Over the past two years, the “Great Resignation” has left employers scrambling to figure out what to do about the high turnover of their workforces. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that voluntary resignations accounted for 25 percent of vacancies in 2021, with overall turnover a whopping 57 percent. It isn’t stopping, either. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index estimates that 2 in 5 workers globally will leave their jobs this year.
Many businesses are trying to figure out how to stem the tide of turnover and retain workers, just like companies as diverse as Goodyear, National Cash Register, Kellogg’s and Union Pacific did in the early 20th century. These companies understood that worker turnover undermined productivity, so they devised a solution called “employee welfare work” — and their solutions from over a century ago can help businesses today grapple with the expensive cost of employee turnover.
In 1892, National Cash Register shipped $40,000 worth of cash registers to London, only to have all of them returned as defective. NCR President John H. Patterson was livid and moved his desk to the factory floor to try to figure out the problem. He quickly discovered that his factory was like all the others in the United States — hot, dark, loud, smoky and dangerous. He couldn’t work in that environment, leading him to realize that his employees couldn’t, either. Patterson quickly began formulating employee welfare work.
The plan evolved into a massive program to put sunlight in factories, feed hot lunches to workers, and create programs to build greater work spirit through spectatorship at company baseball games. Other companies jumped on the bandwagon to use welfare work to reduce turnover, fight unions and increase profits. Patterson once noted that “there is no charity in anything we do. Isn’t it just good business to lose three cents on a girl’s lunch and get back five cents’ worth of work?”
Goodyear President F.A. Seiberling agreed. He embraced employee welfarism with a wide-reaching program in Akron, Ohio, that included an improved working environment, a thrice-a-week employee newspaper, a housing development and even a company baseball team to make workers feel like part of the “Goodyear family.” Confronted with the same problems, his crosstown competitor Harvey Firestone followed suit.
These companies met others on baseball fields in a league they organized that spanned at least two other states. The brick stadium where the Firestone Non-Skids played (named for the company’s first treaded tires, “non-skids”) seated 4,500 cheering workers, and it still stands in front of the old company headquarters. The idea was that when employees sat in the stands and cheered for the company, they’d be more loyal, and as a result, they were encouraged to do so. Goodyear told workers in 1920, for example, that attending the games alone wasn’t enough; “moral support, organized cheering, [and] boosting 24 hours a day” were critical as well.