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You might have heard the old saying that “employees are our greatest asset.” Surely that was true, somewhere at some point in time. For some companies, that saying might even apply today.

But if it was ever a widespread truth, there are new findings that suggest companies have not been operating under that maxim during the current recession. In fact, the findings of a new MetLife study show the employers actually have taken advantage of their workers during the downturn.

MetLife’s ninth annual survey of Employee Benefit Trends sends a clear message that workers have become increasingly dissatisfied with their jobs and less loyal to their companies. In fact, MetLife reports that 36 percent of all employees expect to look for a new job once the economy recovers. Their loyalty clearly has slipped.

“What is disturbing is that employers seem unaware of this downward trend,” the MetLife report says. “Employer responses show that they assume employees feel as loyal today as they did three years ago.”

The survey reports that job satisfaction has declined from 83 percent of employees in 2008 to 79 percent in 2010. Over the same period, the percent of employees happy with their company’s work-life balance policies has dropped from 56 percent to 52 percent. Those may seem like small movements, but they show a trend that is not good for any employer.

MetLife reports that while companies rushed to control their cost structures, they did so at the expense of employee satisfaction. More employers today are trying to shift the cost of employee benefits to the employees themselves. They have cut some benefits and reduced others in the name of controlling expenses.

Meanwhile, they’ve also demanded more of their workers. Thirty nine percent of the companies polled by MetLife say they have had productivity gains over the last year, and most think job satisfaction hasn’t been affected.

That’s the most tragic thing about this survey. Because the recession has been so pervasive, most employees have either been unable or unwilling to seek jobs elsewhere. MetLife’s study shows there is a pent-up demand to move on and yet employers don’t acknowledge this.

When workers begin to abandon their employers for new opportunities, companies will start crying about their productivity losses and the cost of training new employees.

MetLife says that the percent of workers satisfied with their jobs dropped from 59 percent to 51 percent from 2008 to 2010 while the percent of workers who feel a strong sense of loyalty to their employers declined from 59 percent to 47 percent during that same timeframe. “The widening gap in loyalty perception is a sign that employers may be taking employee retention for granted,” the MetLife report concludes. “They are not paying attention to the serious cracks in the loyalty foundations of their workforce; cracks that can expand to threaten their ability to retain the key talent they’ll need most.”

Everyone knows that surveys can be manipulated to tell us what we want to hear. But the MetLife survey — which included more than 1,500 benefit decision makers inside companies and more than 1,400 individual workers — is widely regarded as one of the most astute gauges of the workplace today.

It’s not too late to act. The current recession is expected to linger on for months if not years, which gives employers a chance to rethink their current course and reclaim some of that lost loyalty.

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