During my second interview for the job I currently have, my precariously scheduled afternoon fell apart. My phone began buzzing insistently, notifying me that arrangements I had made to have a friend pick up my niece from a drop-off point had not panned out. The interview felt like it was going well, and I was desperate to finish it the same way before turning my attention to the minor emergency demanding my attention. Another call came through, and I felt my shoulders slump as I realized that I could not ignore what was happening.
I opened my mouth to start apologizing, already feeling defeated. But my would-be boss could already tell that something was suddenly worrying me on my end. I barely offered a sentence of explanation before he said, “This is a family-first company. Please go take care of your niece, and don’t give it a second thought. You can expect to hear from us soon, either way.” I was relieved and dismayed because I would be able to scoop up my niece before the situation deteriorated further – but I felt that I had just tanked my shot at a job that I wanted very badly.
It seemed unlikely to me that a company could be so “family-first” as to allow such latitude before anyone even knew me. When I received a job offer a few days later, I was delighted and astonished: I hadn’t submarined my chances by having to leave the interview prematurely – in fact, the permission I had been given to do so was borne out by the job offer. It is rare to have the chance to see such empathy and consistency from a new employer – how they acted squared perfectly with what they said, and that felt like a tremendously positive sign.
I have since had time to think about what it means to work at a company that self-regards as “family-first” and what the overall results are when the needs and comfort of employees are prioritized above virtually everything else. In the intervening months, I have spent most days reveling in the rare beauty and exhilaration of working for a company that values and nurtures its people. My epic good fortune has recently come into even sharper relief, given the ongoing mass exodus from the workforce – a phenomenon that many are calling the Great Resignation.
First, I consider the phenomenon itself – what it looks like, what’s driving it, and what it might mean for employees and, more specifically, for employers. The situation may seem dire, but I argue that any company can arm itself against the profound threat of high turnover by cultivating an empowering and growth-oriented company culture. This is no mean feat, but I know that it’s doable because I’m living it. I’ll conclude by describing what this can look like.
It’s an Employee’s Market After All
Twenty-four million Americans quit their jobs between April and September of 2021, a whopping 2.9 percent of the workforce. And the Great Resignation continues on, with many predicting another wave of job departures to occur in January. The multitude of surveys conducted to determine why so many employees are voluntarily resigning their positions have identified some broad explanatory factors: disengagement and burnout; insufficient compensation and benefits; strained and stressful relationships with managers; inflexible work arrangements; and an absence of opportunities for growth within a company. Accounts suggesting that COVID-19, health concerns, and spotty childcare seem to be conflating context with causes. It makes more sense to me to conceive of the aforementioned factors, which have certainly been exacerbated by the pandemic and its attending conditions, as the primary drivers of voluntary resignations and the pandemic as a sort of contextual spark that turned an inclination into a widespread phenomenon.
As the full scope of the pandemic dawned, millions of workers were sent home or laid off – in April 2020, our unemployment rate spiked to 14.8 percent, leaving employers empowered by the scarcity of available jobs. The federal government passed the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act of 2020, as well as the Coronavirus Response and Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, affording direct and immediate economic relief to American workers (as well as many small businesses). This made it possible for people to sustain themselves as they waited for the economy to bounce back.
Given the time and resources necessary to make it through the shortfalls produced by the pandemic, American workers started asking themselves tough, existential questions about their professional lives. Many started wondering why they had stuck with their jobs for so long; for those with jobs they did not regard as careers, this had seismic consequences. For example, the chance to spend more time with family and children prompted reexamination of the kinds of sacrifices they were making – and whether they still felt inclined to make them.
As businesses began to reopen at the end of 2020, putting jobs back on the table, many employees simply did not return to work as initially planned. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 10.9 million unfilled job openings in the U.S. – the highest on record since December 2000, when they began tracking this statistic. The employer’s market of 2020 has transformed into its opposite number – it is now, very notably, an employee’s market.
Who’s Afraid of Employee Turnover?
Many employers are justifiably worried about how this phenomenon will affect their businesses in terms of turnover; according to one study, 73 percent of CEOs identified the labor/skills shortage as the likeliest issue to hurt their bottom line in 2022. As of 2019, voluntary turnover was costing U.S. businesses one trillion dollars annually. The cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary — and that’s a conservative estimate.
Those numbers feel potentially cataclysmic, given the turnover trend. How worried should business leaders be? What do employees really want? Is there a ready solution that can be implemented?
In fact, there is: in the broadest terms, you must engage and empower your people.
This is much simpler than you might expect, but putting it into action demands commitment and passion – half measures won’t do the trick here.
In a recent NPR segment, Lazslo Bock, who left his position as a human resources executive at Google to found his own HR consulting firm, notes that the recent power shift toward workers should prompt employers to rethink the way they treat their employees. According to Bock, their most urgent task should be obvious: “Make humans actually feel like human beings.”
