Quitting Time

Come along, folks, for a journey into the jungle of the American workplace. Today we're hunting an elusive creature, one that was quite common five years ago but has rarely been seen in recent times. You may recognize him by his suit--he's dressed just a tad too formally today, as if he has an important meeting outside the building. Or maybe we'll catch a glimpse of that telltale stationery peeking out from his desk--the heavy, ivory stock that's a giveaway he's been printing resumes. Wait--quiet--here's one now. She's a 39-year-old lab technician in the Midwest. Co-workers haven't noticed (she hopes), but lately she's displaying behaviors characteristic of the covert job hunter. She's checking her cell-phone voice mail every hour for messages from potential employers. To get time off for interviews--she's got one this Wednesday--she's using all sorts of excuses. "I have to chaperone my kid's school field trip," she'll say, or maybe it's an eye doctor's appointment (wink-wink). By September, she hopes, she'll be among the growing number of folks whose "I'm leaving... " e-mails are beginning to fill colleagues' in boxes. And then she'll pack up her boxes and kiss her cubicle goodbye.

After a jobless recovery that's lingered far too long, the great U.S. job machine finally seems to be moving into gear. Companies hired briskly in March and April, and economists predict the unemployment rate will continue its steady downward march. The most obvious beneficiaries of this growth are unemployed people, many of whom have endured long layoffs and desperately need a paycheck. But as hiring picks up, there are signs a different group is angling to cash in: beleaguered employees who've held onto their jobs but feel overworked and underpaid. Some are beginning to lay plans for an escape. In the first quarter of 2004, 4.2 million people posted their resumes on Monster, the online job board, up 44 percent from a year earlier; this year "confidential" postings (usually made by people trying to hide job hunting from their boss) are up 13 percent. At the Five O'Clock Club, a New York-based career-counseling firm, half of new clients already have a job but are looking for a new one; last year most new members were unemployed. In Fresno, Calif., more than half of the prospective clients calling resume writer Susan Whitcomb are employed job hunters, up from 20 percent last year. In surveys, many workers vow they'll change jobs as more firms start hiring. "People are very loosely tethered to their laptops, and at any moment, with the right phone call, they could be lured away," says Sibson Consulting's Peter LeBlanc, who expects turnover rates to double in the next 12 months.

That's largely because companies spent the past few years squeezing more and more work out of ever-smaller staffs, and many workers aren't happy about it. Those productivity numbers Alan Greenspan celebrates don't sound so nifty to folks who feel like they're doing three jobs to make them possible. But amid nonstop downsizing, who could complain about it? "Employees are wrung out right now--it's been a sausage grinder the last four years," says Mark Oldman of the employment-research firm Vault Inc.

That's causing even idyllic-sounding employers to pay more attention to morale. At Orvis headquarters in Manchester, Vt., the staff of 200 routinely fishes, hikes or gathers wild mushrooms during lunch; hardly anyone works past 5:30 p.m. Yet human-resources chief Mary Cheddie has asked supervisors to watch for employees who seem overworked or bored or ready for a change. And she has no doubt someone on her staff is currently working on a resume.

Some companies are taking more aggressive steps to keep workers glued to their Aeron chairs. Earlier this month, Procter & Gamble announced a one-time bonus of two extra days of vacation (or the equivalent in cash) to every worker. A spokesman denied the move was designed to prevent turnover, but outside experts say such expensive thanks to workers are usually aimed partly at retention. Steve Gross, a consultant at Mercer Human Resource Consulting, says that as job opportunities grow, he's advising more firms to move away from the meager, standardized raises that prevailed during the downturn. He says it's time to return to more "differentiated" compensation schemes, where star performers reap far bigger raises. But some workplace experts say money isn't the only effective salve, especially for a work force traumatized by the long hours of the past few years. Work-family expert Amy Richman of WFD Consulting sees more companies taking steps to relieve weary workers by hiring more hands or rethinking processes to eliminate time wasters. With support from bosses, she says, "there are things people can do to manage workload better."

Some pros wonder whether any of these strategies will keep workers onboard. Wharton professor Peter Cappelli, who's studied attitudes among New Economy workers, says people couldn't help but notice that "employers cut employees faster and harder [during the recession] than during any previous one." As conditions improve, why should employees feel loyal to bosses who ruthlessly swung the ax? Sure, the boss may give better raises or more "attaboys" to try to make up--but like a spurned lover, employees remember the mistreatment, and they're unlikely to forgive and forget. "It's like being in a bad relationship," says Manhattan recruiter Sunny Bates. "People are saying, 'I just want out. I want to start over'."

Still, there are skeptics. Some economists distrust surveys in which employees say they plan to change jobs when the market improves; respondents are just blowing off steam, they say. Other pros say employees will remember the cautionary tales of people who left good jobs during the '90s boom only to come up short. "Even if you weren't in the dot-com bust, you're going to be mindful of folks who did jump and it didn't work out," says Susan Meisinger, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. Demographics could also limit mobility: as more baby boomers approach retirement, they're likely to be concerned with pension credits and be more averse to jumping ship.

For now, the numbers are on their side: the government's official "quit rate" (defined as the percentage of workers who voluntarily leave their job in a given month) stood at just 1.7 percent in March, only slightly off its lows of last year. Even as the job market grows stronger, the rate will lag a bit; even aggressive job hunters often take months to land a position. But when it begins its inevitable climb, there may be a karmic beauty in watching bosses' power erode as the economy gives long-suffering employees new options. We're still a long way from the days when every worker bee felt like the king of the jungle. But in the months ahead, there's hope of hearing at least a few roars.