The Upper Hand

I read a column in Time Magazine about a month ago that has since been resonating with me. The column was about how the current economic crisis has given many employers the upper hand. With unemployment numbers increasing daily, and job opportunities shrinking, individuals who still hold jobs and benefits are feeling more grateful than ever. They know that their options are limited at best, and that simply keeping a job in this market has provided them with a very fortunate circumstance. Feeling beholden to their employers, they are aiming to please at all costs.

Many employers have tightened their budgets to compensate for the economic downturn. To this end, some have had to let go of employees and/or have implemented a hiring freeze. If the business is still keeping pace, this means that existing employees are carrying more of the load than they did before the economy turned sour. They are working harder and longer hours than ever expected and they are being asked to do more than their original job description ever outlined. All this without an increase in pay, I might add. And here’s the thing: they don’t dare quit or speak up, because they don’t want to lose their jobs. They have families to feed and bills to pay.

It’s become easy to take advantage of workers, so it’s important to keep this in check. People who have jobs are willing to take on extra duties or to work extra hard because they are focused solely on the gratitude of having a paying gig in the first place. That’s how things get unbalanced. The stress level alone takes a huge toll on them. And the fact that they aren’t being assertive in a way they might’ve been before, takes a further toll on their self esteem. They may have work and they may be able to pay the bills when their neighbors can’t, but that doesn’t make it okay.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame business owners for cutting back on their budgets right now. Many businesses are simply trying to stay afloat and, for the most part, they’re just trying to be pragmatic around the current circumstances. It makes absolute sense. There’s no arguing with limited funds and the prospect of a possible or likely decrease in business. However, there are temporary solutions that can be implemented to keep hard working employees fulfilled, if not at least, truly grateful.

An office I know has approached it this way. Though the staff may work long hours on some days, they’ve been granted the opportunity to come late or leave early on the days when it’s less busy. This has helped pick up their spirits significantly. They get to recoup and recharge, and their appreciation is palpable. They smile more often. They come into the office looking rejuvenated. They joyfully talk about what they were able to do with that extra time. There are other options that can be considered, too. What about extending them a few more days of vacation for this fiscal year? Or, if that isn’t viable, what about getting them gift certificates for an hour massage? After all, employers can easily write that off for next year’s taxes. And their staff will appreciate being given the opportunity to truly relax during this stressful time.

At the very least, employers should remember to give thanks. Employees are doing most of the thanking these days because they’re grateful to have a job and be spared the experience of standing in long unemployment lines. However, it’s just as vital for employers to realize when their workers are putting in that extra mile for them. Pats on the back and warm words of appreciation go a long way. Acknowledgement of the situation on both sides is key.

One thing we’re all learning as we watch the fall out of banks and auto manufacturers and investment groups is not to take anything for granted. Nothing comes with an absolute guarantee. So let’s take the time to express gratitude for what we do have, and to extend a helping hand in both directions. We’re all in this together.