This week's Economist has a story called Hating What You Do, which presents a rather discouraging but well-documented argument that, since the downturn began, a lot more people are a lot more unhappy with their jobs. For example, to quote the story, "A survey by the Centre for Work-Life Policy, an American consultancy, found that between June 2007 and December 2008 the proportion of employees who professed loyalty to their employers slumped from 95% to 39%; the number voicing trust in them fell from 79% to 22%." Ouch.
Certainly, some of this unhappiness is due to the fear, bad news, pay cuts, loss of benefits, objective loss of job security, job overload (an effect of layoffs on survivors), and other bad experiences provoked by these hard times. But there is huge variation in how well or badly different organizations have treated their people during the past couple years. The Economist article refers indirectly to my HBR article on being a Good Boss in a Bad Economy (see the McKinsey interview for free). If you recall from my prior posts, my basic argument was that there is a big difference between what organizations and bosses must do to survive during tough times and how they do it -- and the keys to doing dirty work (like pay cuts and layoffs) well include providing people as much prediction, understanding, control, and compassion as possible in the process.
Well, now that we seem to be seeing early signs that, within a year or perhaps less, many companies will be hiring again (in fact, I notice that Google is back to hiring already, and they did some layoffs earlier in the year), your chickens will be coming home to roost soon. If you are a boss or organization that has treated your people well despite the challenges, the return of the so-called "war for talent" will be great for you because your best people won't run for the door when the job market starts heating-up again and you will have an easy time recruiting great people because, after all, the good word spreads.
But if you have treated people like dirt during the tough times (for a horror story, see here), have been inept about how you have implemented tough decisions (see here) or have simply been clueless about your people's perspective during these tough times (see here), you may have been able to keep great people working for you during these tough times and to hire some of the best. You can be sure, however, that they have told their friends about how much your company or you suck. They are waiting for things to get better, and perhaps encouraged by the signs the labor market is coming back, are probably doing their jobs extra well these days to enhance their reputation for that coming job search. So you may be fooling yourself into believing all is well when it is not.
In my view, if you have been nasty, inept, or greedy about how you've treated people during the downturn, you will deserve everything you get when, as things start getting better, your best people start leaving in droves and the best candidates not only turn down your job offers, they don't even bother to apply because your reputation stinks. Looking at it from your perspective, however, you've might have just enough time to salvage your reputation if you begin reversing your vile ways right now. And, if you've treated your people well during these tough times, cranking up the respect, attention, and -- if you can afford it (I know it is tough) -- your pay and benefits right now just a bit could pay huge dividends down the road.