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The Turnover Tsunami: Prepare For The Post-Recession Workforce

Four years ago, generous benefits and opportunities for advancement convinced many employees with advanced degrees to work for hot companies dubbed the best places to work — places like Starbucks, for example.

Four years ago, generous benefits and opportunities for advancement convinced many employees with advanced degrees to work for hot companies dubbed the best places to work — places like Starbucks, for example.

Starbucks built its global brand on a building boom so exuberant that it was lampooned with this 1998 headline in the Onion: “New Starbucks Opens in Rest Room of Existing Starbucks”.

The chain boasted more than 10,000 U.S. cafes, some across the street from each other, when the expansion hit a wall in late 2007. With the coffee chain in the midst of a building binge the worst downturn since the Great Depression hit, hammering Starbucks’ bottom line.

Reuters reported in November that employees interviewed felt Starbucks’ recent efforts to boost quality and standardize tasks have piled on extra work, adding an assembly-line feel to their jobs. On top of that, in 2009 they lost their one personal day per year. The company also took away their ability to earn 40 hours of vacation in their first year and cut the maximum for years two and three in half to 40 hours.

Bottom line: The disappearing perks and the financial fixes have dampened employee enthusiasm. As a result, Starbucks is dangerously close to being ‘just another coffee shop’ with minimal mojo and few benefits.

This disillusionment may be early signs of a culture change that could strike at the heart of what makes a great place to work great. In the Starbucks example, it was that warm, fuzzy feeling stemming from its original commitments to the global community as well as its own healthy, happy staffers who provided service with a smile.

Indeed, Starbucks has survived the economic crash. Shares in Starbucks Corp have nearly tripled which makes Wall Street happy. Sharp cost-cuts, the introduction of corporate efficiency tools like scheduling software, and an increased emphasis on pushing product sales have helped the company return to record profitability.

But for investors and management, the question is whether Starbucks can keep growing if the Starbucks culture unravels.

The Starbucks culture isn’t the only one in danger of unraveling. One thing is for sure — employees everywhere are not happy. The stress of the economic recession has taken a heavy toll, not just on those laid off, but also on the survivors who shoulder the burden of the resulting staffing gaps.

Consider this:

  • Worker satisfaction is at its lowest level since The Conference Board began measuring it in 1987.
  • Four out of every five workers are planning to, or at least contemplating, leaving their current employer, according to a recent survey by human resource consultancy Right Management.
  • In October, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of employees voluntarily quitting their jobs had eclipsed the number terminated through layoffs and other types of discharges.

For the past two years, companies have focused on survival and cut costs and staff. But the recent upswing in voluntary leaves could signal a shift in the job market, requiring companies to focus less on workforce reduction and more on employee retention and engagement.

As the job market improves, all of the pent up turnover that’s been festering in companies since 2008 will start being released. Businesses will face a new, post-recession challenge — a turnover tsunami that could sap them of their talent and wash away any prospect of improved performance.

As challenging as this will be, forward-thinking employers will capitalize on that dislocation to draw talented individuals into their ranks. For them the question won’t just be “how do we keep the best people,” but also “how do we attract them?”

This is easier said than done in a post-recession workforce. Even the companies once renowned for being great places to work–companies like Starbucks—are trying to rebuild their reputations and relationships.

Here are four ways your company can start shaping a more distinctive candidate experience, from how you market employment opportunities to how you measure recruiting success:

  • Articulate a purpose. Purpose-driven branding is about defining your company’s reason for being in terms that transcend mere profit and market share. People will be attracted to a career opportunity that provides greater meaning and purpose in their lives.
  • Market the opportunity. Craft talking points and company overview materials that highlight what is distinctive and different about working at your firm. Create job titles that convey the purpose and importance of a role.
  • Communicate considerately. If there’s one thing candidates yearn for (other than getting the job), it’s timely and relevant feedback. From acknowledging receipt of a resume right through to conveying a hiring decision — be thoughtful and responsive to candidates.
  • Set up listening posts. Gauge success not just with recruiting outcomes, but also with candid, unfiltered feedback from recent candidates. Have an independent party solicit feedback from new hires about the candidate experience.

The next year is likely to bring entirely new workforce challenges, partly due to turnover and partly due to exiting. The recession placed many retirements on hold, which means there is an abundance of people eligible to retire who are still working. The rebounding economy is likely to spur a retirement wave.

Be prepared for what the next year will bring. Stand out from competing employers by shaping your candidate experience as carefully as you would shape that of your customers. Focus on employee retention and engagement to reduce turnover and attract and keep good talent.Do this and you won’t just weather the employee turnover tsunami, you’ll come out stronger for it.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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