For many workers, fear of layoff is motivator | NevadaAppeal.com

For many workers, fear of layoff is motivator

CHRISTOPHER LEONARD
AP Business Writer

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 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.

The pressure mounted Friday, when 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.”

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.

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.