This squares with the results of recent HR research conducted by Gartner: “Employees no longer want the traditional employment value proposition, instead they want a more human deal with their employers where they are recognized as people, not just workers.”
Bock further advises managers to “prioritize the emotional support that a leader can provide” over “the bureaucratic elements of management.” The number one priority should be “providing an environment that is meaningful and empowering, where people feel trusted and included.”
I agree, but where do such purpose and meaning reside? What resources are on tap to empower and motivate workers to greatness?
Recently, I heard a suggestion that mission-based, social justice-oriented companies might have better luck hanging on to their employees, because such work has a sense of meaning built into it. But I think the opportunity for meaning and a sense of purpose is available more widely than we realize. When employees feel personally valued for their contributions as individuals, they can experience a sense of purpose, and feel empowered by the meaning they attach to their work.
MORE FOR YOU
MORE FOR YOU
Nice Work If You Can Get It: Growth-Oriented Empowerment Culture for the New Normal
A growth mindset is a great foundation for company culture, but it can only set the stage for a company to empower and boost employee potential. Consistency and follow-through are key to making this work in the long term. Employees at companies characterized by a growth mindset enjoy the following advantages: they are happier and more motivated; they collaborate more effectively and enjoy heightened camaraderie with their colleagues; they are driven to learn; and they are less fearful of risks and failure. Fleshed out, this sounds like a viable recipe for a culture of empowerment.
Here’s what that looks like, based on my own experience:
- Authentic and productive communication is privileged and celebrated. People listen to each other and ask for each other’s opinions. Learning how someone else does something feels compelling and enjoyable. Sharing skillsets so that everyone has an overlapping set of tools helps to craft a culture that epitomizes, reflects, and dynamically propels the best qualities of everyone at a company. People happily collaborate across functions and make each other better at new and native tasks. No one is embarrassed to ask for guidance; we can all cheer on any work product and root for the most effective way to achieve something because credit given for good work is not a finite resource. Humor is at a premium, and to date, I haven’t seen a single act of meanness, or even pettiness. That’s not even fun, and we are passionate about amusing each other. Every communication, meeting, message among my colleagues is, at worst, compelling, and at best, straight-up hilarious.
- Innovation is a fluid and constant pursuit, and can originate anywhere. Ideas are considered potentially valid and weighty regardless of who offers them. Great ideas can come from anyone, no matter where they sit in the organization or how long they’ve been there. Innovation can look like a gorgeously productive new document template or a revamped quality control process. Meaningful innovation isn’t imposed from above, but rather infused throughout the workspace; it is ongoing, refining enhancements, and polishing improvements. What is great can always be superb – a superlative is always possible. In a similar vein, achievement can come via more than one path. There isn’t only one way to make a sale or communicate with a client, and when people experience success using a particular strategy, it is shared with everyone.
- Individuals have ownership over what it means to be effective and productive at their job. This translates into considerable flexibility and autonomy over the specific route we each take to succeed. For example, considerable effort has gone toward identifying and articulating different metrics appropriate to everyone’s specific duties and aims. The company I work for has elevated collegial compliments to an activity of gladiatorial proportions (both game and combat) – but is really a thinly disguised officewide love-in. Done right, this kind of activity gives people the chance to compliment and celebrate each other in a way that invites official notice and informal team support and praise. It allows the small-scale victories to claim everyone’s attention; it can even be a way for everyone to take a minute to help soothe ruffled feathers and war wounds. Leaders support and encourage testing new ideas, changing the status quo when it’s not working, and the pursuit of seemingly distant goals. When something doesn’t work, no one is ever told to suck it up. As long as suggestions are forthcoming, they all receive a fair hearing.
- Failure is embraced and shared, not condemned or avoided. If you have kids, particularly ones old enough to really err with enthusiasm, you’ll have to agree that making them afraid to tell you when they mess up only yields messes of epic proportions. Being afraid of failing or messing up doesn’t actually lead to fewer mistakes – just cleverer ways of hiding evidence of the mishap. In this job, the biggest mistakes I have made to date, as well as the most challenging problems I’ve confronted, were met with at least as much warmth and encouragement as my proudest achievement.
Not only do our supervisors and bosses make each of us feel that we matter and that our contributions are unique and crucial, but they also remind us constantly that the encouragement and praise we pay forward to the rest of our colleagues really matter. It is a mutually and infinitely reinforcing system of goodwill that I have yet to find a chink in. And I’ve looked.
Why is the “family-first” attitude I noted earlier relevant here? Because when you treat your employees like valuable human beings and you praise and encourage them to make choices that authentically reflect their personal priorities, you create a culture that empowers holistically, by reinforcing strengths and collaboratively shoring up weakness before it emerges. If you want to hang on to your employees, help them see, every day, why you think they are worth the effort.