The Concept of the Free Agent in the Workplace

Free agents are those employees who will quietly pack up their desks and go to work elsewhere rather than stay somewhere they are unhappy. So how do you manage a free agent in the workplace?

In 1997, my boss (ex-military) was telling me what he had to offer me—a 401k and he was nailing down disability insurance. I was not impressed, as he micro-managed me, harassed me in public from time-to-time, and continued with his unspoken but blatantly obvious policy of hiring ex-military men in recovery.

Somewhere in the talk (I had already raised the bottom line dramatically) he used the word “security,” losing what little credibility he had. It wasn’t something I was after or even believed in, evidence of his continued inability to change paradigms or exercise emotional intelligence in dealing with individuals, qualities that made him a poor leader and a poor boss.

The Door Swings Both Ways
Furthermore, the Great State of Texas has “employment at will,” which means the employer can fire the employee at any time, for any reason—a good reason, a bad reason or (most importantly) NO REASON AT ALL. This is most fearlessly exercised in law firms, which are virtually revolving doors; less strenuously with businesses. However, the law is ‘at will’ and on the side of the employer.

History of a Free Agent
I was a liberal arts major, following the career model of my father, who advocated majoring in History. “Most of the presidents of the US,” he told me, “majored in History. It gives you background. It gives you options.” Of course to rebel, I chose English.

My dad went to law school, taught at a law school, then worked for the SEC as a division head, then into private practice, then on to another law firm where he became senior partner, then was invited to chair the SEC. Which he did long enough to get the SEC out of their current problem (Watergate, deregulating stock commissions), then went back to his law firm.

It was a trajectory he called “working your way up,” and one I adopted, mentally. You could also call him a “free agent.”

He never talked about “retirement.” He liked what he did and planned to do it forever, like his father before him. Retirement, it’s important to realize, is a product of the past 20 years or so.

This is idealistic but why not entertain this notion – is the main selling point of marriage that you can one day be rid of it? Is the greatest incentive you have to offer about working at your place the fact that it won’t be forever?

Managing a Free Agent
How do you manage a “free agent?” You manage the environment, not the person. Promotions, the carrot and the stick, punishment and reward, group pressure, will not work with a free agent. Why not? Because they are always free to move on, generally anticipating it, certainly not fearing it. One would rather leave of one’s own accord, but if it happens, it’s simply an unplanned event or sometimes poor timing.

Why did I stay in the places where I did? Because of the boss. They were great to be around and created the kind of atmosphere, including attracting like-minded people, where I could thrive. They didn’t impede my progress. Free agents are self-motivated achievers. We work more for the pleasure of it than most folks, perhaps, and can’t be motivated (we come that way) but CAN be deflated.

Free agents don’t threaten easily because they know their skills and experience are welcome elsewhere. Furthermore, they don’t whine or give warning before they leave. They don’t think it worth their time to change the unwilling or improve the untrainable. Finding themselves in an untenable work situation with poor management, they leave the place to its idiosyncracies and go on to greener pastures.

The Free Agent Mindset
“Two-thirds of today’s workforce have a free agent mindset;” says Ed Gubman, Ph.D., in his book, THE ENGAGING LEADER: Winning with Today’s Free Agent Workforce,” “that is, they are loyal to themselves but not necessarily the companies they work for. They understand that supply and demand rules–when they’re not needed, they’ll be gone. More than half are constantly scanning the job market, and the most highly desirable employees believe that career security rests within themselves, not with their organizations.”

If the majority of today’s workers now have the “free agent mindset,” this means if you’re an employer, you’ll have to clean up your act and do what you should’ve been doing all along. The free agent has options, and the ‘feel’ of their work day is what matters. It should cause you to look to your leadership skills and emotional intelligence, as the primal leader, and the climate in your workplace and see if it’s the kind of place people would like to work in.

Does the person’s workday include experiencing or seeing mobbing, harassment or hostile workplace? No, these are not illegal, but remember with free agents, that’s not the point. They aren’t interested in suing you, or in changing your bad behavior, they move on. If you have allowed the sort of workplace where other workers can make life hell for someone else (and studies show it’s often good workers), they leave and also word gets out

If you want to attract and keep excellent employees, look to your shop and to your own emotional intelligence.

  • Are you the kind of person people like to work with? Free agents work with,” not “for.”
  • Do you have an EQ culture in place where people treat one another well and focus on strengths, so people can thrive?
  • Do you practice learned optimism, for maximum success and profitability?
  • Do you ignore harassment, hostility and mobbing, assuming that work has an element of “hell” to it and if it’s not illegal, it’s not your problem? Or do you care enough to notice?
  • Do you realize you have options and that your employees do too?

Free agents are looking for the place where they can do their best. Is that your office?

Susan Dunn is a professional development/marketing coach and the author of ebook “Marketing Secrets of the Pros”. Visit her on the web at

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