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End the Heartache and Disillusionment

October 28, 2003
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"Our employee morale problems will all be solved once the economy turns and we drive better financial performance."

    I recently returned from a two-week road trip, visiting line managers in several different functions, and I must have heard this line or a very similar variant at least five times. Yet when I spoke to the employees who work for these managers, I heard very different stories. They were using language like "I’m just waiting for the economy to get a little better" and "Once the economy and job market improves, I’m out of here."

    It seems we’re all waiting for a recovery, but we all have different ideas about what will happen once it’s here for real.

    When talking to line managers, I said that talent is mobile and good people are infinitely employable, even in down times. One manager retorted that most of his staff were so "spooked" that they wouldn’t dare leave. The recession, burst of the market bubble and subsequent malaise had seemed to create a perverse "loyalty effect"--a false sense of loyalty based not on fondness for one’s employer but on fear of unemployment.

    We’re starting to see signs of recovery. The job boards are listing more higher-paying jobs targeting knowledge workers. Gen-Xers who have long been on the sidelines after being laid off from professional-services and finance jobs are finding new homes. Talented employees across industries--from brand management to operations--are starting to move again.


There is real contempt for business leaders and their companies.


    There’s no doubt that a full return to the days of the intense "talent wars," with knowledge workers taking on a new job every six months, is not in our near future. But the seeds of recovery have been planted, and the balance of power between employee and employer will shift toward the former.

    What’s next is hard to know with certainty. But as I meet knowledge workers, I hear of heartache and disillusionment. The layoffs and downsizing have taken their toll, and it seems that more often than not, employees are looking for a fresh start. There is real contempt for and, in the best cases, apathy toward their business leaders and their companies. Companies have been focused on containing costs, even though extensive research by the big management-consulting firms has shown that investing in people--not managing costs--is what really boosts profits. The grass may not necessarily be greener elsewhere, but the impulse is to see if it is.

    About one out of every six employed knowledge workers is actively looking for a new job. Rest assured that most of these are the top 10 percent of your talent.

    Before the day is out, think about your company’s work teams and business units. Make sure managers know who their best employees are, what their strategy is for retaining them and who’s waiting in the dugout in case a star were to leave. Tomorrow, make sure each manager is ready to pop the question to his or her top employees: "What will it take for you to stay here?"

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