· 7 min read · Features

Disgruntled staff are poised to move jobs - and even sectors


Research conducted exclusively for HR magazine by FreshMinds Talent reveals disgruntled staff are not only looking to move jobs they also want to switch sectors.

The world of business might be talking about the 'green shoots of recovery', but for actual employees it is more a case of the 'grass is greener', with high levels of job dissatisfaction and a desire to move elsewhere when the economy recovers.

A desertion time bomb is the headline finding of research conducted exclusively for HR magazine by recruitment consultancy FreshMinds Talent. The research - which polled more than 500 employees in the five specific sectors of financial services, public services, professional services, retail, and technology, media and telecoms - is one of the first studies to ask employees how they rate their jobs now, what impact the economic slowdown has had on their chosen career paths and what they are likely to do about it after the recession ends. Conducted in July, the survey results paint a bleak picture of widespread dissatisfaction and, for bosses, what should be a worrying willingness among their staff to defect to pastures new.

Across all sectors, job dissatisfaction is a high 24%. For understandable reasons, the worst sector was retail (29%). Nearly half (47%) of all our respondents said they were working harder now than they were six months ago, but it is the spectre of redundancies, plus the effect the recession is having, that seems to be having the biggest impact. Apart from public services (where employee fear of losing their job was one in five), broadly one in three workers in the other four sectors say they are currently worried about being shown the door. But not only is the recession prompting fears about job security, this survey is the first definitive proof the downturn is causing a permanent change of mindset, causing staff to seriously doubt their entire choice of career.

Overall, 64% of all employees polled said it was specifically the recession that had prompted them to think about changing career. In the financial sector, this rose to 75%, where nearly half said it was 'a major factor' rather than a 'minor factor' or 'not at all'. Retail was also above average. Here 73% said the recession had prompted them to think about switching career, split between 41% who said it was a major factor and 32% who said it was a minor factor. Only in the public services sector did the recession appear to have virtually no impact - just 8% said the downturn was making them consider a new career path. This is backed up by the fact the public services sector also showed the highest levels of job satisfaction of all categories; 57% were either 'very satisfied' or 'satisfied' with their job, with a further 18% being neutral about it.

Changed expectations

James Callander, director at FreshMinds Talent, says: "The recession has clearly altered the trajectories of people's career choices. What they expect appears to have fundamentally changed. When the recovery comes employees will look to pick up their careers, and this adjustment threatens to be just as violent as the recession itself."

Such is this overall strength of feeling that even when public services workers are included in the average, a staggering 45% of all employees questioned now admit they regret having chosen their current sector. Two sectors had above-average regret, and true to form they are again the financial services sector and the retail sector - two of the worst-hit casualties of this recession. A whopping 50% of staff in these professions say they now rue their choice of career.

For HR directors worried about staff engagement and on-the-job performance, these findings make grim reading. On top of this, though, the survey reveals staff are not content to just moan and put up with their situation; they are seriously considering doing something about it.

HR/FreshMinds asked employees what they would most likely change about their careers in the next 12 months. A minimum of 15% of workers said they plan to get a job in a completely different industry (even those in the public services sector said this, where the figure was 17%). Highest was retail, where a fifth (20%) of all staff working there want to leave the sector for a different industry altogether.

According to Michael Moran, CEO of Fairplace, this is evidence that the psychological contract between employers and employees has hit an all-time low: "Just 18 months ago people needed a 30% salary before they would consider moving; now we're seeing it's only 5%. What's been identified is that dissatisfaction rules. The impact of the recession has been that people have been left far less engaged."

The countdown to a mass exodus of staff has already started, but the end of the recession seems to be the more likely point at which most people make the jump. Most employees in our survey said they saw this happening in the second and third quarters of 2010.

According to Tom Hadley, director, Recruitment and Employment Confederation, the survey confirms what it sees, that job movement is a very real threat: "There's been a hiatus in the normally fluid recruitment market. People who would have moved have not, and a bottleneck has been building up that will be ready to burst soon. This is compounded by the fact people are willing to make more radical career changes. Before, people would tend to move sideways. This is no longer the case."

