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Job-hunting Professionals Are Looking for Respect

June 1, 1998
Related Topics: Retention, Featured Article
David Mitchell, a middle manager at an East Coast telecommunications firm, talks the spit-mad talk of a scorned lover when he speaks of his company. With machine-gun frequency, out shoot words like "betrayed," "used" and "disrespected."

Lucky man. Just when Mitchell felt like he couldn't take anymore, like he had to get out of this failed relationship, along came a honey of a job market—4.3 percent unemployment at press time. After 12 years, he's looking to get out, and it's going to be very easy.

And very satisfying. Revenge is sweet, you know.

That's right, all you downsizers and 'reengineer-rs,' all you executives who talked about the pain of laying off workers on the way to the golf course. All you employers who stretched and stretched the workweeks, who put careers on the backburner, and brushed families to the side. All you companies who treated employees poorly—just because you knew they had nowhere else to go. You had it good for most of the '90s. No more. It's payback time—and you know what they say about paybacks.

Even if your company really did its best, you're in for a tough time. The anti-employer sentiment runs deep. It's a job hunter's market, and employees are looking (even the ones you think aren't). Smart HR people will take the time to find out just why they're leaving (because they CAN), what they're looking for (R-E-S-P-E-C-T) and how to hold on to the ones you've got.

Workforce talked to job-hunters (whose names have been changed within this article), and along with E-span, an online job-posting service, conducted a survey of professional and managerial employees to give HR people the information they need for hiring—and retaining—this much-coveted group.

Wake-up call: Do you know where your managers are?
For the past five years, Mitchell would begin the workweek in a sweat and get worse from there. The firings came on Fridays, so as the 14-hour workdays ticked down, the stress built up. Once Friday was over and his job was still intact, he'd take a deep breath, then start the cycle again. He considered himself fortunate—he was a rare bird, a middle manager with a job. But with the market as it is now, he's had time to lick his wounds—and build his resentment.

"This upswing in the economy is a blessing," he says. "I'm getting out."

Adam King, a supervisor at a Mid-west manufacturer, also speaks of Friday firings and the loss of co-workers, of years "waiting for the ax to fall." Like Mitchell, he sees his imminent resignation as just desserts for a company that "did a really poor job of [reengineering]. There was no communication. The executives didn't share their grand plan with anyone below the director level ... I feel like, hey it's my turn to make you guys sweat it. I'm holding the cards, and it feels really good."

In Kansas City, Missouri, Barry Jackson, workforce planning and staffing director for Hallmark Cards Inc., says he hears this refrain repeatedly from managerial employees proffering their resumes. They're coming to Hallmark, he says, because the card company offers a balm for employees who feel they've been burned by their employers.

"They're looking for an organization that will be committed to them, and Hallmark has that image," he says. "We're seeing more people looking at us because they're tired of the vagaries of what Wall Street does to the public sector, or what their public company has done to them in the way of downsizing. Our private ownership allows us to be more long-term focused; we're not driven by the stock market or by quarterly earnings reports."

But it's not just employees hit (or missed) by a downsizing who are bitter. Many others feel they've been poorly treated, whether by career stagnation, lackluster management or a generally unhealthy corporate culture.

And the very scary part is, you probably won't be able to pick out the ones harboring resentments. Most of the job searchers Workforce spoke with said they'd kept dissatisfactions to themselves because they felt their superiors or HR didn't really care—and didn't need to care—with the job market as tight as it was for most of the '90s.

They complained that the only time their superiors asked them if they had problems or concerns was during the shaky ground of a performance review, when, conventional wisdom goes, the smart employee nods and smiles and waits to hear whether there's going to be a raise.

That is, if they got a performance review—another chief complaint. What to executives is a six-month delay to an employee is a half-year insult. Anne Flaherty, a sales director for a Minnesota computer products company, is looking for a job that will give her more customer contact. Asked if she had ever told her supervisors this, Flaherty replied, "They've never asked. They give performance reviews when they feel like it. They don't care enough to do it on time. And it's not just about the money. It's the one time a year when you have one hour of your boss's complete attention. I waited eight months for my last one. It's not just bad business, it's rude and thoughtless. I don't care if you're busy—to me it signals you don't give a damn."

