The 5 Employee Groups That Can Make or Break Your Recovery From a Recession

Groundbreaking new research from Great Place To Work® shows that experiences of Key Employees around inclusivity, innovation, fairness and integrity drive exceptional business performance during uncertain economic times like a recession.

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We’re potentially facing one of the worst recessions in history. How can business leaders help their organizations not just survive but thrive as global economic conditions become less predictable?
The answer is in your company culture.

4.5m employees have spoken

Great Place To Work analyzed our employee workplace experience data set of more than 1,700 organizations representing roughly 5 million employees over the past 15 years — including the Great Recession of 2007–2009. Many of these organizations are Great Pace to Work-Certified™ companies and Best Workplaces list winners.



What did we find?

There are five groups of employees that can make or break your recovery. Well show you how to ensure these Key Employee Groups have a positive experience in critical areas, so that your business is poised to thrive through these turbulent times.

Section 1

Thriving or Flatlining During the Great Recession

Stock Market Returns
S&P 500

* Our study of the Great Recession considers two entire years of stock performance, from Dec. 2007 to Dec. 2009. The official definition of the Great Recession is from Dec. 2007 to June 2009.


Companies That Did Well During the Great Recession

The S&P 500 suffered a 35.5 percent decline in stock performance from 2007–2009.

A lot of companies lost a lot of value — but they didn’t all share evenly in the pain.

Companies in our study whose Key Employee Groups had very positive experiences posted a remarkable 14.4% gain.

Take a moment to let that sink in: In a recession, these companies saw their performance improve.

For that group of 69 “Thriving” companies, gains started before the downturn and continued well past it as competitors struggled.

From January 3, 2006, to February 1, 2014, the Thriving group saw their stock performance increase 35%, while the S&P 500 had just a 9% gain. These companies didn’t merely outperform the typical business; they blew it out of the water, yielding a gain of roughly 4 times that of the S&P 500.

Companies That Flatlined During the Great Recession

We also found 67 organizations that flatlined during the Great Recession.

These Flatlining companies saw their stock performance decrease 20% between 2006 and 2014. 

What could be causing the dramatic difference in performance between Thriving and Flatlining companies?

Section 2

The Work Experience of Key Employee Groups Unlocks Performance

Key Groups and Critical Experiences

At Thriving companies, five Key Employee Groups were having positive, high-trust experiences around inclusivity, innovation, fairness and integrity. The key groups of employees are women, front-line workers, hourly male workers, long-tenured employees and people of color. 1

The daily work experiences of people in these groups predicted how well organizations fared during the Great Recession.

We also found that particular aspects of the work experience were vital for those Key Employees: feeling treated as a full member of the organization, management following through on promises, fair promotions and feeling welcome when joining new teams. Another critical experience is “Innovation By All” – a sense that everyone in the organization is invited to generate new and better ways of doing things.

5 Key Employee Groups

  • Women
  • Front-line workers
  • Hourly male workers
  • Long-tenured employees
  • People of Color 1

5 critical experiences

  • Treated as a full member
  • Innovation By All
  • Management delivers on promises
  • Promotions are fair
  • People are welcomed to new teams

1 By people of color, we are referring to people who identify as African American or Black, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, or identify with two or more races.

Our early research indicates that the same applies to recessions unfolding today.
5 Key Employee Groups
5 Critical Experiences

Treated as full member

Innovation By All™

Management delivers on promises

Promotions are fair

New team members welcomed warmly

Thriving During Recession

Why Are These Employees So Important?

  • Many serve customers directly, so they’re plugged into the reality of how the business is doing on a daily basis
  • Often first to suffer wage cuts, furloughs or layoffs
  • Have been disproportionately affected as “essential workers” during the pandemic
  • The most historically affected and disadvantaged by issues of sexism, racism, and class

These Key Employee Groups are likely to be the first to feel the pain anytime the business is in trouble. So when their experience is positive, the overall experience of all employees is likely to be positive.

Section 3

Critical Employee Experiences for Surviving – and Thriving – During a Recession

No matter your level, from frontline manager to CEO, you can help your business move from Flatlining to Thriving by focusing on improving the employee experience in five areas.

