Summary: jobs in EA organizations are often unusual in ways which makes candidates uncertain if they want to have that job indefinitely (e.g. people may have a less prestigious title because EA's tend to be “overqualified”). Hiring people through a "Tour of Service" which is time-bound and has specific outcomes can address these concerns. An example summary of a Tour is: join CEA for two years with the goal of doubling the percentage of respondents to the EA survey who say they made an important connection on the EA Forum.

Background

About a decade ago, Tours of Service [1] were introduced as a replacement for the traditional "at will" employment structure. The authors summarized:

If you think all your people will give you lifetime loyalty, think again: Sooner or later, most employees will pivot into a new opportunity. Recognizing this fact, companies can strike incremental alliances. When Reid founded LinkedIn, he set the initial employee compact as a four-year tour of duty, with a discussion at two years. If an employee moved the needle on the business during the four years, the company would help advance his career. Ideally this would entail another tour of duty at the company, but it could also mean a position elsewhere.

The central aspects of the Tour of Service model are, to my mind:

  1. Time limited (usually 2-4 years).
  2. Target concrete outcomes in which the employee’s work will benefit the employer.
  3. Target concrete outcomes in which the employee will be benefited by working with the employer.

Importantly, the final point may be oriented around ways in which the employee would be more employable at other organizations.

Note that the Tour of Service (both in the original version and CEA’s) is an informal and non-legally binding agreement. The legal structure of employment is unchanged (which, in the US, usually means "at will" employment).

Examples

Probably the easiest way to understand Tours of Service is to look at examples. These examples are all from actual Tours of Service of CEA staff.

Service Objectives (benefits to employer)

We the company expect this current Tour of Service to encompass the time it takes for you to execute the following objectives:

  • 100% increase in the percentage of respondents to the EA survey who say they made an important connection on the EA Forum.
  • >5,000 “hot leads”/year are handed off to group leaders or other CEA teams through products you create.
  • The EA Forum improves event discoverability, such that 30 event attendees per month are attributable to the Forum.

Service Results (benefits to employee)

Here is what a successful tour of duty look like for you (knowledge, skills, accomplishments, recognition, etc.): 

  • Recognition from CEA leadership and group leaders as someone who can successfully complete large, full-stack, technical projects with diverse stakeholders.
  • The impact of having built a pipeline that >20% of new, highly-engaged EAs will have gone through at least part of.
  • A portfolio of open source contributions to successful projects which can be shown to prospective employers.

Full Example

Here is a full Tour of Service that I wrote for myself when I first joined CEA in 2018:[2]

  • We the company expect this current tour of duty to encompass the time it takes for you to execute the following mission objectives:
    • Each team managed by you (events, community health, tech, grants) has a clear strategy with success metrics
    • Top performers have high morale and are retained; substandard performance is addressed.
    • New CEO can be brought up to speed easily.
  • I expect this tour of duty will last approximately the following amount of time:
    • Until a new CEO starts (approximately end of 2019).
  • Here is what the results of a successful tour of duty look like for the company (product launches, process improvements, sales, etc.):
    • Each team has a Google doc with a one paragraph mission statement, one page summary of goals and plans for the next quarter, and metrics for tracking those goals. Everyone on the team and Max agrees with the Google doc. The new CEO feels equipped to work out a strategy regarding these teams, and notably whether they should be spun out or terminated.
    • Morale numbers are consistently high (>5) in 15Five and there are no unwanted departures. Coaching, performance improvement plans or other remediation is rapidly implemented in the case of underperformance.
    • New CEO can pass the newlywed test with your reports after a short number of conversations and reading documents you have prepared.
  • Here is what the results of a successful tour of duty look like for you (knowledge, skills, accomplishments, recognition, etc.):
    • Recognition in the EA community as someone who can implement robust processes, solid best practices, and turnaround underperforming teams.
    • Skill of creating metrics for hard to define areas, which will be necessary for almost any position involving strategic work in EA.
    • Positive relationships with directs, which are relationships that will last and potentially benefit you throughout your career.
  • As we approach the end of this tour of duty (approximately 6 months to go), you and I should discuss what you would like to do once the tour of duty is complete, either by defining a new tour of duty at the company or discussing your transition to a different company.

Use at CEA

  • The majority of staff at CEA are not on a Tour of Service. A couple people on the online team and a couple on the events team are on them; I don't think anyone on the groups or community health teams are on them.
  • However, I think it has got us a few key hires we wouldn’t have otherwise.
  • The major downsides are:
    • It’s quite hard to make precise plans that last 2+ years. In general, I’ve solved this by making a precise plan and just updating when that plan no longer makes sense, but this doesn’t seem ideal.
    • Like any other unusual hiring practice, people sometimes get confused. A decent fraction of our candidates think that a tour of service means that we are only hiring them for a limited-term engagement, and they worry about their job security. I’ve iterated on various ways of phrasing this, but haven’t found anything that completely works.