It's not that employees are expecting a corporate Nirvana to come floating their way—few wear those kind of rose-colored glasses anymore—but many think they can do better.

In fact in the Workforce/E-span survey, of 114 professional-level employees who planned to change jobs in the next 12 months, 85 percent said the culture and values of the organization would influence their decision.

As Mitchell, who's willing to move and take a pay cut for the right position, explains: "Right now I just want control over my life. Sane hours and a company that respects me."

The most important of your company's offerings may be simple respect.
It's not a better paycheck most job searchers want (OK, it's not JUST a better paycheck—89 percent of 115 job-hunters surveyed said salary would play a role in their search).

But just as important, employees want to believe their company really cares about them. That can take form in a number of ways, but it generally boils down to career development, adult treatment and appreciation for a job well done.

Tracy Bumpus, a job-search coach for First Impressions in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, says most of her clients—and she has many these days—are already employed but seriously looking. "People who've been working jobs for paychecks are now seeing an opportunity to work for a company they love."

Kevin Daniels, a marketing manager in Memphis, is looking for a company that will give him room to grow—unlike his current employer. Despite five years of gushing reviews and satisfactory raises, he feels like he's been stagnating. The problem: The company's outdated seniority system. Promotions aren't based on merit, Daniels says, but on the number of years an employee has punched in. He worries that he could languish another decade in the same job, with the same skills, before someone leaves and opens a position.

"I'm looking for a company that takes its people seriously," he says. "I'm interviewing with a company right now for a position at my current level and same pay. But this company has its own corporate school, and they pay for university work. They really seem to want their employees to do well. Which, of course, makes sense."

Indeed, of the surveyed job-hunters who plan to jump ship in the next year, 94 percent said job responsibilities would be "very" to "extremely" influential in their decision.

In that line, corporate training is one thing Gary Beu, partner in charge of HR for the Chicago office of Arthur Andersen LLP, has long emphasized to candidates. He says that most recruits mention Andersen's reputation for commitment to continuing education, opportunities to advance and its wide range of client services that helps employees develop new skills. "Those are the qualities that have always attracted top people to us," he says.

Bumpus agrees that job searchers want an organization where they can grow. "Lots of my clients have been stuck at companies not offering any employee development. That's the difference between leaving and staying for most of them."

Erni Bridges, technical recruiter at Data Systems Analyst Inc. in Fairfax, Virginia, says she also hears job hunters talk of the desire for a place to stay and grow—and, in the white-hot market of information technology, she needs as many as she can get. So she sells the entrepreneurial spirit of DSA, and the length of service, which averages twelve and one-half years.

And she gives them a healthy dose of the R word. "People want to associate themselves with companies that are really doing it, not just lip synching it: respecting individuals." She starts "doing it" right from the get-go. When she meets a promising professional at one of the 12-plus job fairs she attends a year, she immediately faxes his or her resume to managers back at base—and lines up interviews right on the spot. A quick response shows DSA is serious—and respects the job hunter's time.

For other professionals, respect falls more into the quality-of-life category. Surprisingly, this seems to have less to do with work-family goodies like daycare and more to do with basic work-life respect, such as flexible scheduling. (In fact, only 9% of those surveyed said child-care considerations would affect their decision to stay or leave their companies.)

Alice Dawson, a Dallas business consultant, is looking for an organization that will give her exactly what her former company refused her four years ago: some control over her time. When Dawson had twins in 1994, she realized full-time work and full-time mommying weren't feasible, so she asked to cut back her hours. "If they'd shown even the slightest interest in my situation—even letting me [use flextime] or take one day a week off, I'd have stayed, because we really needed that second paycheck."

Instead, Dawson started her own consulting business to bring in extra money. But with the twins ready to start school this year, she wants to get back in a company fold. "But I won't go to a company that doesn't have a really amazing work-family structure, that realizes employees are living people with lives outside work."

