Tour of Duty Employment

When starting new employment, we discuss issue of time. We set expectations about the start and end of the workday, paid time off, even the eligibility period for health insurance [if you are so lucky]. These conversations help set expectations for employer and employee. When we agree on a start date, maybe we should also set an end date.

Why plan to leave? Because you will. Median worker tenure in the US is 4.2 years, down 0.2 years since 2014. Employment is an open-ended contract, but there are signs of change. Certain US federal agencies are using a “tour of duty” concept with employment terms. At 18F, most positions are “‘not to exceed’ (NTE) positions, which means they are two-year terms and can be renewed once, for a total of four years.” People are expected to grow into another position or leave the agency after that time. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program lasts 12 months. Going into those agencies, everyone knows that the work period has a firm beginning and end.

Consultants and independent contractors set specific dates for project start and delivery. This time-based agreement helps all parties understand and agree to terms. Everyone knows when an engagement ends, unlike open-ended employment contracts which provide two “jump out” options: resignation and termination.

A time-based employment scenario shifts the employer-employee relationship. Instead of gaming the system to keep a position and politicking for promotions, employees have opportunity for continual career development via new roles. Employers have a vested interested in training and development talented staff for advancement in the organization. Both parties share control of termination and avoid layoffs due to continual staff turnover. Hiring managers and recruiters would see a rise in qualified candidates in the marketplace.

Drawbacks? Sure. You and I are looking for work every couple of years. There is a loss of historical knowledge inside an organization, and long-term projects involve many more people. However, stability is an antiquated notion, and, as we’ve seen, tenure is already shortening. Change is part of the deal.

Want more proof that this is a good idea? CEOs and other executives routinely negotiate end-of-contract packages: golden parachutes. When they start a new role, they plan on the inevitable end.

As more employers shift to contractors, the infrastructure is already in place for fixed-term employment. Clear expectations about the terms of engagement could shift the way we experience work and career trajectories, making workers more comfortable in knowing when the end is coming. Isn’t knowing better than not?