Next steps if you would like to use one

  • The Alliance introduces this concept in depth and contains a template tour of service agreement.
  • This video series gives a shorter introduction.
  • I was partially inspired by 18F, who has successfully used the model to attract technologists to the US government.
  • You are also welcome to reach out to me (ben.west@centreforeffectivealtruism.org).

Next steps if you would like to be hired under one

  1. ^

    I prefer the term “tour of service” over the original “tour of duty” as being less militaristic, and have made other slight naming changes to the original model throughout this document

  2. ^

    Note that I am the “you” in this document (and also “I”, but that was me pretending to be my manager...)

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New Comment
17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:41 AM

This post makes me wonder, do EA organisations ever offer permanent staff the flexibility to do a secondment or loan to another organisation? I could imagine someone from CEA and someone from Allfed being loaned to Rethink Priorities while they try to start a particular megaproject, for example, with the security that they can return to their original employer after a set period of time if the megaproject hasn't worked out.

I'm interested in this idea. I also really like and endorse the idea of making very clear, actionable, mostly objective goals for employment even if that employment is open-ended and not tied to a specific length.

Hi Ben,

While I appreciate the sentiment of a tour of service, I would also like to highlight the asymmmetrical power imbalance of a tour of service. As I understand it, the difference between contractual work and your tour of service is the spirit of the work relationship: a mutual understanding between the employed and the employer. 

However, the only person in that relationship that could extend the relationship, or make it permanent, is the employer.  This is to the disadvantage of the employee, and for all practical purposes is no different than a time-limited contract for the employee.

Why would it not be possible to have the spirit of the tour of service and still offer full-time employment? No one gives or accepts a full-time position with the anticipation that they will work their until the retire anyways, so I dont understand what advantages this has for the employee. If after two years an employee feels that their position isn't worthwhile for them, then they can quit, as many do after 4 years regardless of their contract. A company can fire a person, in some countries, for their role being redundant if the work isn't necessary anymore. In that case a person can file for unemployment, which they could not do under a time-limited contract. 

 

If the logic for the tour of service is due to the role being temporary  or having  uncertain funding, then I would suggest that the role is both in practice and spirit just a contracting gig, with all of the moral hazards that accompany those hiring practices.

Thanks Charlie! If I understand your concern correctly, this is a misunderstanding of the approach. To quote the post

Note that the Tour of Service (both in the original version and CEA’s) is an informal and non-legally binding agreement. The legal structure of employment is unchanged... Like any other unusual hiring practice, people sometimes get confused. A decent fraction of our candidates think that a tour of service means that we are only hiring them for a limited-term engagement, and they worry about their job security. I’ve iterated on various ways of phrasing this, but haven’t found anything that completely works.

If you have thoughts about how to phrase things so that this misunderstanding is prevented in the future, I would appreciate them!

Hi Ben,

Thanks for the clarification!  I am sorry i misunderstood your position. If I reflect on how I think I misunderstood the idea myself, I think its because I see a full time job as a type of relationship. Typically in a relationship there are not goals to meet or timeframes; I have never told a girlfriend, "I expect to feel Z way in 6 months so lets come back in 4 months and see if we are on track."

Thats a dramatic comparison, but the dynamic is still a little skewed between me and the other person in the relationship in this situation. If I was friends with someone and they told me, "I like you, and I think we could be even better friends in 2 years if you do X,Y, Z, so lets come back to this in 1 year and see where you stand. Dont worry, this wont necessarily affect our friendship, its just something I could expect from you", then I would struggle to see how failing at improving our relationship in this particular way would not negatively effect our relationship regardless of what you say. 

To try to explain it another way, in the example above we are tying goals to the relationship, not setting goals "within" the relationship. The relationship becomes dependent on the goals. 

 This if of course also very normal in work, your job is very dependent on your performance, but I think framing it in this way can just have a strong interpersonal effect that I would struggle to wrap my head around. It is important for people to feel that they are good enough as they are, not just good enough as their last piece of work. 

Saying that, I think goals are great and I love ambitious multiyear goals to keep people aligned and motivated. I think having  a project as the primary framework for looking at the employment relationship can make the relationship more angsty than it needs to be. 

Of course all of the nuances here could just be a language problem, and we are all working in the same spirit :) In fact, when you first said tours of service I thought of the management trainee programs larger corporations have where you try different departments and geographies in a 2 or 3 year period. 

To be honest, I'm still a bit confused about how this works. Is it correct to me that if the employee does not fulfill the Service Objectives, this will be practically (though not legally as the US usually has at-will employment) be seen as grounds for termination? If so, then to me it does feel like less job security than most jobs in-practice have, though maybe a) legally this is not true, and b) normatively the standard advice is that orgs should be more willing to fire than they in practice have.

Hmm,  I think the question of whether employees should have objective requirements is somewhat orthogonal from the question of whether they should have a tour of service. For example, many salespeople have sales quotas, despite not being on a tour of service.

