What do employees want? Many bosses don't have a clue, a new study indicates. Nearly 70 percent of workers say compensation is very important...

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CHICAGO — What do employees want? Many bosses don’t have a clue, a new study indicates.

Nearly 70 percent of workers say compensation is very important, while employers overwhelmingly say management climate and supervisory relationship is key, according to polls by Harris Interactive for staffing and recruiting firm Spherion.

Spherion concluded that fewer than one in five employers is well-positioned to attract and retain top employees, despite the fact that companies will face talent shortages as millions of baby boomers reach retirement age.

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“We still have employers thinking they’re going to manage their employees’ careers and determine what’s most important for their professional lives, whereas most employees don’t think that way anymore,” said Richard Lamond, chief human-relations officer at Spherion.

“There are significant differences in the viewpoints of the worker and the employer about what motivates and drives retention.”

Spherion’s survey was based on monthly interviews in 2005 with between 2,500 and 3,100 working adults, plus a separate poll in spring of 502 senior human-resources executives.

The biggest disconnect centers on the importance employees place on controlling their time and balancing work with their personal lives, the survey indicates.

Nearly two-thirds of employees say “time and flexibility” is very important, compared with 35 percent of U.S. employers.

Younger workers are more vocal about wanting better balance, but the desire for more flexibility crosses generations, according to Spherion and research by organizations such as AARP.

“There’s an assumption that all of a sudden this massive quantity of highly trained baby boomers are going to walk out and head to the beach,” Lamond said. “They’re just as interested in flexibility as the young workers.

“They’re going to go and say, ‘I’d like to do something for two or three days a week or five months of the year,’ ” he added.

“Here’s a large wealth of talent [whose attitudes] need to be recognized.”

Spherion’s poll of employees, conducted annually for nearly 10 years, indicated workers’ priorities are shifting.

The percentage of workers rating financial compensation and benefits as “very important” has increased dramatically, Lamond said.

“Most HR professionals would tell you, compensation and benefits are important but they’ve never been at the top of the list” of what keeps employees from leaving, he said. “It’s always been career opportunities and relationship with your immediate supervisor.”

Now, after years of downsizing and layoffs, workers think of themselves as free agents, he said. The job market is opening up after years of slack hiring and marginal wage growth.

“Employees, in effect, have seen shrinking paychecks,” he said. “With their increasing confidence in their ability to land a good job, they want to be paid accordingly.”