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Virtual Turnover

"One good thing about the recession," a prospective client's president told me recently, "is that our employee turnover is down." He went on to theorize that daily news reports of company bankruptcies and massive layoffs have workers feeling too skittish to change jobs right now. He's not the first leader to express the belief that employees "have nowhere else to go." Nor is he the first to hold the false impression that, because they are not physically leaving, workers have not mentally resigned.

This assumption has serious implications for organizations. Unhappy workers who choose to ride out the economic downturn in a job they loathe are likely to feel trapped. Consequently, they'll look for ways to preserve some self-esteem. So rather than go elsewhere -- and risk losing any job security they might have -- discontented employees react by holding back actions that benefit their organizations.

Disgruntled employees behave by withholding what experts call organizational citizenship behavior. That is, they deny assistance to coworkers, complain about petty problems, act uncivilly to fellow employees, and criticize the organization in public. Such conduct is damaging to the company, but rarely punishable; therefore, employees consider the behavior a safe way to avenge an undesirable work environment. Consequently, although they haven't actually left the premises, those workers have virtually resigned.

The good news is that their hesitancy to jump ship gives you an opportunity to identify your unhappy workers before they unexpectedly quit. Then, why not "rehire" your frustrated employees before they get away. Suppose you meet with them and ask the typical recruitment questions: Why do you want to work here? What are your interests and goals? Where do you see yourself in five years? What do you think are your strengths? Imagine if, like a good recruiter, you take time to show them how they can realize their ambitions, hopes, and desires right where they're at? In the process, you'll likely find out what's causing their unhappiness.

It seems hard to imagine today, but workforce analysts predict that an aging Baby Boomer generation will result in a severe labor shortage in the coming years. When that happens, you'll need all the workers you can get. If you're clinging to the notion that your workers have nowhere else to go, you might look around one day and wonder where they all went.
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