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As many as one-third of North American employers plan to reduce their workforces in 2009, yet it's the other two-thirds where smart organizations are looking to invest in employee retention and engagement to help weather the recession, according to two recent studies.
Right Management conducted a study over the last half of 2008 that found about 33 per cent of human resource professionals across the continent say their organization plans to lay off workers this year.
"While layoffs are anticipated given the market volatility, what is surprising is that so many organizations are planning to invest in their employees," Douglas Matthews, Right Management's president and chief operating officer, states in the study.
"The best strategy is to develop the employees they have to meet current and future needs so they can respond quickly to changing market demands and remain competitive," he says.
The uncertainty heading into a new year has caused a sense of "strategic confusion" for a lot of workforce planners who know they have to make cutbacks, but are hesitant about how and where to make them, according to Dianne Bond, Right Management's market vice-president for Western Canada.
"They don't just want to slash and burn," she says. "You want to keep your brand recognition . . . and keep people's engagement levels high because you don't want checked-out workers in the workplace."
Building a strong brand as an employer of choice during tough economic times becomes more of a challenge, but can ultimately help prepare companies for success when good times return, according to Hewitt Associates' annual 50 Best Employers report. Businesses that invest in employees and have high employee engagement have a competitive advantage in their ability to make it through a recession, states the report.
"The average employee engagement score at this year's 50 Best Employers is 76 per cent, 22 percentage points higher than the average at other participants in the study," states Neil Crawford, leader of the study at Hewitt Associates.
"While an engaged workforce alone doesn't make an organization recession-proof, it can provide a level of resilience that other employers do not enjoy," he says.
Five Alberta-based companies made the list this year, including Edmonton's PCL Constructors Inc. in second place and Calgary-based law firm Bennett Jones LLP in third spot. Other Alberta firms that made the ranking include first-time winners Meyers Norris Penny and ATB Financial, as well as Canadian Western Bank.
Hewitt Associates' study states while methods vary, the common factor among all of the employers to make the list is a highly engaged workforce.
Managing talent through a volatile period of recession will be a top priority for companies as they struggle with a lot of uncertainty and confusion about a company's future, its stability and individual job security.
"A leader's ability to communicate effectively is critical so that employees don't get sidetracked with assumptions and speculation," says Right Management's Matthews.
Bond says her office is doing a lot more work in the area of redeployment.
Instead of automatically laying off workers, more employers are shifting valued employees into areas of the company that are still performing well.
Business leaders are changing how they manage the current recession. "Things are not as simplistic as they used to be," says Bond.
"In the old days, you cut your budgets by 10 or 15 per cent . . . and laid of 10 per cent of your workforce," she says. "You can't do that anymore."
The same workforce fundamentals are still at play -- a shortage of highly skilled workers in key areas and an aging workforce remain factors-- so companies are trying to find a more strategic balance before letting people go.
"Every organization has got to (make cutbacks) with what's going on, so doing it smartly and strategically is key," says Bond.
In the oilpatch, larger companies can more easily shift top performers into other parts of the company for the short term, while the struggling juniors face bigger challenges in trying to make it through to the other side of the recession.
Bond believes some of the belt-tightening has already been made, making it unclear to what extent workers will suffer in the year ahead. "It's strange times," she says.
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