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Opinion: Gracias? Spasiba? Merci?

Companies need to figure out how to say thank you to their workers. Or, they might not have those workers much longer.

NEW YORK — As hope for economic recovery hovers at the horizon of a new business cycle, global companies are bracing themselves for, get this, an exodus of their best workers.

After all the layoffs, set backs and pay cuts of the recession, employees are fed up, it seems, and yearning to break free. As soon as the economy recovers, 55 percent of employees plan to change jobs, careers or industries, according to the 2009 Employment Dynamics and Growth Expectations Report (EDGE Report).

Companies are scrambling to figure out how to keep employees from deserting. It might be too late for a simple, “I’m sorry,” and “Please don’t go,” while to the point, has the unappealing ring of desperation to it. How to convey that plea in a positive manner has become a vexing question for managers.

Just saying thanks is one strategy. While American companies used to distribute the annual 20-pound turkey to local workers, sending the birds worldwide is fraught with refrigeration issues. Most non-Americans wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway, even if it arrived in good condition.

Expressions of gratitude don’t always translate to other cultures. If you say “gracias” too frequently to workers in Spain, they will wonder if you harbor low expectations of them, as they expect to work hard.

Quintiles, a clinical research company based in North Carolina with operations in 50 countries, tried sending gift cards to workers worldwide. Half got stuck at Heathrow airport in England for a week during a Royal Mail work stoppage, causing many employees to feel forgotten and unappreciated as their co-workers on the other side of the planet delighted in receiving their cards.

For help in this complex logistic and cultural task, corporations are turning to the growing number of consultants and businesses in the “employee retention” industry.

"You don't buy a steak dinner for an employee in India," said Ben Miele, a vice president with Globoforce a strategic recognition company with offices in Massachusetts and Ireland.

The company promises to transform bottom-line, “your paycheck is your reward” companies into cultures of appreciation. Its system enables workers to download “applause” certificates from a website that are frequently worth $1,000 or more in local currencies.