Are Your Employees Just Biding Their Time?

The high unemployment rate has scared working Americans into hanging on to their jobs at all costs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the “quit rate”—the portion of U.S. employees who voluntarily leave their jobs—was just 1.3% in August, about half the rate that prevailed when the BLS began collecting such figures at the end of 2000.

But don’t count on workers’ loyalty to outlast the recession. A survey by benefits consultant Watson Wyatt found that the “engagement,” or loyalty, of top-performing employees has dropped by 25% over the past year, largely because people who kept their jobs have been soured by layoffs, bonus and benefit cuts, and a halt in promotions. “Employers are really nervous that the minute the job market picks up, all these people that are very disengaged are going to take off,” says Laurie Bienstock, the firm’s national practice director for strategic rewards.

The loyalty that employers enjoy now is “totally cyclical,” agrees Sean Bisceglia, CEO of TalentDrive, which sifts through online résumés. Indeed, many employees are already hunting for other places to work. In a survey back in May, 79% of jobholders said they had stepped up their search for a new place to work since the recession began.

Employers may not fully grasp what it takes to retain good people. In its latest biannual survey, released in October, temp firm Spherion Staffing Solutions asked about 300 employers and about 2,500 workers to name the top “drivers of retention.” As they did in 2007 and 2005, the bosses listed soft stuff: “management climate” and “supervisor relationship,” for instance. Employees’ top two in all three surveys? Benefits and compensation. And this year, only 27% are “very satisfied” with their pay. Just 37% are equally happy with their benefits.

This article, written by Peter Coy was published in the November 16, 2009 edition of Business Week.