When it comes to the most influential target audiences for publicly traded companies, they can be essentially boiled down to the acronym “CEO”: Customers, Employees and Owners.

Company executives have long championed “serving customers” and “creating shareholder value” and they should continue as these two groups drive revenues and enhance market capitalization. Unfortunately the same level of enthusiasm is rarely afforded to a company’s number one asset, its employees.

One obvious reason is that the care and feeding of employees represents the lion’s share of the expense side of the ledger. These costs are not just salaries, but a growing array of benefits, incentives and government mandates (e.g. parental leave).

Despite this overall lack of attention on “E,” the nation is nonetheless transfixed on the stubborn 9.7 percent unemployment number, particularly that “only” 36,000 lost their jobs in February. The U.S Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a total of 14.9 million unemployed; 8.8 million forced to work part-time out of economy necessity and 1.2 million discouraged workers, who don’t believe a job exists for them http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm Add it all up and we are talking about 25 million unhappy people in a nation of 300 million.

We should also keep in mind that DOL also reported that 138 million Americans are working. Many of these workers are saddled with lousy bosses or have limited upward mobility and feel trapped in their jobs because of the nearly double-digit unemployment and the lack of alternatives. This scenario seems to be gradually changing, which means that the “E” for employees could soon be receiving comparable executive attention, if not love, as the “C” for customers and the “O” for shareholders.

Failing to attract or losing the best and the brightest is extremely costly to companies. I have seen figures up to $60,000 to replace each management or high-talent employee, when search, training and lost productivity is included in the equation. For example, technology companies are particularly vulnerable to the potential loss of software and/or hardware engineers. Financial services firms rely on investment bankers, fiscal analysts, accountants and controllers with MBAs to demonstrate gravitas to clients.

So what should companies do in this shifting economic environment to provide for the proper care and feeding of their valuable employees?

● Don’t wait for “retention” to become a major problem; make it a priority right now. The recession is over and the choppy recovery has begun. This is the time to challenge your employees, add to their responsibilities, listen to their concerns, provide them with growth paths and let them know they are key players in the success of the company. Before going out and recruiting away employees from competitors, companies should be concerned about protecting their “base” employees from rival cherry pickers.

● Engage and over-communicate with employees, including using low-grade technology in the form of CEO all-hands meetings with PowerPoint graphics. The purpose is to not only share business strategies with employees, but to listen and hear their concerns as well. Use corporate intranets to publish stories, announcements and blogs about the company’s direction and accomplishments. Ditto for social media, encouraging employees to read about the company and its brand-building activities via Twitter, LinkedIn.com, Facebook and others.

● View Investor Relations, Corporate Public Relations and Employee Communications as being linked. A high percentage of employees in publicly traded companies, particularly technology and biotech, participate in ESPP (Employee Stock Purchase Plans) and stock option programs. They are very interested and savvy investors in the company’s stock and that contributes to market cap. Corporate positioning should be outward to investors, customers, suppliers, partners, analysts and media, and also inward to investing and contributing employees.

● Consider having Investor Relations, Corporate Public Relations and Employee Communications report to the Chief Financial Officer. In many cases Employee Communications reports to Human Resources, which used to make some sense, but becomes less so with even greater SEC scrutiny on fair-disclosure issues. Naturally, Employee Communications should interact regularly with HR, particularly on benefits, but the CFO holds more sway on investor issues, corporate development, strategic acquisitions/integration and the reasons behind restructurings and layoffs.

● Sweat the details when it comes to the “management style” of middle managers. Do they micromanage? Are they arrogant, unreceptive and simply fail to listen and hear legitimate concerns? Do they have their own agendas? Should they be managing people in the first place? Let’s face it; bad bosses will eventually erode morale and prompt more good people to run for the exits, particularly in an expanding economy creating new opportunities.

As both a physical and economic spring returns to the landscape, it is time to make the care and feeding of employees a major priority. Cherry picking is a growth industry. The best defense is a good offense. It’s time to make employee communications a priority.

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