By Gwenhwyfar Frazier
In May of 2021, Anthony Klotz predicted to Bloomberg Businessweek that a tsunami of resignations was imminent. Klotz, an Associate Professor of Management at Texas A&M University, termed this phenomenon The Great Resignation. In Klotz’s assessment, many workers who had intended to resign before the pandemic ultimately decided to stay at their jobs once the pandemic hit. However, as the world began to resume some semblance of normalcy during 2021, many of those employees resigned as they’d originally intended.
“2021 has been a wild ride,” says Tiffany McGinty, SVP at Media Recruiting Group. “Companies are struggling to fill positions, across the board—Sales, Account Management, Marketing, Ad Ops, the list goes on. And you know the saying, ‘Money is King’? Talent is definitely leveraging this candidates’ market for better pay and promotions. I’ve even heard of some companies offering their current employees $20,000-$30,000 bonuses this year, just to keep them happy.”
As companies scramble to fill personnel voids, they will need to be mindful of the right next steps to take, to evolve with the times. Here’s some expert advice on what today’s candidates really want, and how your company can use those desires to recruit and retain high-caliber candidates in 2022.
Restless Talent: What Drove the Great Resignation
Desire for Freedom
Today’s candidates want freedom in their jobs. This often means the ability to work remotely, but it can also mean flexible scheduling. People also want the freedom to develop their careers, grow their skill sets, and evolve their professional identities.
“I was looking for a role that would allow me to build my digital marketing skills and expand my responsibilities,” says Zev Newman, Content Manager at Katon Direct. “I also wanted to join an organization that allows employees to work remotely, and prioritizes results over time spent.” And, like many candidates, he valued transparency during job interviews: “I steered clear of companies that gave vague answers to my questions, or that didn’t have the resources to help me succeed.”
Many candidates are seeking the same things. “A new study of 1,000 workers that we just completed showed that more than anything, workers want autonomy at their jobs,” explains Ben Eubanks, HR Analyst and Chief Research Officer at Lighthouse Research and Advisory. For many, this includes the ability to work remotely; but it also means flexibility about when and how they work.
In describing the “countless candidates” she has worked with who left their jobs in 2021, Sarah Bolds, Senior Account Manager at Apex Systems, who recruits for Microsoft, says, “I have worked with candidates who left in order to take care of their school-aged children who were learning remotely. I have also seen people leaving the workforce entirely to care for family members during the pandemic.”
But many people would likely have stayed with their companies, had they been permitted the freedom of flexible schedules and working remotely. Such candidates are finding better opportunities for themselves now, says Bold: “I have talked to a lot of folks who are taking advantage of the hot market, and leaving to capitalize on better pay and more interesting gigs.”
“I left a past place of employment because of its toxic, thankless culture,” says Vicky Kuperman, now Creative Director at Adfire Health. Kuperman worked for a company where positive rhetoric around DEI and championing women in senior leadership didn’t match actual hires. Kuperman also faced pressure to do things like check her work messages on Thanksgiving Day. There were no signs in sight of filling the growing number of vacant roles; work continued to pile onto the few people who were left. And then, finally, there was a return-to-office mandate.
Like so many others locked into similar dynamics before 2021, Kuperman sought out a new role elsewhere, in a work environment that would “provide good leadership, an opportunity for growth, and healthy work/life boundaries.”
Kuperman’s wish list reflects the desires of many candidates. “More than ever, candidates are placing a high value on non-monetary incentives,” says Anthony Gentile, Managing Partner at Live Recruit. “The workforce culture and the employer’s stance on social issues are at the top of every candidate’s list.” These concepts are intangible, but for companies to write them off as mere ephemera or a passing fad would be a terrible mistake.
Living a Full & Meaningful Life, Both at Work & Outside of Work
As people re-evaluated their priorities during the pandemic, most found that they wanted more of their energies to go to their loved ones and passion projects.
“I was looking for a supportive structure at work,” says Katherine Lewis, an RN who worked as a hospital nurse for 17 years before leaving her job in 2021. “I wanted a role that would offer better communication with my supervisors and team: clear expectations, clear job duties.” Lewis had known since she was a child that she wanted to become a nurse; there was never any question whether she found the work meaningful. However, the job where she was expected to be on call when she wasn’t actually on call—expected to be constantly available for both doctors and patients at any given moment—wasn’t giving her what she needed, which was respect for her identity and room for her family and her interests outside of the workplace.
Katherine Lewis is far from alone in having a story like this, says Jennifer Hernandez, Talent Acquisition Supervisor in Los Angeles, CA. The pandemic put America’s long-standing RN shortage into harsh perspective. “Yes, this is their job,” Hernandez acknowledges, “but the truth is that these healthcare providers did not sign up to treat and heal people under such dire and stressful circumstances.”
And, especially in such circumstances, the ability to maintain balance is key. Hernandez believes in centralizing employee support and wellness programs, and making them easily available to all employees. Her point is strong: it’s easy to see how free support and wellness programs built into Lewis’ work day, for example, might have made her feel that she was being cared for at work. It could also have helped her better manage the stress and trauma of her job, thus allowing her to be a healthier, more centered individual outside of work.
“Now is the time we have to be open to considering alternative work schedules, and be creative in the training and retention programs we develop and implement,” Hernandez says. If we want our healthcare providers to take care of us, we have to take care of them, too.
