Best companies surviesPublished yesterday in the UK Sunday Times, this article highlights a theme that runs through much of the work in HR these days. This article is linked to the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For survey. I am not generally a fan of these types of surveys, but this is worth a read anyway.

Strongly engaged staff aid business survival
Firms still making it their business to keep employees onside look set to ride out the gloom, reports Sue Leonard (March 8, 2009)

Are you worried about losing your job? You’re not alone. Fears about job security are rife even among employees within the Best Companies to Work For. Many feel on edge as a result of the current global downturn, which has already led to a dramatic rise in unemployment and seen household names such as Woolworths disappear from the UK high street.

Among all 997 companies entering this year’s Best Companies contests, staff scores for feeling their jobs are secure are down 6.2% on last year, from 72.5% positive to 66.3%.

The top two big companies and the top 10 mid-sized businesses show a significant fall of 5.3%, although with the positive score for job security still at 78.1% this represents a much healthier bottom line than the 66.3% achieved across all 997 companies. Among the 120 companies included in this magazine there is a 5.5% fall in the positive score for job security to 71.5%.

At the same time there has been a small rise in stress and pressure among staff in all organisations. There is also a small rise in the number of employees who feel they spend too much time at work — the positive score here declining 2.8% year-on-year to 58.3% — and a growing feeling among staff that they are being told things rather than listened to. Scores for personal growth and feeling excited about the future of the organisation are slightly down too.

The good news, however, is that none of this has translated into lower levels of employee engagement, which remain steady at 71%. Workers are still as committed and motivated as they were and some even more so.

“Although people are worried about job security they are not blaming their company for it,” says Dr Pete Bradon, head of research at Best Companies Ltd. “People seem to realise there is not a great deal their employer can do about the global economic climate.

“The interesting thing is that at the same time we see an increase in pressure and stress-related symptoms. People don’t just get stressed by the amount of work they have to do, but also by wider issues such as whether they can pay the mortgage and will they have a job next year.

“What we are seeing in engagement staying the same is people being responsible. They realise their job might not be secure, but they continue to be as engaged with the company and are prepared to work a little harder. It is possible in firms where the leadership has taken everybody with them that people actually get more engaged.

“There will be winners and losers and, five years from now, the top 100 lists will be dominated by companies which have not just maintained but improved their employee engagement in difficult times.”

Dozens of companies are already managing to achieve this feat. Of the 139 organisations that featured in last year’s Best Companies to Work For lists as well as this, staff in 116 of them report lower levels of job security. Yet of these 116, 62 report higher levels of employee engagement.

Bourne Leisure is typical. The firm, which runs Butlins, Haven Holidays and Warner Leisure Hotels, jumped from 15th place to second in this year’s big list. While employees record a 1.1% decline in their positive score for job security, they remain happy campers, evidenced by the rise in their score for engagement of 3.8%.

“We have been very open and honest with team members about the economic situation and what the possible effects are on our business,” says Ruth Shepherd, human resources team member. “We have communicated our hopes for the 2009 season and have shown team members how the climate presents us with opportunities to ensure the success of our business in the long-term.”

The food distributor 3663 First for Food Service recorded a 2.6% improvement in engagement, despite a 3.9% drop in staff feeling secure in their job. Ranked 20th of the 20 Best Big Companies, 3663 has tackled areas it knew were linked to engagement, from employees’ relationships at work to opportunities for personal development and their view of the senior management, who went on the road to talk about the current conditions and what the business was doing about it. “The result of the board tours was re-energised, galvanised teams and a bulldog spirit,” says Heather Angus, human resources and development director.

Despite tough times the lingerie retailer Bravissimo, ranked 26th (up from 99th position last year), has introduced additional benefits, including flexible working options for all employees, a holiday buying scheme and staff being offered discounts at well-known retailers. Its overall engagement levels rose by 3.1% against a backdrop of a decline in its job security score of 3%.

With the possibility of losing their job in people’s minds, there is evidence that employees are weighing up how much it would take for them to choose voluntary redundancy. The evidence from the feedback survey suggests a year’s money (good enough for 60.4% of employees) or up to 18 months’ salary (79.2%) would do it for most people. For those who have become strongly disengaged, 77% would leave for a year’s salary or less, compared with 48% of the strongly engaged.

An analysis of the demographics behind job insecurity shows widely differing levels of concern — it appears that middle-age, middle-income Britain is feeling particularly at risk. Non-graduates between 45 to 54 on incomes up to £35,000 are the most concerned about remaining employed, which, with an election due soon, should be of concern to Gordon Brown.

Among 21 to 25-year-olds, 81.9% still feel their job is secure, with 45 to 54-year-olds feeling most at risk (just 67.1% feeling secure). Job grade also plays a part, with 83.9% of senior managers feeling their job is secure, compared to 72.5% of team members. And while 85.6% of those earning £100,000 a year or more feel secure, that declines to 72.6% for those earning between £15,001 and £35,000.

As the age profile of those most worried would indicate, there is not a “last in, first out” culture prevailing. Once people have been with an organisation for longer than five years their confidence about security fades. Just 72.9% of those with five to 10 years’ service feel their job is safe, down from a peak of 81.8% among new recruits. For those with more than 15 years’ service, just 67% feel their job is secure.

Also feeling the heat are middle managers, 76.1% of whom feel their job is secure (closer to the team member figure of 72.5% than the healthier 83.9% of senior managers who are not looking over their shoulder).

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says employers are reluctant to make redundancies because of the cost and the damage caused to the wellbeing of those left behind, and productivity.

However, middle-aged middle managers probably feel they have most to lose, he says. “People in that age range will still have family responsibilities and will not be considering early retirement, so it is not unreasonable to expect they would be most uncomfortable at the thought that they might be out of a job, because they feel old enough to think they will be seen as older workers.”

Data analysis also reveals it’s not just their own jobs employees have fears about. More than 60% of employees who expressed an opinion said they were worried about the future of their company as a whole. In five organisations among the 997 entering this year’s Best Companies contests, 95% of workers were worried about their business’ prospects, while in just two organisations fewer than 10% of staff found cause for anxiety. Among big and mid-sized companies, Beaverbrooks has the lowest proportion of staff (18.2%) worried about the business’ future. Where such worries exist, one in three reported feeling stressed compared with one in five among employees not concerned about the recession’s impact on their firm.

Our data also shows these concerns to be much more acute in some sectors than others. Given the state of the global car industry, those working in car dealerships and rental companies report the highest levels of concern, with more than three-quarters of employees worried. Just under 69% of people working in property are concerned, and more than 60% of those working in the media. Employees in the IT industry (54%), leisure (51%) and hospitality (46%) are less worried. Least worried of all at the time of our survey, completed between September and December, were those working in investment management (42%) although, as the crisis deepens, that is unlikely to last.

The data again shows younger workers are not as worried for their company’s future as those aged 35-54, and that people earning £25,000 to £45,000 are most anxious.

It is not practical to completely allay fears in tough economic times, but good companies keep them realistic with honest communication and treating staff well (see panel, right).

It’s clear from the data that, when the going gets tough, people are more engaged if they work for a good company. “What you need to do in a bad economy is to go on doing what you have been doing to engage employees,” says Bradon. “Those people at the top of the list are doing what they have always done.”

Source: UK Sunday Times

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