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Fruit Salad and the Weather in New England

By Richard Kern, Editorial Director, ESM

A recent Mercer study conducted between the fourth quarter of 2010 and the second quarter of 2011 involving nearly 30,000 employees in 17 geographic markets reveals that the percentage of workers seriously considering leaving their organization has increased since the last time the survey was conducted.

Hardly surprising, given the prevailing sentiment among a lot of companies that employees should consider themselves lucky to even have a job and benefits – although you’d never get an employer to go on record saying so. Also, the last time employees were surveyed on this issue was prior to the current economic downturn, and loyalty has certainly eroded because of this and other factors affecting the employer/employee contract.

But it’s nonetheless a disturbing trend, particularly in light of all the evidence supporting the connection between people, performance and profitability – how happy, healthy and engaged employees can positively impact an organization’s bottom line.

“The overall employment deal is in a state of flux around the world, with employees rethinking what they want out of the employment relationship,” says Pete Foley, PhD, a Principal and North American Employee Research Leader at Mercer. “Our research shows that, despite the ongoing economic uncertainty, more employees would consider leaving today for a better opportunity.”

Sounds pretty grim, right? All that work we’ve been doing to energize, invigorate and engage employees isn’t producing more loyal workers. If anything, they’ve got one foot out the door, even though the likelihood of finding another job is slimmer than it’s been in years.

Not a good trend. But like they say about the weather in New England: “If you don’t like it, just wait a few minutes.”

Where’s The Disconnect?

Another survey by human capital consulting firm Randstad, released within days of the Mercer study, finds that a majority of U.S. employees are highly engaged and happy in their jobs. That’s right. According to the latest Randstad Employee Attachment Index, 78% of respondents report feeling inspired to do their best at work; 76% are proud to work for their companies; and 66% enjoy going to work every day. Likewise, researchers found that employee volatility is down, with 60% reporting they would not give consideration to or accept a new job offer in the next six months.

Where’s the disconnect? How can two studies talk to essentially the same people and come up with results that seem so diametrically opposed? The explanation, as in a lot of cases, is in the fine print – and even between the lines.

Randstad researchers note that “attachment is achieved by combining engagement and retention strategies to create a stronger bond with employees.” So when questions and responses contain words like “inspired” and “proud” and “enjoy,” it may sound like engagement, but is it really? And let’s not forget that even though 60% said they wouldn’t accept a new job offer in the next six months, what’s the likelihood that this situation is going to come up given the current economic environment? And this leaves another 40% who supposedly would jump ship if the opportunity presented itself. Even the researchers at Randstad note that “almost a third (29%) of the most highly engaged employees are likely to seriously consider a new job within the next six months, [and] nearly 20% more of these most engaged workers would accept a job if offered in the next six months.”

Highly engaged and happy? Maybe.

The Real Question

The most important point here has to do with interpretation. In a lot of cases it comes down to what you ask, how you ask – even what you don’t ask. Something to keep in mind the next time you’re designing or tabulating an engagement survey.

For example, in the Mercer study it turns out that the rise in the number of workers seriously considering leaving their organization (the so-called “decline in loyalty”) amounts to an increase of just nine percentage points over five years – from 23% in 2005 to 32% in 2010. Frankly, given the huge changes in the world economy and job market that have occurred in that span, it’s amazing that the increase is that small. In light of major cuts in benefits and bargaining power and rising costs of health care and commuting over the past five years, is it any wonder that more people would at least be thinking about leaving for another job?

But what about the 66% of respondents in the Randstad survey who say they “enjoy going to work every day” and the 76% who say they’re “proud to work for their companies”? How does that fit with Mercer’s declining loyalty data?

Looking at both sets of numbers, we see that they’re really not at odds. Pride and loyalty aren’t necessarily the same thing. In other words, you may say you enjoy going to work every day and you’re proud of what you do, but is it because you love your job and would never leave, or because the unemployment rate in 2005 was about half what it was in 2010 and that prospect scares you to death?

Similarly, just because you’re “attached” doesn’t mean you can’t dream of something better – even if the likelihood of that happening in this day and age is pretty slim. In this case, as in others, applying the same timeframe to both sets of data provides added insight. 

So let’s make sure we challenge our assumptions, question the numbers and apply the proper contextual information. Then we can more easily determine what’s an apple, what’s an orange and what’s fruit salad.

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November/December 2011

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