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Are Employers Missing the All-for-One, One-for-All Moment?

February 10, 2009
The recession is bringing out the Three Musketeers in us. In contrast to the it’s-all-about-me culture prominent earlier this decade, an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality is on the rise as Americans see friends, loved ones and sometimes themselves become casualties of the downturn. But it’s not clear employers are seizing on this trend to the benefit of their workers and their own bottom line. Evidence of the collectivist shift can be seen in the popular rage over excesses by prominent individuals. Consider John Thain’s luxury wastebasket or Tom Daschle’s combination of unpaid taxes and chauffeured ride. Part of what boils people’s blood about these guys is that they seemed to take the public for a ride. Thain, Merrill Lynch’s former CEO, benefited from a taxpayer bailout. Daschle converted his years of service as a U.S. senator into a lucrative career of consulting while failing to pay his fair share to Uncle Sam. Anger about executive compensation in recent years has a similar root: Why, when so many are pitching in, should the top dog get so much of the payoff? In fact, incentive programs on Wall Street that doled out huge rewards for individual performance seem to have contributed to shortsighted, reckless behavior that helped trigger the financial collapse and ensuing downturn. Barack Obama’s election in November amounted to a vote for a more mutual response to our troubles. His rival John McCain struck populist themes at times, but was tied to the Republican Party past of trying to solve problems largely through the individual pursuit of wealth in free markets. A shift toward a social sensibility among Americans has been under way for some time. A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found signs of growing public concern about income inequality and a pattern of rising support since the mid-1990s for government action to help disadvantaged Americans. The recession seems to have intensified feelings of being part of a team--and this extends to the workplace. Workforce Management blogger Ann Bares recently called my attention to a study by Towers Perrin along these lines. The survey of 469 employees found a growing sense of “shared destiny” with employers, with 76 percent of respondents in the December survey saying they were personally motivated to help their company succeed, up from 69 percent four months earlier. A similar attitude showed up when employees were asked to name factors most important to their work experience. Working for a successful organization with a strong future made the list of top five factors for the first time, Towers Perrin found, while maximizing earnings fell from the top-five list. But, as Bares asked, are companies paying attention? Are they taking steps to capitalize on this more communal mind-set? It seems to me firms might do things like move away from merit-pay plans that heap rewards on stars to the exclusion of more average performers. They might freeze salaries, including executive pay, or cut compensation across the board to avoid demoralizing job cuts. “Morale might actually improve through a collective effort to save jobs,” management scholar Peter Cappelli wrote last month. But, he said, very few companies are taking steps like cutting hours or pay to stave off layoffs. Numbers back up that observation. The drop in U.S. payroll employment accelerated last month, with nearly 600,000 jobs lost in January. Yet average weekly earnings of production and non-supervisory workers rose, on a seasonally adjusted basis, in both January and December. Are firms missing this Three Musketeers moment? I’d welcome any feedback or examples. You can leave a comment here or e-mail me at efrauenheim@workforce.com.