Sunday, July 8, 2012

Worker Free Agency

A few years ago, I read the Daniel Pink book, Free Agent Nation, and it changed my thinking on the future of the global workforce.  In his book, Pink describes a world where power has shifted from large, staid multi-national corporations that dictate the terms of employment relationship, to individuals with specific skill sets that hawk their abilities to the highest bidder (or the employer offering the most attractive benefits, flexibility, connections or advancement).  The world was changing, and individuals now had the means and the flexibility to take advantage of those changes. 

Sounded exciting to live in a time when the scales were tipping in the worker’s favor.  Then the global recession hit, and worker leverage cratered.  The common employee did not have to be told that they were lucky to have a job; they only needed to read a newspaper or watch Up in the Air starring George Clooney.  The power that seemed so close was suddenly shifted right back to the corporations.

Then I read an interesting article that tickled my contrarian funny bone.  Maybe companies should grant free agency to their employees.

Andy Porter, the VP of HR/OD with Merrimack Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, MA, has a blog called Fistful of Talent, and he puts forth the theory that granting free agency to employees once every 3 years could actually have a positive effect on internal talent and results within a company.

Porter believes that sneaking around job boards and scheduling clandestine lunches with recruiters is childish, and for a company, an unstoppable practice.  So stop trying to stop it.  Let’s be adults and accept that people (our employees) will be looking to improve their lot in life, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, we should want employees who are looking to improve and grow.  The prospect of impending free agency could provide a necessary push.  
This writer understands that if free agency is offered to employees every 3 years (and I quote):

Your Current Job May Begin to Look Much Better:  all of us have complained about our current jobs at different times – too much of this, not enough of that, or I’m ready for something more.  But the funny thing is once you go out and interview with another company you’ll often view you current job in a whole new (often positive light).  Turns out the grass isn’t always greener.

Your Skills Have Changed:  Three years is enough time for an employee to have learned and mastered a new set of skills.  In fact, depending on your industry, three years of experience can have a significant positive impact on your compensation.  Marketable skills = more $.  On the other hand, if an employee’s skills have declined or haven’t kept pace with new advances in the marketplace, a company should have the right to adjust compensation accordingly.

Motivation:  If an employee knows that every three years they’ll have an opportunity to test the market value of their skills there’s a higher likelihood they’ll make the investment to learn something new.  This goes both ways – if a company knows that it runs the risk of losing top talent every three years I’d be willing to bet they would make a greater investment in professional development.

The full monty can be found here:

Whenever I hear a speaker on the importance of increasing employee retention rates, I shut down.  I scowl.  I cross my arms.  I have long considered myself to be a member of the club of human resource professionals that believe that the pursuit of longer and longer employee tenure as a measure of success was wrongheaded.  Employee retention should not be the Holy Grail of staffing metrics.  Turnover is inevitable.  Turnover in many cases is good.  (Reasonable) turnover is actually preferred in a knowledge economy.  So instead of fighting against turnover, go with it.  Embrace it. 

Grant free agency, and let the labor market work its invisible magic.  Maybe the best employees will take their talents to South Beach, but that’s a risk worth taking. 

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