Study: Economy Doesn’t Change Workers’ Retention Expectations

By Kathy Gurchiek Nov 6, 2009

The soured economy makes little difference in workers’ priorities and their high expectation of employers, according to a Spherion 2009 Emerging Workforce Study released October 2009.

Yet, only 13 percent of U.S. employers are taking extra steps to retain workers, and 30 percent are doing less than in previous years, according to employees.

It’s “indicative of an interesting trend” that has not changed significantly since 1997 when Spherion began tracking and studying the U.S. workforce’s changing attitudes and its implications for U.S. employers, according to Roy Krause, Spherion Corp. president and CEO.

It could mean that once organizations start hiring again, employers who haven’t focused on retention could see high turnover as workers seek jobs elsewhere at employers that offer them greater workplace satisfaction, he said.

As SHRM Online reported in June 2009, 29 percent of 668,000 employees that Towers Perrin surveyed globally in 2009 are interested in leaving their employer when the economy improves. This could pose a problem for employers if top talent is among that number.

Savvy companies are using the recession to reinforce employee-company bonds and persuade employees to recommit to their organizations, a keynote speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2009 Strategy Conference noted.

“It is imperative,” Spherion’s Krause said, “that HR executives realize that the actions they take during a downturn will impact the bottom line and potential growth of their organization in an upturn.”

Employees and employers were asked to rate their satisfaction with the following as retention drivers at their organizations:

  • Management climate.
  • Supervisor relationship.
  • Culture and work environment.
  • Benefits.
  • Financial compensation.
  • Growth and earnings potential.
  • Time and flexibility.
  • Training and development.

Pay and benefits packages continued to be the most important factors in a worker’s decision to stay or leave, for the third consecutive study. Career growth and earnings potential were major retention factors, according to employees surveyed in February and March 2009.

However, only 24 percent of 2,519 employed U.S. adults surveyed online are “very satisfied” with their growth and earnings potential at their organizations. Only slightly more than one-fourth (27 percent) are very satisfied with their compensation levels.

Work/life balance also is a big deal to workers—94 percent said an organization that offers work/life balance options is more attractive to them, and 86 percent said work/life balance and fulfillment are top career priorities. Employees at organizations where it’s offered are more likely to stay for at least five years and report higher job satisfaction.

Only 25 percent, though, were very satisfied with the work/life balance options their employer offers, and 35 percent are very satisfied with their ability to maintain such a work/life balance.

Just 12 percent of employers think work/life balance and fulfillment are crucial to hiring and retention. Interestingly, a greater percentage of employers say they offer a variety of formal and informal work/life balance programs than the percentage of employees who indicate their organizations offer such programs, according to the 16-page report.

Among employers who offer work/life balance programs, 90 percent said it has improved worker satisfaction and 74 percent said it has improved worker retention.

Spherion found, though, that few employers plan to add work/life balance programs over the next few years.

As in years past, an employer’s view of what drives employee retention doesn’t match up with what employees said, according to Spherion’s findings.

Workers and employers “vehemently disagree on what drives retention,” according to the report.

While workers ranked benefits and financial compensation as the number one and number two most important retention factors, the 306 HR professionals Spherion surveyed online and by phone in February and March 2009 ranked benefits and pay fourth and fifth in importance, respectively, out of eight retention factors.

Most HR professionals thought management climate, the relationship workers have with their supervisor, and company culture and work environment are the driving retention forces. However, except for the workplace culture and environment, fewer than 40 percent of workers are satisfied with what they receive from employers, and fewer than 20 percent are satisfied with their training and growth and earnings opportunities.

Other findings from Spherion:

  • 74 percent of workers say their jobs mean more to them than just making a living.
  • 54 percent of workers do not believe they are paid what they are worth.
  • 53 percent of employers say workforce planning for skills and talent are major initiatives.
  • 40 percent of employers are very satisfied with the quality of their full-time workforce.
  • 11 percent of workers voluntarily changed jobs in the past year.

What Employers Can Do

Holding supervisors accountable for achieving retention goals, providing benefits that are unique to an organization, and conducting ‘stay interviews’ are among the tips suggested by the authors of Rethinking Retention in Good Times and Bad: Breakthrough Ideas for Keeping Your Best Workers, (SHRM/Davies-Black, 2009).

Unique benefits. Las Vegas taxi companies offer cabbies and their families the opportunity to see new shows, stay in new hotels and sometimes receive box lunches from new restaurants. It’s a win-win benefit, as drivers are more likely to recommend visitors to the tourist destinations involved and drivers receive a family-friendly benefit they otherwise might not be able to afford, the authors point out.

The New York City Department of Education provides a housing stipend to experienced teachers who move to the area, and PetCo employees are allowed to bring their pets to work every day.

Holding supervisors accountablefor retention. This can be accomplished through one-on-one coaching sessions, making employee retention a promotion requirement, and removing supervisors who drive away good workers, according to the authors.

Supervisors can be trained to conduct ‘stay interviews.’ This is the flipside of exit interviews, conducted by supervisors to “gather data from employees who are still contributing to the company’s bottom line,” the authors note.

Employee alignment with the organization’s mission also plays a part in retention, according to Spherion’s report.

For example, workers at an organization with a clear mission and follow-through have a 39 percent satisfaction level toward their growth and earnings potential vs. a 7 percent satisfaction level among workers at organizations that do not.

“A company’s reputation is clearly important in the minds of both [job] candidates and employees,” Krause said, “and that’s why the most innovative companies are actively managing their reputation both externally and with their own employees.”

Organizations that don’t manage their mission, reputation and message are apt to suffer a serious backlash from their constituents, hurting them in the marketplace as well as in their workforce, according to Krause.

“The difference in satisfaction and likelihood of [employee] referrals for companies that clearly state their mission and then consistently follow-through with their stated mission,” he said, “shows that workers are looking and watching everything that companies say and do through all channels.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

Related Resources:

Employee Surveys Help Measure Engagement, HR News, Oct. 1, 2009

Retention's Business Case for Banking Industry Training, Study Shows, SHRM Organizational and Employee Development Discipline, Sept. 8, 2009

Employee Engagement, Creativity Can Drive Retention, Staffing Management, Sept. 9, 2008

Related Resource:

Employee Retention Strategies for Small Organizations, Feb. 1, 2008, SHRM Research Paper


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