Maintaining Morale and Finding Talent

By Adam Lawrence  |  Posted 03-30-2009

Maintaining Morale and Finding Talent

The Great Recession won't last forever, and talent retention is an issue even as bad times persist. Top management must focus on keeping essential workers happy, be prepared to hire opportunistically, and to resume growth when the economy improves. That means reacting and adapting to a changes in the job market, and having flexible plans in place in order to retain and attract talent -- even as the protracted downturn changes the rules of the game.

Present reality is grim: Over 2.6 million jobs were lost in 2008, with about half of those losses coming in the fourth quarter. The pace of layoffs accelerated into 2009. The U.S. Department of Labor reported 598,000 jobs were shed in January, bringing the total unemployment rate to 7.6 percent, the highest since 1974. Worse, the Labor Department's data does not include people who stopped looking for full-time work, so the actual number of unemployed is higher.

For companies caught in the pincers, there is pressures to cut costs while maintaining services and standards. The first painful challenge is figuring out who makes the list of office MVPs, and who goes onto the unemployment rolls.

Once the axe falls, management must ensure confidence remains high among those who survived the cut. Layoffs always have a bad impact on morale. It's not uncommon for those who remain to immediately begin a job hunt, in the hopes they'll find a position with what they perceive as a more stable company or industry.

Keeping the Troops Happy

So how can companies maximize morale? Bonuses, travel, and company-paid meals are out. Frugality is in. But without such incentives, managers are challenged to keep high performers motivated and office morale high.

Step one: Get closer to your people. Now is not the time for managers to hide in their offices while their teams wonder what today's troubled times mean for their jobs. Disclosure and dialog are crucial.

Acknowledging the challenges, and plugging employees into your concerns and plans creates a sense of inclusion and builds loyalty. By discussing the problems your company faces, you will likely find employees rise to the challenge by sharing ideas.

Next, recognize your power players. You don't have to hand out greenbacks to show employees that they're valued. Institute a low-cost recognition program to put the spotlight on the people who are pulling hardest to keep the company moving.

For example, institute a "leader board" that publicly acknowledges team players, innovators, and enthusiastic workers. Treat the best performers to a Friday night dinner out. Spruce up their office with a bouquet of flowers. Give them a pair of gift certificates to a local movie theater.

Creative, yet simple acknowledgments can have a big impact on retention and morale. Positive attitudes are as contagious as negative ones. Upbeat leaders in a down market can lift the morale of an entire team. By working to keep employees' spirits high, you're much more likely to hold on to the talent you depend on.

Too Many Resumes


Inevitably, some top talent will be lost. What happens if you do lose an office MVP? In this economy, losing a key player can make or break a business, especially among small businesses.

And not every company is laying off staff. While industries such as manufacturing, real estate, construction, and travel have been hit hard by the recession, others are surviving, or even surging, in defiance of the overall economic trend. For example, industries such as biotech, green energy, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and certain IT sectors (those that deliver cost-savings, such as telecommuting, virtualization, etc.) are seeing increased interest and investmen

Those hiring may find a target-rich environment. The flip side: HR managers now have to wade through the largest applicant pool since World War II. It's never been easy to whittle down a pile of resumes, and today single job posting on a job board will typically result in hundreds of inbound e-mails, each with a cover letter and resume to review. It's not possible for most HR professionals to manage such an influx. And with most economists saying the economy won't improve until at least 2010, this problem won't be going away anytime soon.

Yet managers must be prepared to fill positions quickly and efficiently, or risk eroding the company's agility and competitiveness. One solution involves tapping the power of Web 2.0. Social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Plaxo, and others are useful when scouting talent. Beyond active job hunters, this is where passive job seekers are building nests. Passive seekers are employees who haven't been laid off, but fear the writing on the wall. They're also those who are cautiously wondering if something better is out there. Indeed, they could be your own MVPs.

You may also use a staffing agency, and tap the employee referral network and candidate clearing capabilities they have in place. [Disclosure: my company is in the staffing services business]. A knowledgeable staffing firm has already vetted most candidates, and can quickly attract and vet more. It should be able to present you with a short list of resumes from people who meet your requirements. As workers are rebrand themselves in hopes of leaving failing industries, a staffing agency can help determine which skill sets are transferable across industries.

For example, a former project manager might do well as an IT Developer. The agency can help you determine what skills the job requires, and find candidates you might not have otherwise considered, including those who require mininal training.

Despite an economy that's wreaking havoc on businesses worldwide, focusing on the right priorities will keep your company's foundations strong by helping you find, attract, and retain the talent you need. They'll also keep you poised for the rebound, when you're again ready to expand. What goes down will eventually come back up. Make sure you're ready when it does.

Adam Lawrence is vice president of service delivery for Yoh, a leading provider of high-impact talent and outsourcing services and a unit of Day & Zimmermann.