That being said: the alternative to having objective requirements is something like "you must fulfill the whims of your manager" and it's not obvious to me that this is actually better for job security.

[strange reply warning]

I am afraid to ask what is the alternative. I'd hope that in all jobs and also in "tours of service":

  • Employees get: 
    • recognition
    • skill
    • "CV bullets" that make them more hirable 
    • honest references from the employer
  • The company gets useful work done
  • Any party can end the relationship if they're not happy with it, both must be happy with the relationship to continue

no?

I wonder if I misunderstood something big

 

The thing I do find inspiring in your management approach is setting measurable long term goals and not interfering with how the worker decides to accomplish those (if I understood this part correctly)

Thanks for the question! The differences in my mind are:
 

  1. A Schelling point for when the employment relationship might end
  2. Clear discussion of the benefits the employee will receive even after leaving the employer

E.g. I've never had an employer pitch me something like "work for us for two years, after which you will be much more hirable by our competitor because of the portfolio you developed here." (Even though this is the strategy many employees have in practice.)

Thanks for sharing. This is quite compelling.

There seem to be some similarities here with how generalist careers go within the UK Civil Service[1].

There, you typically do 2-4 years in a role before moving onto something which is usually unrelated, at least in theme if not in role. For instance, in the FCDO, you might go from 3 years working on trade with India, to a new post working on Brazil's internal politics, before going to work on human rights at the UN. Sometimes people also go from working in policy roles, to comms, to HR etc., but that seems less relevant here. Some stay in a particular thematic area for much longer, or go back to things they've previously worked on - but that's the exception, particularly early in careers.

My sense is it's fairly popular amongst staff because you get to try out lots of things, meet more people, learn more (at least more broadly), move if you don't like a job/team, potentially travel etc. But there are some fairly obvious costs that might also apply to the Tours of Service described above:

  1. You lose subject-matter expertise. That's more obvious if it's 'India trade policy', but in the above jobs, this could be something like 'knowledge of the office contract' for the Office Manager role, or more general knowledge about CEA internal systems.
  2. You lose (other) productivity benefits of working in the same team for a while, like adapting to others' working styles, better communication etc
  3. You lose institutional knowledge e.g. 'we tried this before and it was a disaster for reason x'
  4. You lose the (more vague) value of having spent a lot of time thinking about problems related to the specific job - connected to 1-3, but slightly different
  5. You start again with relationships - external as well as internal ones
  6. You have other costs for onboarding staff, doing handovers to new staff etc.
  7. Some staff find it personally disruptive, so it's not good for their motivation.

Chris Kerr highlights some of the benefits, and includes helpful ways of making it work. You could also take my points 1-7 and see related benefits to each of them. And it sounds like it's also been useful in attracting staff that wouldn't otherwise have taken the job. So I don't mean to be positive or negative overall about EA Tours of Service. I think some of it depends on the employees, and the circumstances of the organisation/team at the time. But I wanted to highlight some of the potential downsides too, based on my somewhat-related experience. Hope that's helpful!

[In case it's not obvious, I'm not talking about the 'concrete outcomes' bit of this model - that seems like it should be the default for most roles anyway, especially within EA.]

  1. ^

    I'm mostly not talking about specialist roles, like lawyers, for example - though they also move between thematic areas quite a bit.

Many intergovernmental organizations have a similar recruitment model with limited term contracts for most staff members. (My experience is with EMBL but I don't think the practice is limited to research-focused organizations.) The explicit aim is that staff members will join (possibly on secondment from national governments), bring their existing knowledge and share it with other staff from other countries, and then return to their home country bringing new experience to improve things there too.

The packages of benefits and perquisites offered by these organizations include some that EA organizations should consider duplicating if they want to encourage "tour of service" style employment.

  • Relocation assistance not only before starting the job but also after the end of the contract period.
  • Travel subsidies to encourage continuing links with the home country (and with the seconding organization, if applicable).
  • Dependents allowance, to compensate for the fact that e.g. if one spouse relocates to a foreign country for work then this lowers the earning potential of the other spouse.

Thanks for writing this, it's a cool idea.

I'll consider doing this when I next run a hiring round!

Did Max write this and Ben post it? I got confused when it talked about "my tour of service"

Nope, it was written by me. I tried to explain that bit with footnote 2 – let me know if you have suggested wording changes to make it more clear!

No, this makes sense thanks - I think I don't have a clear enough sense of CEA's structure so I got confused

Thanks for sharing this, Ben!

I see a lot of value in this model (assuming you successfully clarify that they are full employees, legally and otherwise), especially compared to the high level of contracting in the EA space. That said, I believe it might be beneficial to further evaluate the effects of having explicitly time-contingent employment. 

I haven't fully thought through the benefits/costs yet, but I wanted to share my initial thoughts and hopefully come back to discuss further.