Tuesday, July 5, 2022

A Rude Awakening

We have all heard about the Great Resignation. Scores of young people have been quitting their jobs, seeking greener pastures, more money and even better work/life balance. In some cases the employees are women who discovered the advantages of spending more time with their growing children. In other cases, it was just plain laziness.

At the very least the Great Resignation should put quit to the notion that Americans have a great work ethic. In the past, we like to think, we had a great work ethic. If we are to believe Max Weber, it descended from the Protestant Reformation. One suspects that, before the pandemic made office work taboo, the great American work ethic was on life support.

One feels compelled, considering the theme of this post, to point out that the Great Resignation happened at a time when the job market was, dare we say, robust. Jobs were going begging, companies were begging people to take jobs, even when the people in question could barely do the jobs, and this gave applicants and job holders the sense that they could follow their bliss, ignore company loyalty, forget about socializing with their colleagues and quit their jobs unceremoniously. After all, there were so many jobs out there, so why settle?

Need we say, if these people had anything like a work ethic they would not have been indulging in adolescent behavior, looking for jobs that would make them feel that they were saving the world or were enhancing their own spirituality.

But then, something happened on the way to the forum. The stock markets and even the crypto markets tanked. They fell into bear market territory, wiping the smiles from the faces of Gen Zers who were wallowing in their own self-esteem. And then, one Elon Musk declared that people who were working for one of his companies would be obliged to show up for work, in person, in the flesh. Otherwise, he would fire them.

With a recession looming, executives are becoming more fearless in laying down the rules. Investment banker Rich Chandler of Jeffries and Co. told his staff that remote work was possible for those who just wanted a job, but those who wanted careers would be obliged to show up.

Fortune magazine reported:

“If you want a job, stay remote all the time and be efficient in a very limited way,” Handler writes. “If you want a career, engage with the rest of us in the office and use wfh only when smart, flexibility is essential, mental health calls, and life balance needs help.”

Handler explains to Fortune that he views a job as working for a paycheck and focusing on short-term goals. He says a career prioritizes long-term goals, including personal development, forging relationships, caring about the organization, and building long-term wealth.

Funnily enough, the Jeffries honchos have declared that showing up for work was good for one’s mental health:

In May, Handler and Jefferies president Brian Friedman sent a staff memo regarding a return to the office. While it didn’t issue an in-office mandate, it preached that “the magic of being together in person” outweighs the negatives of commuting and anxiety surrounding a lack of comfort. Stating that mental health has improved as the office has filled, the executives wrote that mid-level and junior employees “are justifiably feeling abandoned” without senior mentors in office.

It’s not quite Elon Musk, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

And then there is Daniel Greenleaf, CEO of a health services company. He warns young people, those who have never dealt with a recession, that if they can do their jobs remotely, then people in other parts of the world can also do so. And besides, given the training that American young people have received in university, they have an appalling work ethic. Uh, oh.

Greenleaf wrote this in the Wall Street Journal:

A hot job market gave employees an unrealistic sense of their irreplaceability. At our call centers, absenteeism and attrition climbed. We found less loyalty among technical staffers, who often jumped employers for a slight increase in salary or a change of scenery.

We couldn’t find the committed workers we needed here, so we looked offshore. Today, 70 people work for us in Bangalore, India, and there will be more than 120 by the end of the year. We’ve found the same level of talent as in the U.S., but with turnover this year of less than 5%. And by reducing labor cost, the shift allowed us to reward motivated U.S. employees with more money.

How does an executive view workers who fail to show up in the office? Not well:

A motivated employee is willing to come into the office. This requirement runs contrary to the postpandemic work-at-home revolt, but it creates the best experience for the patients we serve, boosts team morale, and helps our employees develop professionally.

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon. As a father of two young adults with strong work ethics, I know there are plenty of wonderful young employees out there. Still, fellow CEOs often tell me how hard it is to recruit and retain employees who want to learn and grow on the job and then stay long-term.

He suggests that the coming recession will provide young people with a rude awakening:

Job security will again take precedence over job hopping. Surging prices and a wave of layoffs would give younger workers a newfound appreciation for their paychecks. Workers will feel fortunate to commit to a company and think about moving up rather than moving on. They’ll think more about what they can do to improve the customer experience and less about what they don’t feel like doing.

A recession will be a rough way to learn this important lesson, but employees and employers will be better for it.

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