Three ways to stop losing employees to the Great Resignation

Howard Business School assistant dean weighs in on authenticity in the workplace.

Empty office

Howard University School of Business professor says that people "no longer want to work at jobs that aren’t working for them."

Photo: Ali Mokhtari/Pixabay

Yuvay Meyers Ferguson, Ph.D., is the assistant dean of impact and engagement & associate professor in the School of Business at Howard University.

The Great Resignation is misleading. Though many people have indeed been resigning from their jobs, it is not because they are leaving the workforce. It is because they found, or are looking for, another job. This is why a better term might actually be the Great Transition, because the majority of people who are part of this trend are leaving jobs that don’t work for them anymore, for whatever combination of reasons, and looking for ones that do. Given this reality, the current period can be an opportunity. For companies who are losing their employees, it is an opportunity for course correction. For other companies, it is an opportunity to attract new talent. When the Great Resignation first started in 2021, companies may have been too taken by surprise to do much about it, but since it is expected to continue into 2022, now is the time to better understand what it is that workers need and want and to provide those things for them.

Yuvay Meyers FergusonYuvay Meyers FergusonPhoto: Yuvay Meyers Ferguson

Cultivating more humanism in the workplace

On the surface, people may be quitting their jobs for different reasons, but underneath many of these reasons there is usually a common denominator, which is that people have been feeling there is a lack of humanism in their workplaces. By this I don’t just mean the surge of bad behavior from customers that many workers in the service, retail and hospitality industries have been subjected to (though that certainly adds to the stress), but a general lack of empathy and compassion that underlies the culture at many companies. This lack of compassion leads organizations to forget, or fail to understand, that employees are human beings, and that human beings are not wired for so much unrelenting stress and uncertainty.

The unrelenting stress and uncertainty continues to keep many people in situations where they need a lot of flexibility with work. However, people’s individual circumstances vary, so flexibility can mean different things and it’s not just a matter of letting people work from home indefinitely. As we saw in the later stages of the pandemic, many people realized that they actually did not prefer working from home. We have also seen how not everyone agrees on what “safe” means, and that it can mean different things for people depending on their circumstances. With so much additional ambiguity being caused by the omicron variant, no one can truly claim to know for certain what is the absolute safest way to run a workplace right now. Because of this, organizations need to listen and be sensitive to people’s different needs without getting overly fixated on their own particular vision of what’s “safe” or “flexible.” And they need to cultivate a culture where employees can vocalize those needs.

Just being alive is more expensive

Another issue that’s nearly universal for people and that organizations should address is the fact that simply being alive right now is significantly more expensive due to inflation. In an already stressful time, to have to worry about being able to afford basic necessities on top of everything else is, just like with their needs for safety and flexibility, pushing people to seek jobs that can lighten this burden for them. Part of cultivating more humanism in the workplace is making employees feel valued as human beings, which is why any company that’s serious about wanting to keep its employees should give raises across the board. This is not about merit. It’s simply about recognizing what’s occurring on a societal level, and treating your employees with the basic human dignity they all deserve of not having to suffer as a result of societal forces beyond their control. The best way to do this is to take the initiative on it. Don’t wait until employees are asking for it en masse, because they will probably leave before that happens. One of the reasons that I am proud to be on the faculty at Howard University is that it recently did just that, giving raises to over 600 faculty members without making us have to ask for it first.

Authenticity matters more than ever

It’s safe to say that another workplace element that people are almost universally looking for is authenticity. Authenticity has always mattered, especially for the younger generations, but now it matters more than ever and it may be the difference between being a company where people actively want to work and one where they’ll only work until they can find something better. By “authenticity,” I don’t just mean providing a workplace environment where employees feel they can be their authentic selves. That matters too, but what I’m referring to is the need for employers to be authentic and transparent in the way that they communicate and present themselves. It means that if you present your organization a certain way, you want to make sure that you’re in a position to be able to back it with action and longitudinal commitment or there will be a backlash because, according to a recent EY report, “Gen Z sniffs out inauthenticity with ease.”

For companies that don’t wish to lose any more employees, there is an urgent need to do an internal authenticity “audit,” and if there’s a gap between self-portrayal and reality, leaders need to either start showing real commitment to their spoken values or present themselves more truthfully.

People want to work

A misguided notion that needs to be put to rest once and for all is that “people don’t want to work.” That is not true. People do want to work. That part hasn’t changed. What has changed is that they no longer want to work at jobs that aren’t working for them. And so as the Great Resignation continues throughout 2022, organizations that want to stop losing talented workers or, conversely, who want to attract those who have already quit other jobs, must remember and practice these principles: Make people feel like they are seen and valued as human beings, acknowledge that they shouldn’t have to struggle for their basic needs by paying them more, and strive to be more authentic. Organizations that are genuinely able to do this will find that what is the Great Resignation for other companies will be, for them, the Great Recruitment.

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