Your Workforce by Roger Herman

Mercenary Workers

Some workers will simply follow the money, changing jobs based on the compensation, loyal only to their own pockets.

In our research for our new book (see, we encountered a number of employers who believe they can solve their job vacancy problems by dangling huge signing bonuses in front of desired candidates. Bonuses have become an easy way out for employers who don't have the courage or the leadership to change their business practices. The bonuses will also give the illusion that recruiting and retention are getting easier. The problem is that every time someone "wins" a new recruit, someone else loses. Our research suggests that this big bonus game does not work, and it's very expensive.

Looking more closely at this issue, social network analyst Scott Degraffenreid describes what he calls "Mercenary Darwinism." When employers hire people who have demonstrated a tendency to leave for more or quick money, they often overload their staff with people who are loyal only to the highest bidder. These self-centered employees are a "fickle workforce." Their loyalty is to themselves and their investment portfolios.

The plot thickens. Mercenary Darwinism sends strong signals to existing staff that job hopping for bonuses is condoned, even encouraged. Signing bonuses have a consistently and extremely deleterious effect on tenure and retention. The practice accelerates both warm- and empty-chair attrition of experienced employees, requiring more hiring of inexperienced "mercenaries."

This recruiting approach is the classic case of a short-term solution generating a much greater long-term problem.

As the economy heats up and employers become hungry - even desperate - for talented and capable workers, the bidding wars will resume. The mercenaries will sell their services to the companies that make them the best deals. They will only stay until someone else makes them better deals. Some employers will seek to stop the movement with contracts, but most mercenaries will again buy their ways out of those contracts, often supported by acquiring employers.

Unless employers engage in the practices that will attract and hold long-term employees, some will be forced to hire mercenaries to keep their doors open.

Roger Herman is owner of The Herman Group, Greensboro, NC and is a specialist in employee retention.

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