The US has entered a period that is being called the Great Resignation. Millions of people are quitting their jobs, with a record 4.4 million US workers leaving their jobs in September alone.
The reasons for the exodus are complicated and varied. The labor shortage is real — there are more jobs than people. For September, the Department of Labor reported 10.4 million job openings, with fewer workers than there are positions available.
The pandemic has also been a primary contributor. The economic downturn triggered by COVID-19 has been devastating for women, with caregiving demands driving millions from their jobs. Yet women were paying a price for caregiving even before the pandemic.
The advancement of women has always been hampered by workplace policies that fail to support work-life balance; the pandemic merely brought into focus the disproportionate burden women carry when it comes to caregiving and the cost to their careers. Companies that don’t prioritize flexibility, caregiving and work-life balance won’t be competitive in the post-pandemic workplace.
Millions of front-line workers are also quitting their jobs during this period of resignation. Many are hourly workers in front-facing roles that left them and their families at a higher risk of COVID-19 exposure. Most don’t have access to health care, and they earn wages that have kept them at the poverty line.
Many of these workers have reached a breaking point and are leaving the front lines and migrating to jobs that offer safety, security and stability. In a job seekers’ market, for most there will be no returning to pre-pandemic work conditions.
Midlevel professionals are another segment of the workforce leaving in record numbers, but for a range of different reasons. Many other workers are leaving behind toxic workplaces that failed to support them either before or during the pandemic. The fact is, workers across all job levels and backgrounds are re-evaluating their jobs and the meaning of work, and all industries are feeling an impact.
I like to think of the Great Resignation as a period of great reimagination. We are at a crucial juncture, and many of the challenges ahead have the potential to intensify already existing inequities and disparities. But we also have a real opportunity to reimagine what the future of work could look like, and finally dive in and dismantle systems of inequity that have permeated society, communities and many workplaces for far too long.
It is an opportune time for leaders to accelerate their diversity, equity and inclusion commitments and propel positive change by reimagining workplace policies, practices and processes with an equity lens.
The conversation about DEI in our workplaces is accelerating, and people are finding their voices and learning how to use them. But real change has been slow in coming, and there are still too many organizations paying lip service to demands for greater equity and taking largely performative action.
The root causes behind a lack of progress in the past are almost always a lack of organizational understanding when it comes to what the issues are, as well as a lack of courage on the part of senior leaders to take action and become advocates and activists on behalf of employees and communities.
The leadership styles and talent management norms that worked in the past will not work in the future. Vulnerability, understanding and empathy — qualities that were once seen as signs of weakness — have now emerged as the very qualities expected of leaders. Leaders must learn how to lean in and listen to their employees and understand personally what motivates and challenges them.
The hard truth is that, with a labor market that’s becoming more and more competitive — and with an increasingly diverse workforce that includes people from different generations and demographics with different values, views, traditions and belief systems — leaders who aren’t making an effort to become more inclusive, socially responsible and human-centered will be left behind.
The road ahead calls for bold action and risk-taking. Only time will tell whether pressure from employees, job seekers, shareholders and stakeholders will create the type of change that is needed. But as the Great Resignation has made abundantly clear, there is no returning to the old way of doing business.
Jennifer Brown is CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, an award-winning entrepreneur, diversity and inclusion consultant, a speaker and author of “How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive.”
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