By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/2/2010 7:54:08 AM ET 2010-04-02T11:54:08

Workers have been so shell-shocked by the recession that it will be a long time before they start demanding what they lost in the rubble of the economic collapse.

“The labor force has been beaten down so much that I feel workers are willing to accept less rather than jeopardize it all, particularly since they have become accustomed to living on less when the economy deteriorated and spouses lost their jobs,” said Gary Chaison, a labor professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Indeed, the findings of an employee confidence study released this week bears that out.

Despite a rising level of confidence among workers when it comes to the financial stability of their employers, most employees, about 76 percent, said they are willing to take a pay cut, according to survey of 2,315 employees conducted by Harris Interactive for Glassdoor.com. And among those who are out of work, 88 percent said they would take less in salary in order to land a job.

“There’s still fear and trepidation,” said Rusty Rueff, Glassdoor’s career and workplace expert, about what many workers are feeling.

They’re thinking, he continued, “ ‘what if I got forced out into this job market.’ They’re seeing friends and former co-workers struggling to find a job at the same pay level as before. That’s why you have employees saying, ‘I’ll take a pay cut.’ ”

It’s a gloomy snapshot of working stiffs today, even as many are beginning to see the light at the end of the recessionary tunnel.

Some positive findings from the study by Glassdoor — a career Web site offering worker opinions on work environments, pay, and benefits — include:

  • Less than one in five (18 percent) employees are concerned they could be laid off in the next six months, a rate that has fallen for the fifth consecutive quarter and is down from 26 percent in the first quarter of last year.
  • 38 percent of employees, including those self-employed, believe if they lost their job they would be able to find a new one matched to their experience and compensation levels in the next six months while 30 percent think it is unlikely.
  • Employees (including those self-employed) continue to be confident in their company’s outlook. Only 10 percent ore respondents expect their company’s outlook to get worse in the next six months.

Unfortunately, most workers don’t think the good signs will translate into more money in their paychecks in the near future.

According to the study, 42 percent of those polled do not expect a pay raise or cost of living increase in the next 12 months, compared to 36 percent who do.

Some employees may just be in an economic stupor right now, labor experts said, because almost everyone knows somebody who’s lost a job, or their home.

“They’re trying to absorb the shocks of the great recession,” said Stewart Friedman, professor of management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and author of “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life. “The good news we might be seeing in the job numbers is hopefully a leading indicator of change, but workers won’t think things are shifting until they see some more solid and sustained improvement,” Friedman says.

It’s still a jobless recovery we’re seeing, he added. “The prospects for a return to a more robust labor market, from the worker’s perspective, is unlikely.”

Another factor keeping workers from setting their pay sights too high is the general fear by many employees to ask for more money during any economic climate. Many workers shy away from the raise-asking ritual because no one wants to be rejected.

“So they may be using the downturn as an excuse,” said Bettina Seidman, a career counselor in New York.

But even for workers who did not shy away from the process, Seidman noted, the recession has done a number on many workers’ psyches and their perceptions of their own value in the job market. “Maybe your brother was laid off, or your sister, and you are just fearful,” she surmised.

On the contrary, added Clark University’s Chaison, “I don't think workers are questioning their self value, they didn't cause the economic downturn and they know it and they blame it on banks, Wall Street, globalization etc. But they are questioning the social contract at work, the idea that they would have a secure, good-paying job if they were loyal and productive workers.”

The pay malaise, however, won’t last forever, stressed Glassdoor’s Rueff.

Employees may be willing to take a salary cut now, he said, “but there’s a breaking point. If they think their company has turned the corner, 51 percent said they want a raise.”

Employers should also be worried that once things turn around, workers will head for the door, said Laurence Stybel, executive in residence at the Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University in Boston, who has already heard from companies that are worried about employee defections.

“It will be payback time,” he said, about companies that treated workers poorly. 


Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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