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Are your employees getting ready to bolt?

by Jan Ferri-Reed

Jan Ferri-ReedThe latest news reports have given us a glimmer of hope that the economy may finally be recovering. While that's a welcome sign for most organizations, it may not be good news for all. A recent Conference Board survey found that 55% of all employees are unhappy with their jobs—the lowest level researchers have seen in 22 years.

So, managers may find their best workers heading for the door once business starts picking up but that shouldn't be surprising. Bad economic conditions typically lead to downsizing, layoffs, wage cuts, and increased workloads—hardly the kind of conditions that create employee job satisfaction and company loyalty.

Even worse, managers may take their people for granted. They figure that employees are grateful just to be working, and so may downplay the need to manage and motivate and motivate their staff. They couldn't be more wrong!

An ongoing study published in the Gallup Management Journal found that the current recession may be driving some troubling trends among employees. ('Despite the Downturn, Employees Remain Engaged,' by Jennifer Robison, Gallup Management Journal, January 14, 2010).

Gallup has tracked employee engagement levels for the past decade, and the news hasn't been encouraging for employers. Their recent research shows that only 28% of workers are engaged, while 54% are not engaged and 18% are actively disengaged.

This could spell trouble as managers who weathered the tough economy suddenly find themselves facing the loss of their best workers. The time to take decisive measures to prevent this excessive turnover is now, before it's too late:

  • Ramp up coaching and feedback. Now is the time to increase employee feedback, not decrease it. Most workers feel uncertain in times like these and positive reinforcement helps reassure them that they are valued and that things will get better.
  • Balance the workload. During a recession, remaining employees are left to pick up the slack for terminated or laid-off colleagues. Struggling to get more work done with fewer resources can be demoralizing. Talk to your employees and come up with ways to evenly distribute the department workload. Brainstorm better ways to get things done and to streamline operations.
  • Cross train your team. It's already possible that your employees have had to learn new jobs to replace employees who have left, but without retraining your team, increasing the workload just increases the strain. By taking steps to teach employees new skill sets you expand their capabilities, maintain their interest, and motivate them to take their resumes out of circulation (hopefully). However, even if you do see some turnover as the economy improves, you'll be ready with team members who are trained and ready to step up.

These strategies will do more than just reassure and reengage your people. They could be the very key to long-term employment security. We can surmise that employees will look for better working conditions and career opportunities when the economy starts growing again. But whether they look for (and find) those opportunities within your organization may well depend upon how effectively you manage to re-engage them now. In other words, they'll likely be looking around for new 'pastures' in which more than just the money is green!

Jan Ferri-Reed, Ph.D., is president of KEYGroup, a speaking, training, and assessment firm. She is co-author, with Joanne Sujansky, of Keeping the Millennials: Why Companies are Losing Billions in Turnover to this Generation and What to Do About It., John Wiley Publications). For more information, visit


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