More than 56,000 Kodak retirees got a rude jolt this week when a bankruptcy judge agreed with the company's request to terminate their benefits.
Kodak and other troubled companies may not see anything wrong in terminating benefits to employees, but there's a larger lesson here for American enterprises and workers. While one part of me would like to side with the retirees and blame Kodak, the more enlightened part of me (thank you, Intel ex-CEO and ex-chairman Andrew Grove) remembered that employment and, unfortunately, promised benefits are "at will" in the United States. This means your employer only owes you wages for work already done and does not owe you guaranteed employment or lifelong benefits beyond what it is able to pay, even if it promised much more. Employees therefore have an obligation to ensure they secure their retirement by whatever means necessary and independent of past, current, or future employers.
Grove's observation may be coming too late for many Kodak employees, but I would like to restate the six points he emphasized in his book here for current workers. He said:
Nobody owes you a career
Your career is literally your business. You own it as a sole proprietor.
You have one employee: yourself
You are in competition with millions of similar businesses -- i.e., millions of other employees all over the world
You need to accept ownership of your career, your skills, and the timing of your moves
It is your responsibility to protect your personal business of yours from harm and to position it to benefit from the changes in the environment. Nobody else can do that for you.
There are implications for businesses, too. Executives must understand that as Grove noted in his book Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Point That Challenge Every Company, employees will become more mercenary in their actions and will not always put company interest first. You may not like the implications, but that's what the Kodak bankruptcy ruling has reinforced.