In Katherine Lewis’ particular case, she ultimately secured a new position as an RN Care Manager that allows her to work remotely. Lewis says she values the new position because it allows her to cultivate wellness, harmony, and a deep sense of meaning in multiple areas of her life.
How Companies Can Adapt to Acquire & Retain Top Talent
The Great Resignation is a result of many candidates stepping away from positions and companies that weren’t adequately serving their interests. However, many employers do feel that they’ve done their best to support the talent.
But, as Ben Eubanks says, “If an employer thinks they’re doing what they can to offer support, but the talent still feels unsupported, did it really happen?” As we’ve seen, for many candidates, this answer has resonated as a firm “No.”
So, what new models can companies implement to meet candidates’ needs more effectively, without compromising the bottom line?
1) For starters, companies that already embrace flexible and supportive structures can emphasize this in their branding. “Explaining and exploring that in job postings, interviews, and other employer branding can drive greater talent attraction and engagement,” Eubanks says. And candidates will need to see that your company actually does offer these types of freedom and support.
“Most candidates went above and beyond their normal KPIs during the past two years working remotely. Their current company wanted them back in the office five days a week,” says Deven Lall-Perry, Recruiter & DEI Advocate. “Because they have a culture [of mandatory in-person office attendance], these candidates weren’t being recognized at work for the success they were bringing into the organization. Companies who are not able to pivot into remote working environments are losing out on a huge chunk of talent across the country.”
2) Another common problem candidates expressed is that their company spoke of DEI values or initiatives, but didn’t follow through with significant action. “Some of the various concerns I’ve heard are: no one looks like me in the entire company; or there is no one like me on the managerial, VP or director level,” Lall-Perry says. “If candidates don’t see diversity in the organization at all levels, they feel like companies are just paying lip service to the idea of DEI and not really moving forward.” Gone are the days when a ‘we just choose the best person for each job’ defense for a lack of diversity will pacify candidates.
But that’s not all the work that needs to be done in order to stay afloat in this new hiring landscape.
3) As Eightfold AI’s Todd Raphael notes, “Companies have typically looked for someone who has done the job before. We need a cybersecurity analyst—let’s go find one. We need a user-experience expert—let’s go find one. That worked to a point, but isn’t working now.” Instead, companies need to start considering candidates based upon their individual skill sets and potential, rather than very specific, categorical forms of prior experience.
For example, Raphael suggests, “It could be that someone in an accounts payable role, or a copy-editor role . . . could be trained [as the company’s] next user-experience expert. They may have similar skills to those needed to fill that user-experience role. It just takes a new way of thinking about work, based on skills and potential.”
When asked about The Great Resignation, Katherine McCord, President of premiere recruiting and consulting group Titan Management, and Titan ATS, an anti-bias applicant tracking system, says bluntly, “It makes me laugh that companies are shocked by this happening.” McCord offers up a couple of crucial facts, sourced from Harvard Business Review:
“The main age group driving [The Great Resignation] are 35-45 year olds (mid-career), and the two industries suffering the most are medical and IT, [and] in manual labor and retail as well. It is primarily happening in groups that are overdue for better pay, benefits, and appreciation, or that are drastically overworked.
“So, if you are a company looking to retain or hire, here is what you keep in mind: Be generous. Consider unlimited PTO, and do not micromanage its use. Create growth plans, offer education, and utilize employee idea groups to generate innovation in the workplace. People are tired and stressed. You need to help them realize that you will treat them like a human, not a commodity or tool.”
Considering Future Models for Successful Workplace Culture
Going forward, successful companies will need to be creative in terms of how to offer freedom and flexibility. They might consider gathering internal data—not just via exit interviews, but also “please stay” interviews, which are gaining steam in the workplace.
They can analyze how remote work, flexible scheduling, PTO, and other benefits actually affect their top and bottom lines. There is ample recent evidence to suggest that they increase employee productivity and loyalty.
Forward-thinking companies are also going to want to formulate new strategies for team-building and morale-boosting. This is especially true for those whose employees do work remotely. As Sarah Bolds put it, “Anyone can set up a Slack or Teams channel, but getting folks to utilize those tools to replace the ‘water cooler chats’ of the in-person office is sometimes a struggle.”
But that doesn’t make it impossible; for example, some companies with a large remote workforce do quarterly off-site meetings and retreats, where team members meet in person, and learn more about each other’s day-to-days.
But, more to the point, companies that want to keep a progressive mindset and encourage growth are going to need to rethink the candidate experience and the hiring process—not just to streamline the extant steps, but to create a more efficient path to talent acquisition and retention.
Some jobs that currently require a four-year degree might not actually need to be filled by a candidate who holds a four-year degree. Some viable candidates might have acquired comparable knowledge elsewhere, such as on-the-job training, working their way up in a given field, or even through military service. As Todd Raphael notes, some employers may be complaining “that ‘good people are hard to find,’ but at the same time ruling out people who have too much experience, or who need too much time off to care for their parents, or for some other reason that doesn’t have a clear link to the qualifications of the job.”
The good news is that, while there is so much work to be done, a lot of it is compelling and interesting—and should lay a serious foundation for hiring trends in the decades to come. Change brings challenge, and for those of us who love a good challenge, 2022 is sure to be a fascinating and pivotal year!