Opinion: Gracias? Spasiba? Merci?

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.

While they won’t make up for the discontinuation of the company’s 401-K contribution, these generous tokens may help to inspire the bored or burned-out worker whose productivity has slipped. According to a Gallup poll, disengaged workers increased from 3 percent to 24 percent in organizations that have recently laid off employees.

Still, a company might not want to reward all disengaged employees — especially those who spend too much time on email, occasionally misspell the chief executive’s name or send out incomplete products to customers. But Globoforce claims it is able to increase the overall productivity of companies by aligning rewards with company values.

Yet, publicly rewarding some employees over others has backfired horribly in the past. A cautionary tale circulating among those in the employee-retention industry describes how one company hosted a banquet for key employees who made a difference. In retaliation, the employees who were not invited organized a dinner for employees who did NOT make a difference.

Feeling unappreciated is one of the main reasons that workers quit, according to Leigh Branham, founder of the consulting company Keeping the People. “The millennial generation has needs that are unprecedented in terms of the feedback and coaching they expect, especially from managers who were not raised this way and are very hands-off,” said Branham. In a book to be published in February, “Re-Engage: How America’s Best Places to Work Inspire Extra Effort in Extraordinary Times,” he and his co-author Mark Hirschfeld counsel both employers and employees on how to connect better. “Employees need to be more assertive and ask for the feedback they need,” said Branham.

Star workers, high potential employees (HIPOS), are the hardest to keep. They aren’t as satisfied by money or public acknowledgement as the rest of army. HIPOS are the special forces of the organization. They want to move through and master new job assignments quickly. They need trust, respect and grooming from senior leaders to carry out challenges that enable them to grow.

“HIPOS are more interested in trajectory,” said Stephen R. Fussell, during a presentation to senior human resources professionals at the Conference Board in New York. “That’s what we really have to look at now and spend more time on.” Fussell is a senior vice president at Abbott Laboratories, a global pharmaceutical company with headquarters in Illinois.

Translation: If companies don’t get the people stuff right, they may have to hire and train a whole new group of employees once the economy recovers. Finding the right way to say thanks might take some effort, but it could save companies a lot of time and money — and that's the same in any language.