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Bruzzese: Belt-tightening inevitable amid tough economic times

As the predictions about the future health of the economy become gloomier by the day, get ready for some changes in your workplace – including longer hours, less flexibility, fewer (or no) bonuses and possibly more lawsuits.

Ira Jackson, dean of the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in California, says that rising prices and falling profits mean one thing: Companies are going to be belt-tightening.

“In these desperate times, I don’t think anyone is going to question the need for profitability,” Jackson says. “There may be cutbacks, and the frills will have to go, but companies are going to be more equitable about sharing that pain.”

In other words, executives will more than likely see cutbacks in their own lucrative pay and incentive packages, as well as the rank-and-file workers who will probably see fewer raises and leaner benefit packages.

Mark Wilbur, president and CEO of Employers Group in Los Angeles, agrees. He predicts that while employers are “down to the bare bones” in terms of employee numbers, there still will be more job cuts as the global economy continues to slow. At the same time, he believes employers will begin asking for more overtime from salaried workers, with little promise of more pay for harder work.

“If a company can’t cover the work, I think they’ll reach out to freelancers rather than hire more people on a permanent basis,” Wilbur says. “I also think we’ll see even more outsourcing to other countries like India.”

At the same time, these tough times in the workplace may prompt more litigation from employees, says Lorie Almon, co-chair of the National Wage and Hour Litigation Practice Group and co-managing partner of Seyfarth Shaw’s New York office.

“Looking back, there is a pattern of people turning more frequently to litigation during tumultuous periods in our nation’s history,” she says. “The crisis on Wall Street has made many people understandably insecure about their employment situations. It seems likely that an increasing number of people will question the legality of their employers’ practices, sometimes because of legitimate concerns and sometimes because they feel that they have little to lose.”

That unrest and unhappiness, Jackson says, is why it’s so critical that management return to basics and focus on developing trust and confidence among workers.

“We are increasingly a commoditized economy. That means that in order to survive, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to differentiate yourself from the competition, because the price points and quality are going to be about the same for everyone. So, you’re going to get customers either through great customer service or because of your ethics or value or purpose – and those things are going to come from your people,” he says. “It’s your employees that are going to be the ones to make the difference.”

Jackson says that if employees go to work every day “suspicious of the motivation of the employer,” then workers are living in a “poisoned environment in which the company is not likely to survive.”

“Those kinds of employers will turn the employees against them, and that will be manifested in how they treat the customer,” he says.

Wilbur agrees, noting that you can no longer “hide bad leadership,” but says employees must also work on delivering top-notch service, committed to helping the employer survive. Especially, he says, some younger workers who thought retiring baby boomers would leave the door open for them to set the agenda in their workplace.

“You’re going to see older workers staying put for longer because they may no longer be able to afford to retire,” he says. “I’d say there are a lot of younger workers who are going to be getting a pretty big spoonful of humble pie.”

Still, both Jackson and Wilbur say that while they don’t have a crystal ball to accurately predict what will be happening in the workplace in the coming days, they are both concerned that few will escape feeling the impact adversely in the months to come.”I don’t think we’ve seen the depth (of the economic problems) yet. We haven’t hit bottom,” Wilbur says. “It brings on an enormous amount of anxiety in me as a leader. I’m working like a dog right now to keep people employed.”

Anita Bruzzese is author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy…and How to Avoid Them” (www.45things.com). Write to her c/o: Business Editor, Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, VA 22107. For a reply, include a SASE.

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