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Recruiting in the time of COVID-19 and social unrest has been a remarkably interesting, challenging, and eye-opening experience. I’ve been in the talent acquisition business long enough to have fought my way through the last recession and its impact on the employment market, and that time in no way prepared me for what we’re all dealing with right now. “Unprecedented” may be an overused term, but it absolutely applies.

From a recruiter’s perspective, the last economic downturn during 2008 to 2010 seemed to have quite the “shelter in place” effect on employees. Those who did not lose their jobs to layoffs, downsizings, reorganizations, or other company moves tended to be relatively wary of contact from recruiters.

Employees were more likely to pass on opportunities to connect with folks like me as they watched friends or family members battle unemployment or they themselves struggled with economic uncertainty. Sticking with their employers and riding out the recession appeared to be the safer play.

This time around, however, the vibe is much different. Yes we had another stock market crash and economic collapse that led to layoffs, downsizings, and reorganizations. There’s also a lot of uncertainty about the future. But that’s where the similarities end. The pandemic has made 2020 more than just a financial crisis. On top of dealing with a global health crisis, the US is also struggling with a racial, cultural, and political crisis. Add in an election, one of the most heated and divisive in recent history, and the anxiety, tension, and fear are palpable.

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Let’s talk employee engagement

Right now, employees are willingly connecting with me (and other recruiters), showing the extent of their disengagement and disillusionment. They’re openly talking about their unhappiness and how they’re feeling disconnected, unheard, under-appreciated, and trapped in their current jobs. And we’re talking with each other all hours of the day. Previously, employed job candidates preferred to talk before or after work; now any time is fine.

Many employees are using prime working hours to surf job boards and talk to recruiters in part because they’re out of their normal office settings and working from home. But it’s more than just location. Employees are upset about the state of the world.

In a scenario like this, people feel out of control, and so they often focus on changing what they can right now. Many are looking at their companies and evaluating if their roles reflect their values and the diversity they want to see. They want to work for companies that are part of the solution, not just those talking about making changes. Increasingly, they’re looking around for ways to make a difference, with where they work being an obvious choice. With the lack of contact with peers and bosses, companies need to do more to retain and nurture their current employees.

Making positive changes

The key to retention in today’s environment is engaging employees – no matter where they are and how they want to work. Let your employees know you recognize how hard things are right now for everyone as well as let them know how you’re responding to cultural changes.

Be thoughtful about your multigenerational workforce. I’m hearing from Gen X and baby boomers who are worried about being older than 45 and ending up unemployed in a job market that may not favor their age. I’m connecting with millennials and Gen Z workers who are disappointed by their employers’ lack of diversity and inclusion initiatives. They want to work for a company that not only reflects their community, but one that provides employees with a voice and means to make an impact through community engagement.

Are you empowering employees to help each other? I’m not talking about managing direct reports, but connecting employees to build skills, improve leadership development, and other career advancement opportunities. Are you examining your employee base to see who might like to start an internal diversity and inclusion initiative or a community improvement project?

Are you even checking in right now or having one-on-one meetings to talk to employees at all levels of your company? If you’re not doing something to engage those who work for your company, you need to start.

The employment market will have an upswing soon. Companies will begin growing and hiring again, and all those employees you haven’t been engaging with are going to remember the conversations they’ve been having with recruiters. And they are going to embark on aggressive job searches.

Clear communication and engagement activities can help mitigate the churn, making sure your most talented employees are engaged, fulfilled, and happily working despite the current economic and social climate. Show your employees how you’re making a difference and how their work is contributing as well in order to help them feel more connected to your company and each other.

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Will Barfield is the President & CEO of Barfield Revenue Consulting, a sales- and marketing-focused recruiting and consulting firm that specializes in the software (SaaS), technology, digital agency, and staffing industry verticals. Barfield, a TDM partner, teaches best practices for recruiting, hiring, executive coaching, and successful selling.

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