Winning Back a Wary Workforce

When will this damn recession end?—Joseph Vasquez, Austin, Tex.

How about, "Sometime in 2010"? The problem with being more precise, you see, is the mixed picture out there. On one hand, there's good evidence that the economy isn't getting any worse and, as many have observed, a few green shoots are beginning to emerge from the rubble. On the other, government actions and looming deficits dampen our optimism about a recovery's scope and pace. Our forecast, then, can't help but be a bit vague.

We can, however, be much more concrete about another prediction. And it has to do with what companies can expect when the economy finally improves.

A hiring game that's entirely different—and harder.

Look, this recession has really shocked people. Never before has the bottom fallen out so fast or affected so many people so deeply. Virtually no organization has been left unscathed. Two years ago, being in business was filled with promise and payback. Now, you just don't know what bad news awaits you when you arrive at work every day.

The result? Many people have come to the conclusion that they don't want to work for "the man" anymore. They want to work for themselves or someone they know and trust. It's as a marketing specialist told us recently: "My husband was fired. My hours were cut in half," she said. "As soon as we get on our feet, we're starting our own business. We're never going to let ourselves be vulnerable again."

She's hardly alone. From coast to coast—and through hundreds of e-mails to our Web site and conversations on Twitter—there's a tidal wave of emotion. To be someone else's employee, people are telling us, is to be at someone else's whim.

The impact of this growing attitude could be profound. When the economy recovers, most companies might, for the first time, have to deal with a candidate pool that's not particularly excited to work for them.

As if surviving the recession wasn't challenging enough!

Fortunately, companies can prepare now for the changed hiring dynamic ahead. All they have to do is, well, stop acting like big companies—bureaucratic and impersonal—and start creating a fast-moving and vibrant atmosphere. They'll need to mimic the upside small companies and entrepreneurial ventures offer as a matter of course. Teams will need to be smaller, organizations flatter, and the values of candor, informality, and innovation must be baked into the culture. People will need to feel that what they say matters, regardless of rank and title. Perhaps most important, companies will need to understand that when the recovery arrives, stars will no longer wait around to be given the authority to make decisions or to be promoted. The alternative—running their own show—has too much appeal.

Now we're not saying big companies haven't faced hiring competition before. In the go-go '90s, MBAs flocked to Silicon Valley. Promising new industries have always attracted talent.

But we're not talking about a hot flash here. We're talking about a serious trend. This recession has left a deep scar on the psyche of working people. Previous recessions came on more slowly, their layoffs occurred more gradually. And previous recessions didn't leave most people blaming business, especially Big Business, for what went wrong.

Something fundamental in our society has changed, and it will show in how people choose their next jobs.

Is that a bad thing? It could be just the opposite. Our economy will only be helped by more people becoming entrepreneurs. If the proposed capital gains tax increases don't take a toll on them, they'll be the lifeblood of job creation. And big companies will only be helped by acting in ways that appeal to entrepreneurial types of employees. After all, in the "revised" economy of the future, speed, flexibility, and innovation will be more crucial than ever.

So, no, we can't be precise about when this terrible recession will be over. All we know is that it eventually will be. And when it is, a brave new type of employee will rule the day. And only brave new companies will be able to entice them back.

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