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Employer, will you marry me?

This article discusses a study that found after years of thinking of themselves as free agents, a growing number of employees now want a lifetime committment with one organization.

Josh Orzech had been a classic job hopper, moving through five positions at five employers in 13 years. Each time he reached the two-year mark, he’d start thinking about jumping to a new job that seemed to offer more opportunity or pay.

“Every piece of career advice I ever heard was that you are your own brand. You have to be constantly selling yourself and looking for that next job, even as you start a new job,” the 38-year-old director of communications for Direct Energy Marketing Ltd. in Toronto says.

But the recession’s toll on jobs has radically changed his thinking. After three years with Direct Energy, Mr. Orzech has now decided he wants to stay put, for the long term.

The organization man – and woman – is back. After years of workers thinking of themselves as “career free agents” – putting loyalty to themselves ahead of to employers – the tide is suddenly turning again: A growing number of workers now want to be “the marrying kind,” seeking career monogamy through “lifetime careers” with a single employer, a new study finds.

But whether the career knots stay tied will also depend on employers reciprocating with their own demonstrations of commitment to employees, the study and experts caution.

Seventy-seven per cent of Canadian employees would now like long-term relationships with their employers, according to the study by human resources consultancy Towers Watson.

Forty-three per cent of them said they’d like to work for a single employer throughout their career, while another 34 per cent said that, if they did stray, it would be for an opportunity they hoped would be a permanent commitment, the poll of 1,019 employees found.

Just 23 per cent said they want to continue to job-hop as opportunities arise, according to the poll, part of a global study surveying 22,000 employees in 22 countries.

That level of commitment is significantly higher than it was in a poll done in early 2008, before the recession hit.

It found only 32 per cent said they had no intention of ever leaving their employer, with 46 per cent saying they would jump if another opportunity presented itself and the rest either actively looking or in the midst of leaving their job.

The renewed enthusiasm for commitment shows up in another survey by staffing company Kelly Services.

It found that 45 per cent of the 15,000 Canadians surveyed said they feel “totally committed” to their current employer, which compares to 32 per cent when the question was asked in 2006.

“These numbers should be good news for employers who are looking to get the most from their work force coming out of the recession,” says consultant Keri Alletson, a member of the Canadian research team at Towers Watson.

“There is willingness on the part of employees to make a personal investment in skills, knowledge and commitment.”

But for this to become an enduring trend, there needs to be a reciprocal commitment from employers, she adds. “It’s a two-way street and it’s up to employers to equip them to act by giving them the tools and training they need to be confident and successful.”

It isn’t clear whether employers are taking stronger employee commitment to heart, but they should welcome the opportunity to forge long-term relationships, says Claude Balthazard, a director with the Human Resources Professionals Association in Toronto.

“With a recovery will also come a tighter job market as many aging baby boomers retire and there will be fewer younger workers in the market to replace them,” he says. “What Canadian employers need right now is people on board with the enthusiasm and ability to help them come out of the recession.”

Employers will have to make clear that, in exchange for loyalty, they will help employees get the skills and experience they need to advance, he says. That will mean companies will have to restore training and development budgets that have been trimmed back, work closer with employers to define career paths and develop people within the organization, rather than looking to hire from outside. Mr. Balthazard says.

And employers will have some work to do. The Towers Watson survey found that 49 per cent of Canadian employees said they see no opportunity to advance in their current roles. And 43 per cent said they believe restructuring because of the recession has reduced the possibility to reaching a higher role in their company, with 21 per saying their manager does not advocate on their behalf.

“If people are staying purely for job security, that is not in anyone’s interest,” Ms. Alletson notes. “People who are there just for job security are not going to be productive, and employers will have to engage employees with a clear vision of how the individual can learn and grow in the organization.”

And some are skeptical about whether this will really play out once the recovery is really under way.

“In the past two years, employees of all ages tended to temper their career expectations and hunker down because of the recession, but once the economy recovers, those expectations will all come roaring back,” says Adwoa Buahene, managing partner of n-gen People Performance Inc. in Toronto. “Unless employers really make a strong commitment, you will see people becoming free market agents again.”