Normally HR directors might well be happy to see such grumbling staff go, but these are not junior people, so the figures ought to be taken seriously. The average salary of our respondents was £41,481, suggesting these are highly skilled. They are also very knowledgeable with an average age of 40 years. Andy Lowe, practice leader, talent management at employee lifecycle consultancy Right Management, says HR cannot take these findings lightly. "Research we did only nine months ago suggested half would stay with their companies in the next five years. There has been a massive increase in dissatisfaction. While there will always be those who are unhappy and threaten to leave, this time the outlook danger seems much more real."

If these top people do go it is arguably through a failure of HR and their organisation's inability to keep their staff motivated during difficult times. This can be mooted because apart from the overall impact of recession and having to work harder, staff cite lack of skills and career progression as the factors contributing to their likelihood of changing industries - these are two things HR directors certainly have control over.

For example, the report finds those in the finance sector are most worried about the recession leaving their skill-sets out of date. A whole quarter believe their skills will be outdated in a post-recession world. This compares with just 8% of public services workers who think the same thing. Financial workers' skills fears were double those of employees in the technology, media and telecoms sectors (12%), and almost double those who worked in professional services (14%). Employees clearly want to protest about the lack of progression they have had since the recession started. The majority of respondents in our survey said they did not expect to get promoted for at least one to two years.

So where exactly do these disgruntled workers want to go. This is perhaps the most interesting set of findings - it reveals all employees in all sectors think the grass is greener elsewhere.

The graphic (p36) shows the dominant 'other sector' staff from each existing sector want to move into. The extraordinary finding is that more staff in three out of five sectors want to move into public services. The strongest feeling was among financial services staff, where 71% said they most want to move into the public sector. The dominant 'other sector' those working in retail wanted to work in was technology. Interestingly, although job satisfaction among public services workers is highest, those working in the sector clearly do not see their profession in the same light as those from the financial, professional services and technology/media/telecoms sectors who want to move into it. In fact there seems to be a straight swap of desire in play: 64% in technology/media/telecoms say they want to switch to public services; about the same in public services (71%) want to switch to technology/media/telecoms.

So is everyone deluded about each other's sector? Will hoards of dissatisfied staff be moving into jobs they think are better but, in reality, are just as bad as the sectors they have left? And what will this do to their sense of wellbeing?

In for a shock?

These are certainly tantalising questions. Moran thinks those who think the grass is greener could be in for a shock. "It is likely the public sector will experience private-sector-style job losses in the next 18 months. We're predicting a 10% fall," he says. "Also, same-sector, same-skills movements account for about 70% of job moves. We think it's unlikely people will be able to move to different sectors with the same skills. Maybe this is why respondents to the survey are so worried about their current skills levels."

Despite this, employees seem to have developed a strong view that the sector they most want to move to offers significantly better career progression than their current one. Retail staff are the most likely to think their other chosen sector offers greater advancement - at a high 68%. But there is a high percentage of staff (over 60%) in two other sectors (finance and technology/media/telecoms) who also think their other chosen sectors would give them better career opportunities. If all these sectors are so good, no one would want too be leaving them, so there is an obvious 'grass is greener' view among all employees. Worryingly though, it suggests they will also be in for a shock if they do indeed make good their intentions to leave - again, not good news for HRDs.

Having misguided, or even rose-tinted, views about other sectors is not new, but what the recession certainly seems to be influencing is respondents' views about the stability of their sector. In the heavily rocked financial and retail sectors, 58% and 45% of those in the financial and retail sectors respectively think their preferred 'other' sectors will be 'more stable'. Across the board, at least a third of respondents think their other chosen industries would be more stable than their current ones. Again, this could be a delusionary belief, but the belief is there nonetheless.

Whether employees will actually go through with their threats to leave is something only time will tell, but if one message comes across loud and clear, it is that HR professionals cannot afford to take these results lightly.

As Right Management's Lowe says: "This report flags up just how serious an exodus from companies could be when the economy picks up. If HR directors start now, and start a dialogue with their staff about their value proposition and the changes that have happened, there is a chance staff will re-engage. There is just about enough time to turn things around. And for those who want to attract talent from neighbouring sectors, there has never been a better time. Now is the time employees feel most minded to take a risk and change sectors. This is the time to reach out for them while the opportunity is there."

- Who was polled?

FreshMinds polled 502 white-collar employees during July 2009, approximately 100 employees in each of the sectors measured. The gender split was 50:50, while the age breakdown was as follows: approximately a third were classified as Generation Y (under 30) a third Generation X (aged between 30-45) and a third as Baby Boomers (over 50). A geographical spread of respondents was also gathered.