With worker discontent rising, bosses must work to keep staff

With the economy coming back, employers are increasingly worried about retaining stressed-out employees who survived cutbacks, pay and benefit reductions, and increased workloads, experts say.

With the economy coming back, employers are increasingly worried about retaining stressed-out employees who survived cutbacks, pay and benefit reductions, and increased workloads, experts say.

Some employers are taking the opportunity to review their workplace cultures and how they recognize employees, re-examining everything from telecommuting to the structure of rewards programs and charity participation. The major challenge: doing it on a budget.

"Companies are not going to want to spend any money," said Hank Stringer, principal at Stringer Executive Search of Austin and co-author of "Talent Force: A New Manifesto for the Human Side of Business."

Twenty-eight percent of workers in a CareerBuilder survey this year said they expected to switch fields in next two years, looking for more interesting work, pay, chances for advancement or stability.

"Employee satisfaction is really poor, and when job creation starts there's going to be churn," said Jimmy Taylor, chief operating officer for Novotus, a Texas employment services firm. "I think most companies just really haven't started taking that into account yet."


Restoring pay and benefits might be difficult. "These cuts are down to what the market rate is for today's environment," he said.

Minimally, employers should "be talking to employees," Taylor said.

"It's real critical to keep an open line of communication, find out what the struggles are, address them if they can, and look for solutions: salary, workload," he said.

Companies most actively engaging employees tend to be ones that already are recognized as attractive workplaces, experts say.

At Coca-Cola Enterprises, the bottler and distributor of Coke products, some managers recently spent a week working with employees in the warehouse, on truck routes, and in merchandising and accounts.

The company has always sent managers to work alongside other employees, but this year marked the first time it carved out a "shoulder to shoulder" week for all of its units, said Dani Dahlburg, human resources director for the North Texas region.

Dahlburg, who participated, started her days at 6 a.m. delivering soft drinks with a driver. She then switched to merchandising and stocking shelves, and, finally, working in the warehouse. Workers asked her about their benefit plans; Dahlburg asked them about their jobs.

The company's engagement programs also include extensive communication that includes regular "town hall" meetings with employees and "engagement boards," where workers find information about products and Coca-Cola Enterprises' community involvement, Dahlburg said.


"We know that drives retention," she said.

The company also continues to build on its environmental sustainability programs, replacing water rinsers with air rinsers, maintaining what it says is one of North America's largest fleets of hybrid trucks, and cutting materials in packaging.

And the company is a stalwart recycler, sending employees to venues like Texas Motor Speedway to help recycle, Dahlburg said.

"Those things are very important to our employees," she said.

At Rent A Frog Valet in Fort Worth, schedule flexibility is a key part of the retention equation.

Owner Warren Prescott, 37, has seen his work force shift in the last two or three years from a majority of college students. These days, given the economy, it's not unusual to find lawyers, accountants and ministers among his 400 valets.

Prescott prefers to hire people he recruited personally or who have been referred to him by other employees.

He lets his employees set their own schedules online. "Once you're hired, your schedule is never dictated to you," he said.


Longer-term employees get paid more. And he's known for bumping up workers' pay to fill in for bad days. Including tips, his workers can make $12-$20 per hour.

One employee, Jay Naquin, 32, was laid off within weeks of his wife, Terri, in November. Both connected with Prescott.

In a month and a half, Jay Naquin has been a valet at weddings, benefits, restaurants and other events. A week ago, he estimates, he put in 65 hours during the Colonial golf tournament. Terri Naquin took a temp-to-permanent job with an insurance company last week, but she'll likely still work valet on weekends, Jay Naquin said.

At least on a couple of occasions, Jay Naquin said, Prescott bumped up his pay to cover for bad events.

"Warren's had guys working for him for years and years and years, and it's because of the way he's set up," he said. "I know a lot of guys who have a full-time job who still work for him on weekends."

Stringer, the Austin headhunter, already sees companies trying new tactics to retain employees.

More companies are trying incentive-laden compensation packages, once reserved for salespeople, in other parts of their business, Stringer said. Customer service agents who record a high level of satisfaction, for example, might be in for a bonus.

"We're going to see a lot more of that," he said.


Some companies are also experimenting with health care coverage, long used as a recruitment tool. For example, one established, growing Austin company provides at-home health care services through nurse practitioners for small monthly fees outside health insurance, Stringer said.

It's an approach that employers can offer "if they can't invest as much in insurance," Stringer said. It could lower an employer's insurance costs.

And, for the employee, "it's a great solution for younger people who typically don't need the kind of insurance older people need," he said.

Such cultural changes often don't cost employers more money, Stringer said.

"It's more of an organizational process that doesn't require a lot of money being spent," he said.

Firms that design employee recognition and reward systems report an upswing in business in recent months.

At one such firm, The Miller Co. in Colleyville, Texas,, principal Tom Miller saw clients struggle after cutting recognition programs and holding off raises and bonuses during the downturn, while simultaneously worrying about employees and performance.

One client, a defense contractor, recently audited its recognition programs and found "60 different little pocket programs, little pieces of recognition that were in the organization," Miller said. "They literally had no clue what they were getting" for the seven-digit figure the company was spending.


"It forces them to do a bit of a cultural audit: As a company, what are we looking for?" Miller said, adding that the client isn't necessarily looking to cut its recognition budget.

He sees employers as having entered an "engagement era."

"Companies are working very hard to be engaging places to work," he said.

Work/life balance is becoming an important part of the mix, with more companies looking for ways to give employees more flexibility, including telecommuting and job sharing.

"If I want that kind of balance in my life, why can't I give it to my employees?" Miller said.

Moreover, "companies are admitting now that not everybody is productive an entire day, an entire week," he said. "Most people are productive in stages, in spurts."

Companies increasingly are looking to align themselves with different causes, because employees "are looking to their organizations to help them find significance," he said.

"Does the organization stand for anything other than profitability?"


Inspirus, a Fort Worth firm that designs recognition and rewards programs, had a flat 2008, and 2009 was too until strong third and fourth quarters, said Kimberly Abel, vice president of strategy and business development.

"We've seen that continue into 2010," she said, and the 100-employee firm is now looking to hire five or six people in implementation, merchandising, marketing, information technology, and quality assurance.

Inspirus, previously named Diamond H Recognition, hired two client-service representatives in the last two months, Abel said.

More clients are interested in centralizing their rewards programs through the kind of automated systems that Inspirus sells, Abel said.

Such systems can handle tasks as simple as sending out e-cards on an employee's anniversary to running the internal rewards for a company such as Delta Air Lines, a client, Abel said.

At Inspirus, the company uses its own rewards platform to award redeemable points to employees for working out in a wellness program, to run sales contests, and to allow colleagues to nominate one another for a job well-done.

"It's all about automating," Abel said. "It's about taking the budgets that already exist and figuring out ways to optimize (benefits)."

Most of the company's clients are "already on the best companies' lists," she said. "They just need to look at what's new and innovative."

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