Wednesday, March 2

Forgetting A Public: Employees, Again

Employee Relations
Employers who assume that the sluggish economy will keep their employees in check might be surprised in the months ahead. Almost 50 percent of employees have considered leaving their jobs. More than 21 percent have already applied elsewhere in the last six months.

The study, conducted by MarketTools, Inc., a feedback software management firm, mirrors another released by the Conference Board in January. It found that 55 percent of employees were dissatisfied with their jobs, which represents the lowest morale point in the last two decades. Other studies conducted last year revealed largely the same findings.

The Cause Of Employee Dissatisfaction.

According to the study, the most common complaints from employees suggested 47 percent were dissatisfied with their salary, 24 percent were dissatisfied with their workload, 21 percent were dissatisfied with their opportunities for advancement, and 21 percent were dissatisfied with their immediate manager or supervisor. However, before jumping on any knee-jerk solutions — raises, staff support, and management shifts — there is something else to consider.

When people answer job satisfaction surveys, they tend to provide misinformation. Sometimes you have to look at unrelated surveys to gain a greater appreciation for what employees are thinking.

overworkedFor example, a USA Today poll taken earlier in the year asked a different question. Instead of asking "What are you most dissatisfied with at your job?" they asked "Which of the following is most important about your job?" The answer they received paints a much different picture. About 21 percent cited job security, 20 percent said health benefits, 14 percent said work-life balance, 14 percent said salary, and 11 percent said retirement benefits.

But no matter what they say, there is something else. Most employees will accept less of everything if they are satisfied with their jobs. They do it all the time. (Even in education, private school teachers make less but outperform their higher paid counterparts.)

The Culprit Of Communication.

In many cases, the foundation of employee dissatisfaction is communication. In general, employers either communicate too much about challenges beyond their control, ask employees to look for problems, or do not communicate enough about the greater scope of external conversations outside the workplace. All three reinforce employee dissatisfaction.

Communicating Challenges. Even companies that are outperforming cannot resist the urge to mention the weak economy. Both companies that have had to resort to layoffs and cutbacks and those that grew mention it all the time.

We've read it in several company reports. Almost every one of them has a sentence that starts "Because of a weak economy" or "Despite a weak economy" within the first three paragraphs of their openers. Every time they say "weak economy," the mind immediately jumps to questions about job security.

Focusing On Problems. The same can be said about customer surveys, but employee surveys are even worse. Inexperienced communicators send out surveys that few employees want to take, most employees don't trust, and almost all of them set unintended agendas.

When you ask people to point out problems, they will instinctively find them. Ergo, the aforementioned surveys underscore the point. Ask employees what they are dissatisfied about with their jobs elicits a much different answer than what they value about their job the most.

Ignoring News Babble. Of course, employers don't always think about it, but sometimes their worst enemies are people who have very little to do with their companies. Politicians and newscasters continually pelt them with problems that demand more focus.

It's not a coincidence that health benefits struck a chord in the USA Today survey. Every time the health care debate comes up, people start to wonder how their health benefits stack up in comparison to everyone else, if they have enough, and what would happen if they had a major problem. Just wait ... in a few months when Social Security becomes a hot issue, employees will start listing retirement as a top two concern.

In all three cases, employees are being pelted with negativity. And the question employers ought to be asking themselves is whether they are contributing to the negative speak or doing enough to address the negative speak bombarding employees everywhere else. If you do not, then expect things to get worse — bad news and doubt spread faster than good news and promise inside any workplace, community, and social network.

The Cost Of Employee Dissatisfaction.

There are some employers who dismiss employee satisfaction outright. Some even stand by an adage that if an employee doesn't like working somewhere then they can show themselves the door. I agree that there is a certain percentage of employees who will never be happy no matter where they work. However, with employee dissatisfaction crossing 50 percent, it's safe to assume that a few bad apples aren't spoiling the bushel ... the bushel is spoiling the few good apples.

Nice store. Rude staff.There are tangible costs associated with dissatisfaction in the workplace. You can do the math several different ways. How many customers does a dissatisfied employee come in contact with on a daily basis? How many people (family, friends, associates) do they mention their dissatisfaction to? What is it like to work in an environment where one of every two employees points out unaddressed problems within the company or reinforces their disdain for the supervisor?

It's one of the lessons I share with communication students. In addition to conducting customer research, I tell them to consider the client workplace. If the employees seem unhappy, stressed, or demoralized, it is likely even the best marketing plan will fail because the conversion rate will be ridiculously low. In some cases, they might even be destined to fail.

How To Begin The Reversal Process.

As anyone who works in social media knows, no one can control a conversation. You can, however, manage it. While this only scratches the surface, communication can help reset the mood.

Avoid negative speak (if a weak economy isn't an impact, don't bring it up unless it's brought up). Skip the surveys and encourage productive team meetings (dialogue is more meaningful than multiple choice). Take public conversations and turn them into conversational opportunities — if health care is the political hot topic today, then use it as an opportunity to remind employees what and why you offer what you do. In some cases, it might even be worthwhile to improve it, even a little bit.

Consider the impact of the latter. While the nation debates health care, your employees might offer up how their company is covered rather than assuming they aren't. Just remember to avoid negative speak packaging. You don't have to reinforce what others don't have or include something like "despite the lack of health care at most companies" or "because of the out-of-control costs" to convey the point. They'll get it.

Of course, all of these solutions are proactive. From the original study mentioned, most companies aren't even reactive. Three-quarters of all employees say their companies do not solicit employee feedback. And of those who do, most only solicit it quarterly or less.

The irony is that while employees continue to be ignored, customer feedback models are leaning toward real time. That doesn't make too much sense when you think about it. If you think knowing more about your customers will improve sales performance, doesn't it stand to reason you might want to know something about the employee they have contact with? Maybe.
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