Critical Experiences

Everyone is treated as a full member
Practice Innovation By All
Management delivers on promises
Promotions are fair
New team members are welcomed warmly
Why it is important
When every employee feels that they are valued, you build trust, retain talent and increase engagement.
Thriving Testimony
Everyone genuinely cares about everyone else’s personal and professional success, from the top to the bottom of the food chain.
How to take action
Recognize the extraordinary work your people are doing in this crisis: working from home, showing up for work despite the accumulated stress of the past 2+ years, being willing to pivot and flex.
Flatlining Testimony
I wish upper management would treat everyone equally and fairly. I would like to feel like my opinions matter and are important. I want to feel a part of the team.
Why it is important
You need everyone in the organization looking for ways to improve productivity, reduce costs, or deliver superior value to the customer, especially during turbulent times.
Thriving Testimony
The company encourages innovative thinking. No matter what level you are in in the company, anyone is able to furnish ideas of how to makethe company great, and they listen!
How to take action
Ask Key Employee Groups for new ideas—whether those are ideas for cutting costs, improving customer service and retention or generating revenue in new ways.
Flatlining Testimony
I don't feel that there is a strong acceptance of "original thinkers." I don't see an appreciation for the differences that people bring to the company. I would like to see a greater inclusion of diversity.
Why it is important
In uncertain times like these, we all need as much stability as possible. When you’re a predictable and steady leader, your employees can focus on their work and their lives, not on second-guessing or managing you.
Thriving Testimony
For me, the trait that separates [the company] from most places I've worked is integrity. There's no daylight between what any of our leaders say they value and how they act....I completely trust the people with whom and for whom I work
How to take action
Level with your people. The old warning about not overpromising and underdelivering applies now more than ever. Be careful about the commitments you make and carry them out. Provide whatever hope you can while also trusting you team to manage complexity.
Flatlining Testimony
Management says one thing and does another. Most senior managers are very arrogant, make more money than anyone is worth and every year they apologize for our pitiful raises.
Why it is important
Fair promotions signal to employees that leaders make decisions based on performance and capability in an even-handed way. You’ll inspire everyone to give their all when they see people like them can advance.
Thriving Testimony
Employees are treated as valuable assets to the company's success. People receive promotions when they deserve them. It isn't political and promotions don't occur in specific months. I believe it really is by merit. I feel I'm given the same opportunity as anyone else to succeed.
How to take action
Review your promotion and hiring process for any bias or inconsistency, and double down on transparency. Make your criteria for advancement crystal clear and celebrate promotions by explaining the qualities and achievements of those who earned a larger role.
Flatlining Testimony
Promotions don't go to those who deserve them. It is not based on job performance. Promotions go to those who know how to "play the game” and those who the managers like.
Why it is important
Teams often are volatile in a recession. Their make-up and purpose can change rapidly as strategies and company structures pivot. Whether hiring new people or shifting existing employees onto new teams, the tone is set early. An inviting team climate cultivates engagement and best efforts. A cold greeting fosters indifference or worse.
Thriving Testimony
When I joined the company, I was very impressed with how my entire department, and people from other departments, went out of their way to welcome me. The whole onboarding process was very well put together and very informative for a new employee. I hope to be here for many, many years.
How to take action
Many companies are onboarding employees and moving existing staffers to new teams remotely. Take the same (or more) care and intentionality around connecting people to the each other and to the business as you would in person.
Flatlining Testimony
Don't bully people in to changing jobs and/or positions without consideration of what they want to do. Give the employee input on whether they want to change jobs and/or positions. You come back from vacation or time away from work and they've changed your job 'for you'.
Section 4

Employee Experience Heading into Recession

A Shrinking Experience Gap
Non Key Groups
Key Groups

At Thriving companies during the Great Recession, the Key Employee Groups had positive experiences overall. Those companies also had the smallest gaps in experience between the Key Employee Groups and the rest of their colleagues. Still, troubling gaps have existed.

We studied the experiences of the Key Employee Groups compared to that of their counterparts from 2006 through 2020. We found that Key Employee Groups had 6–11% poorer experiences between 2006 and 2019 across all the critical areas mentioned above.

But there is hope. In data we collected in 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic taking full effect, we noticed a smaller gap in the experience of the Key Employee Groups compared to their counterparts. In other words, many organizations were better positioned to thrive during the COVID-19 recession.


How to Take Action Today

No matter the health of your company’s culture entering a recession, the formula for success today is the same. It involves the five action items mentioned above. And it includes a crucial sixth one: Listen continuously to your people.

Organizations must track the experience of their Key Employee Groups, as part of a wider strategy to monitor their culture.

The organizations that provide the most inclusive, high-trust culture for all their people are the ones most likely to avoid Flatlining during this downturn and beyond.

They are the ones most likely to soar.

See How

Help your company soar through the current economic climate

Stay informed and respond to the rapidly moving needs of your Key Employee Groups with frequent customized employee surveys.

Know More

Understand and close the experience gaps between employee groups with a culture management tool.

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Explore company culture advice to help you create an inclusive workplace.

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