The Great Resignation Shows It’s Time to Rethink Worker Dignity

For more than a year, companies and their workers have been stuck in a resignation doom-loop. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 47 million voluntary quits—close to one-third of the workforce—in 2021. These quits were concentrated among lower-wage service and hospitality workers seeking “greener” pastures. To break this cycle, employers need to begin rethinking both the meaning of work and the dignity of workers.

Employers’ primary retention strategy—raising wages—isn’t working with inflation eroding wages increases as fast (or faster) than workers can change jobs. Where wage increases don’t work, the office “pizza party” has become a cultural cliché representing the shallow end of the retention effort pool. Larger corporations have taken to hiring chief happiness officers whose job entails creating “whimsical” corporate cultures that will make work feel more like fun. 

Both of the above approaches to worker retention are on-the-cheap alternatives to genuine engagement, seeking to distract workers rather than address deeper sources of dissatisfaction. The result is a social-economic environment in which employers and workers treat each other instrumentally, as means to other ends rather than ends in themselves that require mutual commitment. An exclusive focus on material compensation overlooks the role work plays in how human beings express their agency and dignity. 

In a new report, I explore how companies might begin to rethink employee engagement and development to slow a workforce churn that is both expensive and disruptive. While making a living may be the most important feature of a job, it is not the only one. Work is economic but it is also social, part of a broader, more fundamental human drive to connect, pursue shared objectives, and develop individual potential. 

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