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The Employee Engagement Enigma: Lateral Moves

It’s no secret: the job market is riddled with inefficiency.

On the recruiting side, online talent platforms, networking sites, and job-search algorithms have made professional match-making more streamlined, but with increased access to both qualified and unqualified candidates. Even when employers successfully pinpoint their own needs, they must sift through a dizzying number of applications, each with its own question marks. That’s not a recipe for confident decision-making, which may explain the recent surge in part-time hires and contract labor.

But make no mistake; the real resource-drain resides at the other end of the hiring cycle: turnover. Interviewing, onboarding, and training take precious time and money. When an employee contributes for the long haul, they’re among the wisest investments a business can make. But when an employee jumps ship? Those resources are lost forever, and the return employers count on disappears.

Today, workers are relying on lateral moves to maximize opportunities. More than half of employees are actively hunting for a new job or watching for openings. The days of the gold watch are gone.

To understand why is to recognize the challenges facing employees: fierce competition, shifting expectations, and stagnant compensation, to name a few. In the wake of the recession, many employees adapted by pushing hard on professional development, taking on new responsibilities, or pivoting toward a different career track.

Adding skills does give workers more options. And the result? In 2014, 86 percent of employed jobseekers were looking for work outside their occupations. They’re not afraid to enter a different field and that too impacts retention.

In this interplay between push and pull factors, job satisfaction is a critical part of the equation. Here’s a sobering statistic: less than a third of U.S. employees feel engaged at work, according to a Gallup tracking survey. Think about that. The large majority of the American workforce is disengaged, dissatisfied, and dispirited, which translates to low productivity and lost value. A May report from McKinsey cites that some “30 to 45 percent of the working-age population around the world is underutilized – that is, unemployed, inactive, or underemployed.”

What’s an employer to do?

For business leaders, the key to improving employee engagement is understanding what really makes team members feel fulfilled in their roles. In our workplace engagement research for companies like Delta Airlines, Hilton, Uber, and HBO, we have seen everyday employees provide honest, measurable feedback on the toughest topics. Some conversations are simply too difficult to have directly with management. Yet time and time again, employees have demonstrated their willingness to tell us what’s really on their mind. What gets them engaged. How to help them do their job better, and what’s likely to make them STAY.

One subtle but significant indicator is how team members think about their relationship to the company. Our research has consistently revealed that those who say they have a “job” are not long for employ with a given firm. Those who say they have a “career” are likely to stick around for the long haul. Their perceptions define their professional trajectory; your company culture defines whether that arc goes up – or out.

After all, the instinct to change jobs shares the same spark of imagination and excitement that drives your company to expand and invest. It’s an entrepreneurial decision … it’s striving for better. So, direct that passion internally. Provide room for employee engagement, growth, and development within your organization.

Projections, expansions, and future hires are exciting to think about. But it’s current employees who shape the future of your company. They’re an underutilized – and too often underserved – resource, right at your fingertips. They understand your operational nuances that can only be mastered up close. If you want to stay ahead of employee engagement issues in your industry, listen to their perspective – now. Don’t wait until the exit interview; by then it will be too late.

Joel Pelovitz is a senior research associate at Luntz Global.