They are calling it the Great Resignation. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.4 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs in September 2021, culminating in six straight months where the number of voluntary separations from employment exceeded pre-pandemic highs. New claims for unemployment compensation are at historic lows (a stark contrast to the record number of claims when workplaces closed down or reduced staff during the 2020 lockdowns), which can only mean that resigning Americans are primarily leaving to work elsewhere, rather than to not work.
Why are so many quitting? Finding better pay or working conditions are a given (and nothing new). Somewhat newer considerations include protection of personal and family health, interest in remote work and other personal priorities. In fact, most of the recent resignations have occurred in industries with public-facing staff such as health care, food services and retail. Some employees are leaving in-person positions to take jobs with employers who either want, or will allow, them to work from their homes, a preference that developed when so many were forced to work remotely in 2020. Those who have strong feelings for or against vaccination may quit an employer that does not align with their views. But there may be something else, something less tangible, at play. Almost two years into a pandemic that has affected everyone to some degree, a feeling that life is short may be causing some to take a leap in a new direction or to finally pursue a dream.
Pay is an interesting element in the equation. Some states and cities across the country have begun enacting higher minimum wage laws, which has demonstrated that higher starting pay is not bankrupting employers.
Even in states where the federal $7.25/hour minimum wage still applies, large companies are beginning to offer entry-level wages at double, or approaching triple, the applicable minimum wage to attract applicants. Employers who pay less will undoubtedly lose applicants and could lose employees to these entities because, as the saying goes, it is always about the money.
However, an employer who wants to retain talent but is not in a position to pay the highest salaries or wages should strive to have employees who are so satisfied and feel so valued and appreciated that they aren’t motivated to look around for other opportunities. A strategy that is getting some traction in the current tight labor market is the “stay interview.” A stay interview is like an exit interview, but with a current employee the employer would like to retain instead of one who is leaving the company. Employees selected for the stay interview may be high-producing or mission-critical employees or those who otherwise bring exceptional value due to their skills, knowledge, expertise and/or experience. Supervisors can have an informal conversation with such employees about their role, what motivates or de-motivates them and any concerns, issues or problems they are experiencing or perceiving. The employer should be committed to making improvements or taking other actions as appropriate based on the comments and suggestions of interviewees, thereby demonstrating that it values the employee’s input and is willing to make changes to improve the working environment.
In addition to stay interviews, employers hoping to retain valuable staff should take care that employees are receiving challenging work assignments and opportunities and are being treated fairly and consistently. Employers should also be mindful of employee burnout, especially when staff shortages have increased employee workloads. Employers who assess which employees have not taken a vacation in a while and who encourage taking time off to recharge will demonstrate that they genuinely care about their employees’ well-being. Finally, regularly expressing gratitude to employees for their work and dedication to the company will go a long way toward making employees feel appreciated.
While it is often about the money, it is also true that satisfied employees likely won’t take the time to see if they can make more somewhere else. A focus on building strong, mutually beneficial relationships will help employers weather the current labor market challenges.•
• Germaine Winnick Willett is a senior counsel at Ice Miller LLP. Opinions expressed are those of the author.