But if it does play out, it should do so in the next 18 months, Mr. Balthazard says. And increased commitment could mean a new era of opportunity and stability, he adds.

That’s certainly what Mr. Orzech is hoping. Though he says “the economy certainly plays a part” in his decision, since “there are fewer options than there were in the past,” he also hopes that a two-way understanding of loyalty will play to career advantage. “By making it clear that I am committed to staying here, I’m finding that the company is eager to work with me to help me grow and get new experiences,” he says.

“I still have to look out for myself to find opportunities to develop my career. But I’m discovering that it’s better to work within the company, rather than jumping to a new one and starting from scratch to get where I want to go.”

Tracking the organization man

Before the 1980s, the relationship between employers and employees was assumed to be a long-term affair. The situation was summed up by organizational analyst William H. Whyte in the 1956 bestseller The Organization Man, which described how executives not only worked for organizations, but felt they belonged to them as well.

“We have, in sum, a man who is so completely involved in his work that he cannot distinguish between work and the rest of his life – and is happy that he cannot,” he wrote.

All that changed in the aftermath of the recession of the early 1980s, when companies downsized and made unprecedented wholesale middle-management trims, according to Claude Balthazard, a director with the Human Resources Professionals Association in Toronto .

In a review written in the late 1990s, Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, found that, before 1982, 80 per cent of professionals believed they would stay with one employer for the life of their career. By the time of the next recession in the early 1990s, the proportion of career lifers had fallen to 60 per cent and, “since then, the organization man or woman has become almost extinct.”

In recent years, the average job tenure had contracted to about six years, according to a 2008 survey by human resources firm DBM Canada Inc., which surveys professionals in transition. That meant that the average professional could face six or more job changes over the course of their careers, according to DBM.

Making it last

Employees:

Commit to monogamy
-If you stop looking for greener pastures, you may increase your focus, satisfaction and success in your work, and the security can help raise your satisfaction.

Increase communication
-Make it clear that you want a commitment and get managers involved in helping you achieve your future goals.

Look for opportunities
-Staying in your current role long-term can stifle your potential and risk you becoming stale. Investigate advancement options throughout the organization and aim for growth.

Manage upwards
-Develop contacts with more senior managers. Find out what help they could use and how they see you helping them.

Ask for development
-Discuss skills, training and experiences you need to remain valuable over the long haul.

Stay visible
-Strong relationships grow from familiarity and regular reminders of your commitment to mutual success.

Employers:

Welcome the commitment
-Discuss how loyalty can result in career security.

Open a dialogue
-Employees need to know that you will give an ear to their concerns and help mentor them in their development.

Know employees better
-Learn their personal needs and motivations.

Have a shared vision
-Discuss with each employee how they fit into the company’s long-term plans.

Welcome feedback -Listening to employee input gives them a stake in the business’s success and promotes team spirit.

Invest in training
-All employees, not just high achievers, need to feel they are being supported in their growth.

Pay equitably
-Not paying someone what he or she is worth can make even the most loyal employee look for other options.

By the numbers

32: Percentage of Canadians who said in 2008 they had no intention of leaving their employer

42: Percentage of Canadians who now say they have intention of leaving their current employer

46: Percentage of Canadians in 2008 who said they were not looking but were open to offers

32: Percentage of Canadians who now say they were not looking for new employment but are open to offers

49: Percentage of Canadian employees who now see no opportunity to advance in their current roles

43: Percentage of workers who said they expect more interesting work in exchange for commitment

18: Percentage who said they expect higher salary and benefits

17: Percentage who said they want more meaningful responsibility

11: Percentage who expect better work/life balance

7: Percentage who expect more or improved training

3: Percentage who want more opportunity for telecommuting

Sources: Towers Watson, Kelly Services

This Globe and Mail article was published on March 24, 2010 and written by Wallace Immen.

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