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Opinion: What should employees fear most with a looming recession?

During the pandemic, many companies rolled out improved benefits, but a recession might scare those off

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Many companies rolled out improved benefits over the past couple of years to attract and keep employees, but a recession might scare those away.

Many companies rolled out improved benefits over the past couple of years to attract and keep employees, but a recession might scare those away.


One of the few good things to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic was the immediate, widespread broadening of benefits that employees had been requesting for some time. Remote work, hybrid schedules, flexible hours and expanded maternity and paternity leaves became the norm as companies scrambled to hire talent in the tight post-pandemic labor market.

With power on the side of the workers, the ongoing labor shortage seemed to signal that these benefits were here to stay and had become part of the culture of the companies offering them.

Then, inflation entered the picture.

Rampant and seemingly uncontainable inflation at rates most workers have never seen in their lifetimes is putting major cost pressures on employers. In addition to paying a premium for labor, the conflict in Ukraine and COVID-related supply chain issues mean they are also paying more for just about everything else. Transport costs are through the roof due to a combination of high gas prices and a shortage of truck drivers. Workers returning to the office have brought an increase in facility costs. It’s true that companies will pass along as much of these cost increases to the consumer as they can, but very few of them can pass it all through without risking pricing their customers out of the market or no longer being competitive in their industry.

We’ve already seen companies laying off headquarters staff and rescinding job offers as the economic outlook starts to trend toward an imminent recession. While layoffs are always a difficult thing, it’s usually a good way to cut costs and streamline processes. After all, a dollar saved in labor goes straight to the bottom line. The same cannot be said for a dollar in sales.

What’s more concerning than support staff layoffs, however, is the retraction of other COVID-19-implemented benefits such as new parent leave. Many companies, such as Hulu, are now retracting those benefits to the minimums required by law. Job seekers should be aware of such reductions in perks and benefits and proceed with caution.

These changes can be a red flag for current and potential employees because it gives insight into the core values of the organization. Most companies have a poster extolling their values in the breakroom, but very few have actually embedded those values into the core of their decision-making processes.

If a company claims to value its employees’ well-being and then reduces maternity leave to the minimum allowed by law and removes paternity leave altogether, they’re sending a clear message that they value employees only to the extent that they are actively adding profit to the business. Their employees are producers, not people. You can bet you’ll find poor work/life balance support, and you’ll probably also see fewer women in leadership positions as they have to choose between motherhood and management.

Here are some questions you can ask during the interview process to help identify potential values alignment issues:

  • What does your company value?
  • I’m happy to provide references. Can you also provide me with three employees that I can ask about what it’s like to work here?
  • What kinds of behaviors do you reward?
  • Have you added, changed or reduced any employee benefits in the last year?
  • When people leave the company, what is the most common reason for their departure?

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and there’s always the chance that you’ll still get lip service and come to be disappointed later. But these questions give you an opportunity to learn more about what the culture is really like and how the company handles difficult situations like inflation.

After all, organizations routinely have verbiage in their job descriptions and employee handbooks that makes it clear that they expect their employees to uphold the company’s values. It’s only fair that you expect them to do the same.

Heather Mellick is the lead consultant at Webb Consulting Group, a management consulting firm in Bountiful, Utah.