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For many workers, fear of layoff is effective motivator

Sunday, June 7, 2009

(Photo)
Graphic designer Chris Kirkman poses May 8 near his firm in the University Town Center area of San Diego. Kirkman said he learned the hard way that it pays to hold on to vacation days. He was laid off earlier this year, and was paid for accrued vacation time, helping him pay bills before he landed a new job this spring.
(DENIS POROY ~ Associated Press)
Her job description says Madeline Adams is a social worker. But lately she's begun volunteering for tasks she never had before at the St. Louis marriage counseling agency where she works: planning events, ordering supplies, stocking shelves. She estimates she's put in hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime work.

Adams isn't gunning for a promotion. She just wants to keep her job.

Bosses around the country these days are discovering it's not too much to ask for a little extra help around the office. Anything but.

More employees seem to be showing up early, forgoing vacation time, taking on extra projects -- and doing it all with a smile (whether real or otherwise).

It's hard to say just how widespread the phenomenon is. But Labor Department figures show workers have sharply boosted their productivity over the past year as layoffs mounted. Workers' output-per-hour jumped 2.7 percent during 2008 -- nearly double the increase during 2007 and triple the increase in 2006.

Not all that extra productivity has been voluntary. Some workers are simply forced to do more as co-workers leave, notes Steve Davis, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute.

On Friday the government said employers cut 345,000 jobs in May, and the nation's jobless rate hit a quarter-century high of 9.4 percent. Fear of being the next layoff is pushing some workers to fight harder to cling to their jobs, said Bruce Tulgan, founder of New Haven, Conn.-based Rainmaker Thinking Inc., workplace consultants.

"I've started to see a sea change," Tulgan said. "A growing number of people are saying: 'I've got to roll my sleeves up and do something now.' They're finding ways they can identify problems before they happen."

At a restaurant where Tulgan consulted, the kitchen crew crafted a plan to reduce waste and please the cost-conscious managers. Rather than cook fries to order, they made them in batches of 100 at a time, so there were fewer to throw out between orders. Tulgan said they were hoping to stave off layoffs as business slowed.

Some workers are aiming for the "halo effect," said Bernie Sparks, founder of the 21st Century Leadership workplace consulting: When managers decide who goes and who stays, those seen as having a halo over their heads stand a better chance of surviving.

That's what Chris Kirkman is thinking. A graphic designer in San Diego, Kirkman plans to scrap the weeklong summer vacation he and his wife usually take. They'll instead take off a Friday and go on a long weekend road trip.

Kirkman says he thinks avoiding absences can help an employee build a reputation as especially dedicated to the company.

"It kind of pays to hold on to your vacation days," Kirkman said. "It not only helps when you get laid off, but it helps you work a little bit harder for your management to see."

Tulgan says forgoing vacation time isn't likely to save anyone's job. Managers tend to calculate the overall value each worker brings, regardless of how much or how little vacation they take.

"But on the other hand, if you disappear on a long vacation and nobody really misses you, then you might be putting ideas in a manager's head," he said.

And it's hardly guaranteed that anyone's sudden boost in productivity -- or attitude -- can avert a layoff. Bosses tend to see through behavior that amounts to, well, sucking up, said Gary Walstrom, founder of Culture Index Inc. consulting firm in Kansas City, Mo.

Walstrom helps companies decide whom to let go. He urges them to focus on hard data -- shedding the salesmen who generate the lowest revenue or the customer service staffer with the most unresolved complaints. Someone who starts showing up early once the economy sours isn't necessarily worth keeping.

Kathie Martin treats each workday as an eight-hour job interview. At 59, she has more than 30 years' experience in marketing and public relations. But she isn't counting on it to assure her job at Alabama Public Television in Birmingham.

In January, Martin was told her public relations position would be eliminated in two months. Then she got a break: A co-worker left his job in the not-for-profit station's fundraising department, creating an opening.

Martin had never done fundraising. But her boss offered her a deal: She could stay at the station if she spent most of her time on fundraising. She leapt at the chance.

She feels today's tight economy doesn't provide the luxury to turn down any job, even if it's not in your field of expertise.

"You can't just rely on what you already know; you have to keep learning," she said. "The more you know, the more valuable to the company you are."

Learning how to solicit money has demanded new skills, Martin said. So she's working longer hours -- and not complaining about it.

Some unionized workers have decided to accept pay cuts or sacrifice benefits to save their jobs. In Multnomah County, Ore., county workers voluntarily agreed to surrender their usual cost-of-living pay raises to save the county money.

Union president Ken Allen said his members realized that sinking tax revenue could eventually force layoffs. The concessions are temporary, he said. Workers will wait until revenue rises to ask for the raises back.

Companies can use the recession as a motivating force, said Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

"It's possible that you can scare people into performing better," Cappelli said. "It is also possible you might be able to engage the employee in some sort of improved performance if there is this view that: 'If we all pull together, we might get through this."'

Not that things always work out smoothly.

"Workers in a downturn can also get so nervous that they just freeze up and aren't able to do good work, especially if they're afraid of being laid off and it's not clear what the standards are," Cappelli said.

That's why some employees are pushing for more face time with the boss.

Luke Walters, an engineering construction consultant in Chicago, grew fearful last year as construction projects slowed. His firm still had work. But he'd heard of engineers being laid off at other firms.

He met with his manager.

"I said: 'Look, is the economic downturn going to affect me and my position?"'

His manager said it eventually could. But he agreed to notify Walters if job cuts might be looming. Meantime, Walters can focus on his work and keep his productivity up, without feeling the need to send out resumes to potential employers.

Adams, the St. Louis social worker, wishes she were so relaxed. She fears reduced federal funding could cause staff cuts at her agency.

If so, Adams, 30, wants to be last in line when managers start deciding who's expendable.

In taking on more than her regular duties, she figures, "I make sure I'm a person the agency can't do without."


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