Rypple

A digital pat on the back from the boss: What's it worth?

January 26, 2012: 11:09 AM ET

Some companies that are too busy for face-to-face recognition of their employees' efforts are turning to recognition software. But will it make a difference to a star staffer with options?

By Gary M. Stern, contributor

FORTUNE— Call it the itch. Many employees catch it, that desire to find the next great job, discover what new opportunities are out there, search for a more sympathetic manager, and perhaps a raise.

But the employees who actually take the plunge are often the top 10% of performers -- the engineers who create products, the marketers who sell them, the creative ones who develop new revenue streams. And you certainly don't want to lose them.

A December 2011 survey of 3,000 workers conducted by the employment agency Randstad revealed that 47% of employees plan to test the job market in 2012. Complacent employees often sit tight while the ambitious go-getters primed to move up consider new options. But some companies are taking steps to retain their talent and discover why their most valuable staffers might want to depart before it comes time for an exit interview.

Nearly half of the employees surveyed by Randstand expect the job market to brighten in 2012, increasing their chances of finding new opportunities. The fact that many employees plan to seek greener pastures reveals a change in attitude over the last few years, says Peter Cappelli, director of the Wharton Center for Human Resources.

In the early 2000s, job satisfaction rose during tough times because many employees were content to have just avoided downsizing, Cappelli says. Firms have since intensified layoffs, ratcheted its demands on remaining staffers (aka the survivors), and toughened performance standards. The result: more employees are looking for better treatment. And raises and bonuses are no panacea, Cappelli says. If managers are overworked and don't have time to spend with their family, higher pay won't solve the problem.

Elissa Tucker, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based researcher for the non-profit American Productivity and Quality Center, says that companies that have their act together on this front identify their top 10% of performers and continually update that list. "Even during the downturn, they didn't let up trying to engage top performers," she says.

3M (MMM) recently asked its employees what motivated them the most and then customized its approach to suit them. The consumer products conglomerate then organized its staff into three categories: those motivated by career advancement and pay, those who value having supportive managers and supervisors, and those interested in flexible schedule and benefits.

Putting an emphasis on recognition

"You can't disregard money and bonuses, but it's not the only driver in retention," Tucker says.  Often, feeling valued and recognized is considered more valuable than raises on staff satisfaction polls.

To address this need for validation, some companies are turning to software that encourages recognition from managers, supervisors, and colleagues. The market's interest in such products is heating up. In fact, SAP (SAP) acquired SuccessFactors, a business software company, for $3.4 billion in November 2011, and in December, Salesforce (CRM) gobbled up Rypple, a Toronto, based start-up that develops employee engagement software. More

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