Expert: Too Many Employees Have ‘Checked Out’

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Aug 11, 2011
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Employees should be viewed by business leaders as a company’s biggest source of competitive advantage, according to Mike Ryan, senior vice president of Madison Performance Group—a firm that specializes in workforce engagement and recognition—because compensation is usually one of the biggest expense items in a company’s budget.

Yet that’s why many companies targeted payroll as a necessary area of cost reduction during the economic downturn, Ryan said during a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) webcast on July 28, 2011. But cutting staff has consequences. Companies that needed to do more with less “let people go in droves,” he said, and these companies expected the employees who were left to pick up the slack.

Such an approach is problematic, he explained, because businesses in a knowledge-based economy are dependent on the capabilities of people. And because organizations are trying to do more with less, some companies have overstretched the employees who kept their jobs, he continued, leaving many feeling like “disposable commodities.”

The result is that, “Emotionally, many employees have already checked out,” he said.

High unemployment exacerbates the problem, according to Ryan, because it prompts employers to feel a false sense of security--that employees, lacking other options, will simply be happy to have a job.

Moreover, many employers believe employees are just as effective and productive as they were before the recession—if not more so. “[Employers] see high levels of productivity from their workers,” he said, “But the willingness [workers have] to put in discretionary effort has declined.”

Such increased demands, which he called the “expanding employee footprint,” rob employees of the time they need to do things they really want to do, Ryan continued, such as innovating, pursuing professional development, obtaining certifications and participating on ad hoc teams. As a result, the job doesn’t mean as much to them anymore because they are no longer getting out of it the things that drive personal satisfaction.

In such a climate, workers tend to do things because they have to, not because they want to, he noted.

And productivity levels might not be as high as employers think they are. A report released in August 2011, by the U.S. Department of Labor revealed that the productivity of U.S. workers dropped in April through June 2011, the second consecutive quarter of decline.

Getting Back on Track

Ryan predicted that the new battle for talent will play out as a retention struggle. “If companies are really interested in keeping [employees], they need to provide the emotional, intellectual and economic returns employees are looking for,” he said.

“All they are getting is a paycheck,” he said, and that’s something that workers can get elsewhere.

When HR professionals in Canada were asked what leaders could do to improve engagement, the 368 respondents to the “Employee Engagement: Who’s Responsible?” study released in March 2011 by Psychometrics Canada said:

  • Listen to employees’ opinions (71 percent).
  • Communicate clear expectations (68 percent).
  • Give recognition and praise (58 percent).
  • Provide learning and development opportunities (57 percent).
  • Help find solutions to problems (39 percent).
  • Defend direct reports (15 percent).

“A paycheck is not enough,” said Mark Fitzsimmons, president of Psychometrics Canada, an assessment consultancy. “To keep staff engaged, organizations need to give them the opportunity to use their skills, to be creative and, most of all, to be listened to. … Many organizations understand this already, but few are taking the necessary steps to address it.”

Psychometrics recommends:

  • Building positive working relationships.
  • Ensuring a good fit between peoples’ skills and their job requirements.
  • Providing regular feedback on performance.
  • Giving employees opportunities to learn skills.
  • Giving employees greater control over their work: Stop micromanaging.
  • Celebrating progress and recognizing employees’ accomplishments.
  • Sharing information: Communicate the direction and strategy of the organization.
  • Giving employees the opportunity to share their ideas.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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