The recession aftermath: Are your employees about to desert you?

Q: My managers are becoming restless – is this common at this stage of a recession or could the problem be specific to my business? A: The patterns of employee behaviour in recession are often predictable and unsettling but survival does not necessarily create stronger bonds. You have to work hard to keep the best people.

It’s easy to assume that positive economic statistics are enough to generate a sense of relief and enthusiasm amongst employees. We spend too little time evaluating how the change from the incessant gloom to recent more positive news will be translated into employee expectations and behaviour, assuming too readily that they will be relieved and motivated by the prospect of recovery and therefore have no reason to jump ship.

In the initial phase of the recession (the descent) people seek security and hunker down in the hope that they can ride out the storm. Key people tend not to move unless they are forced to do so. Avoiding the possibility of jumping from the frying pan into the fire seems to be the adage.

But during this period and the subsequent phase of bumping along the bottom, the weakness and threats to your company become apparent and people begin to think about their future economic welfare. Does the career that I thought was available here still exist? The tensions of the last few months may have revealed some unexpected and maybe undesirable aspects of relationships with colleagues and the boss. This might be the restlessness that you detect.

In the next phase of the recession (the climb out), good people tend to move around. Companies that emerge as healthy survivors want to recruit good staff to exploit their position. Just look at the banks to see how the successful traders are moving from the banks caught in the government support system – and therefore limited in the financial rewards they can offer – to those banks that are not constrained.

Companies that emerge as damaged survivors will continue to be vulnerable for the subsequent two to three years and the people concerned about their economic welfare can now see a potential escape route to alleviate their anxiety.

When people encounter a natural event that threatens their safety their first instinct is to run away to a safe location. If this is impossible, they seek a position of relative safety in their current workplace. When the threat passes, they seemingly retain the instinct to escape and, now movement is possible, they take the earliest opportunity to leave the setting of their anxiety even though doing so no longer reduces a threat.

What does this mean for your company? Good people from damaged firms tend to move to healthy survivors that offer both increased rewards and greater security. The risk is low. Even if the move doesn’t work out, by the time they want to move again the economic climate will be even better and employment prospects brighter.

You must decide whether your business is a healthy survivor or damaged. If you’re in the former group then explain this to your key employees to reassure them that they have a bright future. If you have been damaged by the recession then take time to explain the nature of the damage and the plans you have to overcome the injury. Stress how important the key individuals are to the objectives and the rewards they can expect to receive from their contribution.

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