With jobs at stake team spirit tends to suffer as people focus on proving their own worth.
The past year has seen a shift from employees being able to call the shots on what they want from employment to being placed in the predicament of wondering whether they dare leave their job in such a turbulent climate.
Demands for better pay, promotions and improved benefits packages seem to be a thing of the past as a large portion of the UK workforce try to lie low, away from the redundancy spotlight. But what psychological and sociological impacts will this have in the office?
Recent Ceridian research into the views of more than 1,000 UK employees asked staff what they feared most in the downturn and which things they would be willing to compromise to keep their jobs. One of the most worrying statistics was that one in 10 would tolerate unacceptable behaviour from managers - just to remain employed.
This highlights a real concern for HR directors. It is crucial to ensure that, even during tough times, staff are being looked after. Otherwise, as soon as an economic upturn is in sight they will jump ship, probably to a competitor, with sensitive information in hand - decimating the talent pipeline.
It is even more vital to keep a close eye on behavioural changes and ensure employees remain protected from bullying and harassment. The office is becoming a more hostile environment with one in 10 saying they would be willing to stab their colleagues in the back and one in five admitting they would be ruthless to stay employed.
Such attitudes are not hard to understand. During a recessionary climate employees become anxious about their personal situation both at work and at home. As companies downsize or go out of business altogether, the number of dual-income households diminish and people place a premium on retaining employment - almost at any cost.
As a result, unattractive personal qualities can emerge. Often teamwork is diluted as employees try to demonstrate their individual value to the business - a tactic used by one in 10 in our survey who agreed self-promotion was the best approach to securing their job. Personal accountability can also diminish - especially on initiatives that may be encountering difficulties - as employees distance themselves from unsuccessful activities, leaving others to take the blame.
Others prefer to stay out of workplace games altogether to be seen as not causing a fuss. These employees will tolerate unacceptable behaviour from colleagues knowing they can leave as soon as more prosperous times arrive. Meanwhile, their productivity and creativity decline just when employers most require such attributes.
If an organisation is making cutbacks, staff know the successful are most likely to survive and they feel they have to prove themselves worthy of keeping their job. Typically this makes them reluctant to share information and skills. Such behaviour has a major impact on teamwork and productivity and represents real risk for the organisation if these individuals choose to leave in the future.
Employers owe a duty of care to their employees: this includes operating in a way that reduces anxiety and stress as much as possible, encourages and recognises behaviours that promote teamwork, maintains senior management visibility and increases opportunities for dialogue.
In times like these, employees value openness and honesty about the state of the company. Four in five respondents to our survey said so. Engaging in open dialogue may also produce creative alternatives to redundancy. The answer to maintaining a healthy work environment and to sustaining employee engagement levels lies in involving employees in finding solutions. HR plays a critical role in equipping managers at all levels to listen and coach effectively. They have a vested interest in maintaining productivity in the short term and retaining key talent in the long term.
Karan Paige is chief people officer, Ceridian.
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