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Tight job market forces companies to coddle workers

Businesses try flex time, mentoring, and concierge services to retain

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In one of the tightest labor markets since World War II, companies across the United States are going to extraordinary lengths to retain workers - offering everything from on-site shirt-laundering services to special lounges for Gen-Xers.

While companies have long been scrambling to recruit workers from the outside, many are now putting increased emphasis on keeping the engineers and accountants they have. It is leading to fundamental changes in workplace culture.

Behind the corporate coddling is the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years - 4.2 percent. Companies not only need to keep their cubicles full as business expands. They're also trying to prevent workers from jumping to other firms at the drop of a bigger bonus. Workplace piracy, in some sectors, has become as intense as anytime since Blackbeard.

"The job market is Spandex tight," says AT&T personnel expert Burke Stinson. "It's hard to hold on to promising workers because other companies have open doors."

"Just about every call we are getting these weeks is about employee retention," says Caela Farren, president of MasteryWorks Inc., a human resource consulting-education firm based in Annandale, Va.

As a result, businesses are taking unusual, and uncharacteristic, steps. Take Massachusetts Financial Services Co., a mutual-fund pioneer in buttoned-down Boston. Last spring, in an effort to become more employee-friendly, the firm introduced "casual Friday," allowing workers to leave their pumps and pin stripes at home. Then casual Friday became a casual summer. Now the company's 2,500 employees can wear "business casual" clothing - not jeans or halter tops - any day of the week.

Layoffs persist, too

To be sure, many companies are still laying off people. Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago outplacement firm that tracks downsizings, reckons that US employers have announced 495,510 jobs cuts so far this year. That is 38 percent higher than in the first eight months of 1998, a record year.

At the same time, however, companies are striving to attract and keep their workers with not just more pay and the standard package of health and pension benefits but a host of other techniques. For example:


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