That's a quality Jan Bremner, deputy director of HR at Illinois State University in Normal, can brag on. Being an educational institution, Bremner says, ISU puts a lot of emphasis on flexibility and family. In fact, the school has done so well in attracting people, it's never had to really sell itself. "We've always had good work-life benefits, but we never really called them that," she laughs. "But people in the community hear about them and know this is a good place to work: flexible schedules, and the whole environment is pretty laid back."

That's not something Ed Simon would ever say about his Boston employer. Simon, an account manager, says he's tired of being treated like a college kid, with his superiors marking the time he comes in, the time he leaves, even how long his lunches are.

"The culture is ridiculous. It's like all the employees are pitted against each other. You feel like if you take a long lunch you have to explain to everyone that you'll stay an hour later—when it's really nobody's business as long as you're doing your job. I'm sick of coming into work already defensive. . .I want to work with grown-ups."

How do you hold on to the employees you've got?
You know why they're leaving, you know what they're looking for. . .can you keep them? The answer is. . .maybe. You're in for a bumpy ride if you're in the technology business (but you probably already know that). With salaries expanding exponentially, companies may just have to do what Janet Leavey, an East Coast computer engineer suggests: "Show me the money! Whatever company gives me the best bid, that's where I'm going." Leavey says there's a realization among tekkies that these are the last of the good old days—in just a few years, college grads will flood the market with the very skills now in such short supply. "I figure I'd better lock in while the going's good," she says.

Of course, money is an issue with most professionals. But that doesn't mean you have to keep upping the paychecks. It goes back to respect—employees want to feel fairly treated.

At Inland Star Distribution Centers in Fresno, California, an ESOP does just that. Eighty-two percent of the company is owned by employees. Kerry Haverty, director of human resources, says that's just the key to getting people to stick with the transportation firm: She doesn't know of any other companies in Inland's particular industry that offer ownership. The other catch, of course, is that employees aren't fully vested until they've been there six years. "I think that helps keep people here," she says.

Seventy-five percent of job-hunters surveyed agreed—they said long-term rewards such as stock ownership would influence their decision to stay at a current job.

But in the end, keeping employees often means giving them what they came to the company for in the first place. At Andersen, that's development, development, development. Of course, a company can't be all things to all people. Beu knows, through exit interviews, that some people grow weary of the stress, long hours and frequent travel Andersen's career path requires.

And occasionally, that careful training and development makes employees so desirable they get raided by other companies—or even Andersen's own clients. But Beu and the other executives accept this as an inevitability. "We often soothe our frustrations over losing people by recognizing it as a tribute to our ability to attract outstanding talent and shape it further. We're the victims of our own success in that regard," Beu laughs.

Hallmark is another promise-keeper. It promises a family atmosphere and a concerned management team, and it delivers, Jackson says.

Most companies today say employees are their greatest assets. My question then is, why do they treat them like liabilities?

Employees really are part of the fold—owning one-fourth of the company has that affect. And, through flexible hours and the like, they really do have more time for themselves.

Of course, the other side to that coin, Jackson admits, is that Hallmark doesn't have the highest compensation package in the market—but the high payers, he points out, are also more demanding of time. "We don't ask for your soul when you show up at this place," he says. "That's not what we're about."

Finally, the company really does take an interest in development: Approximately 90 percent of management positions are filled internally. It all pays off. The average employee tenure is just over 14 years. Even employees who quit may not be gone for long: 16 percent of those who left in '96 came back. The reason they cited for their return? They missed Hallmark's people and culture (a culture that won the company the 1996 Quality of Life Optimas Award from Workforce).

Maybe the current job-switching trend all boils down to a favorite saying of Jackson's: "Most companies today say employees are their greatest assets. My question then is, why do they treat them like they're liabilities?"

If they do, they'd better stop. Right now. Just like any relationship you want to thrive, HR professionals need to take good care of their workforces. Limit downsizings, or at least make them respectful. Ensure career growth, or at least show interest. Work with employees to give them the schedules they want, or at least the schedules they need. Treat employees right. Of all the tricky, complicated tasks HR professionals must perform, this should be one of the easiest—and most pleasurable.

Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 46-52.

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