computing power. The idea eventually grew into Amazon Web Services. Black left Amazon in 2011 to launch a start-up, but AWS pulled in an estimated $3.8 billion in 2013. The example suggests that the company is better off having had Black on its staff for a brief stint, even if they couldn’t hang onto him forever.

(Disclosure: Jeffrey P. Bezos, chief executive of Amazon.com, owns The Washington Post.)

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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