Does “Where Else Are You Going to Get a Job?” Work As a Retention Strategy in Tough Times?

Jeff Kristick Jeff Kristick

I have never actually said that to someone, but I have been on the receiving end.  I experienced the bad years in technology firsthand when I worked for a large CRM software company – not to be named – and during a company meeting, the CEO got up on stage and said we should all be thankful that we still have a job.  He said he was tired of listening to people complain about the economy and the struggling business and that we should just be happy to have a job.  Comments like that sound very similar to what former Senator and McCain advisor Phil Gramm said recently about the economy and the chance of a recession. These are not the types of pep talks people are looking for in tough times, and you can just watch morale drop after a talk like this.

Is the bar really that low to keep your employees motivated and happy in tough times?  I don’t think it is, and companies need to look at how best to manage their talent in tough times.  The reality is that  bonuses are going to suck this year, and Holiday parties were cancelled left and right, but let’s remember that compensation is not the only thing that keeps people happy (and retained).  They want to feel challenged by their work, and they like knowing that they are contributing to the company.  People also want the truth and to know as much as possible – the unknown is very scary.  With the current economic woes, there are lots of low cost morale boosters that organizations can adopt to help keep employees engaged and motivated.

Instead of a company party, organize a company volunteer effort and help out at the local soup kitchen or shelter.  Or give people some time off to volunteer on their own (yeah, I know some people will just go shopping, but it is their choice).  A small gesture can go a long way in tough times.  At the same time, management can’t get wrapped up in the “we have to pay our top performers at all costs” mentality.  A good example of how not to handle bonuses in tough times is what AIG did recently with their deferred compensation.  This is complicated by the government bailout, but still it is a good example of a bad decision.  I especially love this article and the wise comments from Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md:

“I’m just wondering how you feel about an AIG giving $503 million worth of bonuses out of one hand and accepting $154 billion from hardworking taxpayers,” Cummings, getting visibly agitated, asked Kashkari (Neel Kashkari, interim assistant Treasury secretary for financial stability).But it’s not just about AIG, Cummings said. More companies are lined up to get a government handout.

Kashkari explained AIG’s compensation decision. He testified he was told by his staff that the money was going to be released as an incentive to retain certain AIG employees.

“We need them to keep working,” Kashkari said.

To which Cummings responded, “We need them to keep working, but guess what? There are a whole lot of people that could replace them because there are so many people losing their jobs. … I guarantee you there are people who are lined up saying, ‘Please quit so I can get a job!'”

These are very sensitive times, and employees need to be treated with respect.  I don’t want to argue the details of the AIG bonus decision, but we can all agree there are perception and communication problems.  What level of engagement and productivity do you expect in return from the employee who is “just happy to have a job”? There’s no doubt that the job market is tough.  Unemployment claims jumped unexpectedly to a 16-year high and we have all read the recent headlines.  As we work through these difficult times, it is important to remember that business goes on after the layoffs are done, and companies usually find themselves in a situation where they have to do more with less.  They need employees who are motivated and engaged. Telling them to “just be happy they have a job” is not the right way to get that.