He starts out loving his job at your store. But as years go by, he gets bored. He dreams of doing something else with his life, but in this labor market, it’s hard to leave the financial security of his job. The pay is better than if he started somewhere else at the bottom, and the benefits, especially the health insurance, are pretty good. So he stays on—and blames his employer for trapping him in his job.

This is the "recession handcuffs" effect. It’s not rational, it’s not fair, but it happens when an employee doesn’t take responsibility for his or her choices. If not confronted, this employee’s anger and cynicism can damage workplace morale. But how do you motivate a worker to do a good job when he doesn’t want to be there?

Act promptly, advises JerryHuddleston, human resources manager at Ozark Natural Foods, a Fayetteville, Ark., co-op with 90 employees. "I’ve noticed over the years that the sooner you catch this phenomenon, the more likely there will be a positive outcome," he says.

The symptoms are there if you keep your eyes and ears open, Huddleston says. "An employee leaves early and comes in late. The bright look in the eye fades. The smile is not as genuine as it used to be." The employee starts making negative comments about his work situation. His coworkers may notice and bring their concerns to you.

In Huddleston’s opinion, "it’s not the store or the boss or the job they hate. It’s the task—doing the same repetitive thing year after year. If they’re topped out in their pay scale, try to find another way to rekindle the excitement." He encourages employees showing signs of the handcuffs effect to take on new responsibilities or apply for jobs in other departments. If that doesn’t work, he has a heart-to-heart with the employee. "I tell them, ‘If you’re tired of this job and you want to move on, it’s OK. But don’t lose this job until you have a new one lined up.’"

If you don’t catch the handcuffs effect early enough to turn it around, and must take disciplinary action, you reinforce the employee’s belief that "the job stinks and management is out to get him and it’s not fair. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that ends up costing him his job. It’s unfortunate, and it breaks your heart," Huddleston says. "Yet if you wait too long to cut someone loose, there will be two to three other employees behind him with negative attitudes from watching what happened to their coworker."

Rx for the "recession handcuffs" effect

  • Confront the employee with your observations of her job dissatisfaction
  • Ask her what she likes and doesn’t like about the job
  • Ask her what she could do herself to make her job more enjoyable
  • Ask her what you as her supervisor could do
  • Remind her that regardless of her reasons for staying with the job, you’ll hold her to the same standards as any other employee in her position.