Survey Finds Significant Erosion in Engagement Around Globe

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There is "a significant, across-the-board increase" in the number of workers seriously considering leaving their employer, according to a global survey released in April 2012.

The data reflect "a profound shift in employee attitudes and opinions," wrote Patrick Gilbert, Ph.D., global leader for employee research at Mercer, and Pete Foley, Ph.D., a principal at Mercer and its North American Employee Research Leader, in What's Working Around the World.

Nearly one-fourth of workers in each country surveyed have no plans to leave but are more negative about their job than those who seriously are considering quitting.

"The reality is that many organizations are making smaller overall investments in their workforces today, and employees are not happy about it," they write.

Workers have "reluctantly accepted" that the days of lifetime job security, generous benefits and pensions, and steady pay increases are gone and they are accepting tradeoffs such as more training and pay for performance, according to the researchers. But now "employees believe employers are not living up to their revised promises and are not delivering on this 'new deal.' "

They're frustrated and stuck—the economic climate makes it difficult to move on, and flattened structures at their employer leave little or no room for moving within their organization.

Because of the recession, "managers have become increasingly business- and task-focused, rather than people-focused, tending more to bottom lines and business goals than to people management and investments in rewards, training and career opportunities."

Respondents were asked if they were seriously considering leaving their employer, the significance of benefits in their decision to stay, the value they place on retirement savings or a pension plan, the value they place on base pay, their confidence in how their organization is managed, and questions related to workplace flexibility and to job satisfaction.

One of the most startling findings, Foley told SHRM Online, is the high percentage of employees who, although "fence sitters" on the question of whether they would leave their organization, "were hands-down the most negative on nearly everything" else measured in the survey.

This "signals to us we have a fairly big group … of apathetic, disaffected, [mentally] checked-out" employees, he said.

Mercer's findings are based on its survey of nearly 30,000 employees at organizations with 100 or more employees. It did not include anyone working fewer than 15 hours per week and excluded workers in agriculture and the government.

Global Findings

Reports of decreased employee engagement have surfaced elsewhere. A Kelly Global Workforce Index survey of more than 9,000 employees from Canada in late 2011, for example, found that 69 percent of respondents definitely intend to look for a job with another employer within a year.

And in April 2012, SHRM Online reported findings from Kenexa High Performance Institute—a division of  global HR consultancy Kenexa—that found "a marked drop" from 2010 to 2011 in engagement among retail workers in the U.S., Brazil, China, Germany, India and the United Kingdom.

The Mercer survey, conducted from the fourth quarter of 2010 through the second quarter of 2011, covered 17 countries in four regions:

  • Asia Pacific—Australia, China, Hong Kong, India and Singapore.
  • Europe—France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.
  • Latin America—Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
  • North America—Canada and the United States.

It also includes a section on generational insights. Those 24 and younger are more likely to act and think alike around the world, a distinction not found in previous Mercer What's Working surveys. However, workers age 25 and older are more likely to reflect the cultural norms of their country.

Workers 24 and younger are more satisfied with their jobs and organizations and more likely to recommend their employer to others. But they are also more likely to seriously consider leaving soon.

Among some of the regional highlights, loyalty is eroding throughout Latin America, and "apathy is a serious hidden problem." Career advancement, training, base pay and incentives are important in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.

In North America, respondents see limited career opportunities; just half are confident that they will achieve their long-term career objectives at their organization. U.S. and Canadian workers value base pay above all else. Additionally, Canadian workers said they have less flexibility to provide good services, less access to necessary job information, and less authority to be effective on the job.

In Europe, one-fifth of more than 13,000 workers surveyed are indifferent about whether to stay or leave their employer. The percentage of employees seriously considering leaving is highest in Italy, at 40 percent. In France, the biggest declines in job satisfaction from previous years related to having enough flexibility to provide good customer service and having sufficient authority to be effective on the job.

In Asia Pacific, workers are in short supply and high demand. A common theme is workers' declining satisfaction with, and confidence in, their direct managers and senior management. Women are somewhat less engaged than men but less likely to consider leaving, pointing to a need for diversity and inclusion programs to raise engagement, according to the report.

What HR, Employers Can Do

"It's all about balance," Foley said, noting that if the value proposition gets out of balance for too long, it leads to employee apathy, withholding of discretionary effort, absenteeism and, ultimately, turnover.

"HR right now is thinking 'what do we do to refashion the value proposition?' " Because the old days of big merit pools and big pay increases are not coming back, he pointed out. "I don't think HR has figured it out yet. I really don't."

In the U.S. and some other countries, HR is "starting to focus on … the softer stuff—creating a more collaborative environment, doing more things around paid time off and sabbaticals."

He pointed out that retooling the value proposition requires understanding what is unique about a company's culture.

"Companies are adopting practices without thinking about whether it fits well with what they're doing," he said. "It comes down to evidence-based management" and using data to make informed decisions. 

"We need to measure what people are valuing or not valuing," he said. "Make sure you're able to differentiate [in those markets], because we do see a fair amount of variability" among countries in what employees value.

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