A Bad Place to Be: In Denial About What Workers Want

Employers are burying their heads in the sand on job security and work stress—at their own peril.

Ignorance is one thing. Willfully turning a blind eye to what employees care about these days is another. That’s called denial. And many companies are in it—at their own peril.

In a recent study, consulting firm Towers Watson found that companies don’t realize how much workers want employment stability. Employees in the U.S. most frequently cited job security as the reason why they would join an organization.

This was true for employees overall and high-potential performers. When U.S. employers were asked why employees overall and high-potential workers would join a company, job security didn’t even rank among their top five most frequent responses.

That disconnect would be understandable—except that these findings are nearly identical to those from 2009. Watson Wyatt Worldwide (one of the firms that merged to form Towers Watson) reported that job security was a top priority for employees but failed to make it onto employers’ radar screens.

Even if company officials polled by Towers Watson this year missed that earlier study, it’s hard to fathom how they could miss the significance of job security by a mile. Everything about our current economy—the plight of those laid off, the difficulties of young adults in finding a job, the travails of homeowners facing foreclosure—screams that people are seeking a degree of financial stability.

It’s a similar story on workplace stress. Towers Watson’s report shows companies don’t have much of a clue about the importance of job-related anxiety. “Work-related stress” was the reason U.S. employees overall and U.S. top-performers most frequently cited for why they would leave their organization.

When employers were asked about reasons high performers would jump ship, stress didn’t rank among their top-five most common responses. Employers did rank “work-related stress” fifth for why employees overall would leave.

The issue of what some call worker fatigue (and what my colleague Rita Pyrillis and I call the “work-more economy”) was not as prominent a few years ago. But very visible signs have been available to employers for a while. Among them are the harrowing stories of air-traffic controllers falling asleep at the switch.

Why are employers burying their heads in the sand on job security and stress? It may be that companies feel powerless to do much about either. They can’t guarantee absolute job security in an uncertain economy and may feel compelled to demand more and more of their workforce to stay afloat.

But there are steps companies can take to bolster employees’ sense of stability and ease their stress—such as provide additional training and give promotions to workers whose responsibilities have increased.

In any event, deliberate ignorance won’t help anyone. And it can hurt companies when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent, improving productivity and maintaining their good name.

Reputations are at stake because in this era of interactivity, overworked employees are expressing themselves online. Consider this comment about an engineering company visible to all at feedback site Glassdoor.com: “Project managers are overworked by the principals and have no time to mentor and steer young staff people in the right direction who, in turn, are overworked. To top it off, pay is miniscule. Overall, the place is a plantation.”

My guess is, no company wants to be labeled as a plantation. Even if you can’t give workers everything they want, stop ignoring their desires. In denial is a bad place to be.


On a related note, I’ll be speaking Tuesday, Nov. 1, on a panel devoted to employee engagement. The event, sponsored by advisory firms FTI Consulting and Plante & Moran, will feature Skip Schipper, global head of HR at Groupon, Margaret Cohen, global head of corporate communications at investment firm Morningstar, Chris Montague, managing partner at Plante & Moran, and Paul Schmidt, managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. Sheila Kindig, managing director at FTI Consulting, will moderate the discussion. The event runs from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. CT and will be streamed online. All are welcome to attend.