In the old days, people often worked for the same company their entire careers. Today, however, not all employees and employers have loyalty, so lifetime employment is a 21st century anachronism. At least that’s the story we're all being told.
Kristin Smith, a family demographer at the University of New Hampshire, has heard it often. “There’s been a popular notion that job tenure has been decreasing,” she says. “People tend to think, with offshoring and temporary work and job loss, that job tenure has been decreased.”
The problem with the story is that it’s not quite right. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employees are actually more likely today to stay with the same employer than in the past. In January 2014, the BLS found that 33.3 percent of workers aged 25 and over had 10 years or more with their current employer, compared to 30.6 percent in 2004. And median tenure for workers aged 16 and over was 4.6 years, up from four years a decade earlier.
This is no 10-year anomaly, either. Similar trends appear over the longer term. A 2012 report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute examined U.S. Census Bureau data and found that median worker tenure was slightly higher in 2012, at 5.4 years, than in 1983, when it was five years.
Getting the Story Straight
Why do so many people have the opposite impression? One possible explanation Smith and a co-researcher discovered during a recent study is that for some workers, specifically males and single females, there actually has been a small decrease in job tenure over time. However, a larger increase in job tenure among married mothers masked that decline in the overall statistics, Smith says.
Another possible explanation is that during the recession, which increased many workers’ fears of being laid off, employees with less tenure were more likely to be laid off. “If you’ve been there a year, they let you go, as opposed to the person who’s been there five or 10 years,” Smith says. She notes that this phenomenon, which has been supported by other research she’s done, could lead to an increase in the proportion of workers with longer tenure.
Whatever the reason for today's popular misconceptions about job security, when employers wrongly believe that their workers are anxious to flit off to other companies, this point of view seems unlikely to help them manage those workers effectively.
Why Engagement Is Critical
Of course, not everybody thinks tenure is that big of a deal. “The real question is, 'Why are people staying?'” says Angelo Kinicki, a professor who teaches leadership and organizational culture at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business. “They’re staying because there’s no job opportunity [elsewhere].”
Kinicki says a more important measure is engagement. Human resources consulting firm Aon Hewitt says engaged employees are those who “invest their discretionary effort in the right behaviors to achieve future business results.” “That means people come to work excited, fired up, wanting to do their best,” Kinicki explains.
But tenure and engagement, Kinicki notes, aren't the same thing. Keeping employees who aren't engaged doesn't help employers as much as having greater engagement among all employees. And, Kinicki adds, the best performers are the employees most likely to quit in search of better prospects. “Tenure isn't necessarily correlated with productivity,” he explains. “Job satisfaction is, as is engagement.”
Employee engagement figures, however, are generally positive. According to Aon Hewitt’s 2014 report on engagement, 65 percent of U.S. employees are engaged, up 1 percent from 2013. It’s also better than the global average of 61 percent and ahead of all other regions except Latin America, where 70 percent of employees were considered engaged. For Kinicki, this is bad news, because it suggests more than a third of U.S. employees aren't engaged.
An Employer's Next Steps
The tenure situation of U.S. employees is apparently more complicated than many of us expected. However, there's general agreement about what employers need to do to increase tenure as well as engagement, satisfaction and productivity.
Smith says jobs that offer flexible schedules, time off for parental leave and similar accommodations appear to encourage employees to stick around. “There seems to be a clear link between employers that offer different types of job flexibility and employee loyalty,” Smith says. This may be especially true when it comes to married mothers, Smith adds.
Kinicki says employers can start by hiring the right people, such as those who are optimistic and proactive, because those type of people tend to be more engaged. “Some companies are [using] personality testing to try to select people with some of those characteristics,” he notes.
When employees feel the work they do is meaningful and that they have a choice in how the work is to be done, Kinicki says, that also tends to increase engagement. Individual leaders can also help by empowering those who work for them by giving employees more autonomy.
Less intuitively, humility has been shown to be a powerful generator of engagement. “We’ve found when CEOs were humble, that led to engagement two levels down in the organization,” Kinicki says.
It’s not clear, however, whether today’s business leaders are popularly considered more humble than those of the past (serious research into the topic only began fairly recently). However, if tomorrow’s leaders exhibit greater humility, employees’ tendency to keep their jobs longer may continue to improve.
Read more articles on employee management.
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