A Predictably Irrational Way to Lose Our Best Employees

There is thought-provoking news to be drawn from the latest quarterly “Employee Outlook” survey report published by the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD): short-sighted cuts in training budgets may be laying the groundwork for an exodus of our best employees.

Here’s what the report shows: Job satisfaction levels in the United Kingdom are, as we might suspect in the current recession, very low (approximately 35% of the more than 2,000 public, private, and nonprofit sector employees surveyed—p. 2 of the report). More than a third of the respondents said they would change jobs within the next year if they could (p. 3). Nearly one-fourth of those who would like to change jobs would “be looking in a different sector” (p. 3). More than a third of all surveyed said they would seek a different type of work if they decided to switch jobs (p. 15). And approximately 40 percent of the respondents said one of the main reasons they would attempt to switch jobs is “to learn new things.”

That level of movement is consistent with what I have seen and read about in organizations here in the United States whenever there is an economic downturn. The latest report suggests that there remains a tremendous need and interest in effective training-learning opportunities out there at a time when there are clear signs that spending on workplace learning and performance programs has fallen. Younger employees currently entering the workplace, furthermore, are also continuing a related trend documented earlier: the Pew Research Center’s recent report on Millennials suggests that these incoming employees will be the best educated we’ve ever seen, and they expect to engage in lifelong learning to remain competitive.

Someone, we might conclude, is clearly not reading between the lines here or seeing the possibilities inherent in this situation.

Less than half of those responding to the CIPD survey said that their managers and supervisors discuss their workplace learning and performance needs. Slightly more than one-fourth of the employees said “their manager always/usually coaches them on the job” (p. 2). While cutbacks in training programs appear to be slowing down, more than 20 percent of the respondents said those sorts of cutbacks have occurred during the past year (p. 10).

Training, as numerous reports have shown and as Deena Sami noted in the Orange County Register earlier this month, is a critically important element contributing to employees’ workplace satisfaction and success. Yet we seem to fall into the trap of making what Dan Ariely calls “predictably irrational” decisions in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions; we engage in predictably irrational behavior every time we reduce workplace learning and performance programs rather than increasing them when employee morale is already sinking.

The situation documented by the CIPD report becomes even more predictably irrational when we listen to presentations like the one given by American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) CEO Tony Bingham at the organization’s annual Chapter Leaders Conference in Arlington, VA last autumn. Bingham, addressing workplace learning and performance professionals from across the country, warned that those waiting for training programs to return to companies which had eliminated them were counting on “a dream, a fantasy.” Company executives who had made those cuts told Bingham they were satisfied with the reductions and don’t intend to bring back the programs they have eliminated.

Our challenge in workplace learning and performance, then, is straightforward. If we see the possibility of a huge exodus looming for our organizations when the global economy improves, and if we know that the exodus will be fueled by a desire for first-rate learning opportunities which we are not providing, we clearly need to be creating and supporting new learning opportunities for those treasured employees we currently have—before we lose them to smarter and more innovative employers.

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