Ever seen the start of the Indy 500?

It is one of the great spectacles in sport with the pace car exiting the track and 33 drivers in 11 relatively neat rows accelerating to 200 mph in anticipation of the green flag. For employees trapped in bad jobs with dreadful bosses because of the economic downturn they can directly relate to the metaphor of the Brickyard pace car. At some point, the green flag will be out and they will want to put the pedal to the metal and head for the door. And for employers, particularly corporate HR Departments, communications arms and executive suites this is precisely the time to start worrying.

How can that be? The US Bureau of Economic Analysis http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/national/gdp/gdpnewsrelease.htm just revised the Q3 2009 GDP downward from 3.5 percent to 2.8 percent growth. Unemployment stands at 10.2 percent nationwide and is even higher in California and several other states. The Federal Reserve is pointing to economic growth of 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent next year with the stubborn jobless rate remaining over 9 percent…and this figure does not include the under-employed or those who simply gave up the hunt for a job http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125906901646162279.html

There is no doubt that the economy remains under pressure to use a well-worn Wall Street term. Many are talking about a jobless recovery, and yes, employment is a lagging rather than a leading economic indicator. Having said that, the recession which lasted for four quarters is over. The recovery began in the third quarter and will continue into 2010. Recruiters are starting to be hired and why are they being hired? Will they reach out to the mass of unemployed? Will they also engage in the craft of “cherry picking” the best and the brightest from competing companies of their clients? Plan on it, particularly in talent hubs such as California’s Silicon Valley. And you can be certain that previously trapped employees are going to be ducking into vacant conference rooms to eagerly take these recruiter calls.

For corporate bosses who treated their employees poorly during the downturn thinking that these subordinates had nowhere to go, the game is about to change. Besides is it ever a good idea to rule employees with an iron fist? How about always challenging your team, providing a career path and remembering that you were given two ears and one mouth for a reason? It may be too late for bully bosses to be Mister Nice Guy or Mizz Warm and Fuzzy and maybe they should realize that they were not meant to manage people.

So what should corporate executives do in anticipation of the pace car heading for the pits and employees heading for the exits?

First, realize that retention is not an issue for the future, but an issue right now. The economy is improving. The unemployment rate will gradually decline. The external opportunities for your best and brightest will multiply. Do you have the best managers leading your teams? Can you improve people skills throughout the company? Should you make some changes in middle management? Are you making employee communications a priority?

Second, do your employees really comprehend the business strategies and corporate thrusts of the company? Do they have faith in management? Do they understand management? Sounds like it is great time for C-level executives to abandon their corporate ivory towers and go out to the hinterlands and hold the all-hands meetings with employees…not just to lecture, but to listen as well. And let’s not forget the company’s corporate Intranet portal to post breaking stories and announcements about your company. At LSI Logic, we posted an average of 120 stories per year with an employee hit rate of 1,000 per story. Any company with determination can match this record, if not exceed it.

Third, let’s not forget social media. The most trusted communications in society are colleague-to-colleague communications. Can talented employees use digital social media tools to not only talk to external audiences (e.g. customers, suppliers, partners and media), but to your own employee base?

Fourth, the number of online ads for managers and director of Internal/Employee Communications is steadily increasing. Ditto for contracts with recruiters to find internal communications pros. A company’s employees, particularly those with difficult skills to master (e.g. engineering, architects, auditors, analysts…), are the most valuable resource of any corporate organization. For publicly traded companies, they are also shareholders as the lion’s share hold stock options and invest in ESPP (Employee Stock Purchase Programs). For the longest time, executives seemed to only focus on customer satisfaction and promoting shareholder value….and they still should….but aren’t employees “customers” and “investors?” As Sarah would say, “You bet ya.”

It is always the darkest before the dawn. The first rays of twilight of the already underway recovery can clearly be seen. The siren call of the cherry picker is in the air. Will corporate chieftains react quickly enough before their best and brightest head off into the sunset?

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