Employers and employees deserve better. Every year, we see the same headlines touting the results of the latest studies on the American workplace and the mindset of the American worker. And every year, we hear the same things: average American employees are not satisfied, and it’s primarily due to their boss. But is there more to it than just that?
Business success is often predicated on how well employers understand and react to their employees’ needs. Employees have a choice after all, and they will ultimately vote with their feet. If they are satisfied and engaged, they are more likely to stay. Conversely, if they’re not satisfied and engaged, why would they stay? Moreover, why would they recommend their company to other people, support the brand and otherwise do things that contribute to business success? And even more important, if they aren’t satisfied themselves, why would they work to satisfy customers?
The Current State of the American Employee Experience
Answers Corporation recently conducted its inaugural Answers™ American Employee Study—a measurement of the work experience of 4,115 American employees by industry, role, age, gender, tenure, organization size and work location—to determine the true drivers of employee satisfaction and engagement. What makes the study unique is its use of a proprietary methodology, proven across decades of experience research, to uncover which drivers most affect overall American employee satisfaction, and how those different elements of the work experience influence employee engagement and future behaviors.
Overall, worker satisfaction is rated at 65 on a 0-100 scale. While there are some wildly enthusiastic, loyal, Monday-loving employees among the study respondents and disheartened, on-their-way-out participants as well, a score of 65 indicates that most employees are somewhere squarely in the middle.
While other studies refer to this middle group as “checked out,” employers should instead think of them as the silent majority. They aren’t terribly satisfied or dissatisfied, but with proper motivation they can have a tremendous impact on an organization. Taking steps to increase their satisfaction can result in positive outcomes for all involved. Tapping into the needs and wants of the silent majority is where ideas for real retention materialize. But what are those needs?
According to the survey, it is clear that prevailing ideas on what is driving employee satisfaction are being challenged. It is not just about compensation or how one gets along with his or her supervisor. Yes, those are present and accounted for, but the big new idea here is that employees hold their executive leadership accountable for much more than they used to. Employees want to know where the company is headed, how it’s doing in relation to long-term goals, and that management decisions take into account workers’ best interests.
Back in the days of gold watches and pension plans, the employee/employer relationship was a simple, two-way street: the employee provided years of loyal service and, in return, the employer provided job security. As employees became more empowered and the notion of dedicated service to a single company throughout a career became extinct, employers began to lose sight of many of the intangible things that made work rewarding and instead began to focus on things they felt this increasingly transient workforce prioritized, like compensation and benefits packages. But even that oversimplifies an otherwise complex situation. Workers are complicated, as are the factors that affect their job satisfaction.
Engagement: Give Employees a Vision and Challenge
In addition to measuring and improving employee satisfaction, it’s equally important to do the same for employee engagement. Great employees—the ones that put forth discretionary effort, the ones that go the extra mile for the customer—are the employees employers seek to create. So, how does an employee’s level of satisfaction with different areas of their work experience influence their level of engagement?
In the study, Answers defined employee engagement as the degree to which employees feel emotionally connected to their company. Three distinct profiles emerged:
- 28% of employees are not engaged
- 45% of employees are in the middle
- 27% of employees are highly engaged
Once again, we see a silent majority emerge, where the largest group of employees fall in the middle range on the scale. Employers that take deliberate action to understand what moves these employees from indifference to engagement can in turn reap the rewards of a more motivated workforce.
The Answers study found the top three drivers of employee engagement to be:
The American employee deeply craves company leadership that supports long-term growth over short-term gains and that provide clear vision of the company’s direction. They also want to be informed and expect leaders to effectively and frequently communicate company information and updates. The complexities of the modern economy— internationalization, importance of maintaining competitive advantage, ease of “information leaks”—all contribute to many companies taking the easier path of simply not sharing information. This will prove to be a long-term error, as it will lead to lower employee retention.
The nature of the work itself (whether it’s challenging, motivating and interesting) and role clarity (whether the task is clearly defined and understood) contribute to satisfaction and engagement. While study participants gave relatively high marks when it came to understanding how their job contributed to the overall success of the organization, employers should find ways to ensure employees feel that they are given opportunities to grow in their role by challenging their skills and abilities.
Finally, let’s discuss an employee’s day-to-day manager/supervisor. The reality is that employees who feel they receive praise and recognition when they do a good job and who also receive constructive feedback when necessary are much more satisfied and engaged than those whose supervisors do not provide this sort of mentorship. In addition, relative to non-managers, managers (those who have direct reports) are much more satisfied (71 vs. 62 satisfaction score), are more engaged (68 vs. 54 engagement score) and have a higher propensity to stay (70 vs. 61 retention score). The irony of the existing canon of employee engagement research is that so much of it is focused on solving some over-exaggerated issue with the supervisory relationship. That would be helpful if most people didn’t have a good relationship with their manager, but most do (86% report that they like their boss!).
Why Should Employers Care About Employee Satisfaction and Engagement?
Job satisfaction directly influences the employee behaviors that companies want to cultivate—including keeping good employees with the company. According to a 2012 report from the Center for American Progress, it costs businesses roughly one-fifth of a worker’s salary to replace him or her when an employee leaves the company. Other studies cite the cost of replacing a knowledgeable, salaried executive to be as high as 213 percent of that person’s salary. Additionally, the opportunity costs resulting from filling vacated roles, like overtime incurred by remaining employees, new training costs, lost knowledge, recruiting costs and the time required for interviewing new candidates, can make a surprisingly large dent in a company’s resources.
The bottom line? Americans want company leadership with a long-term vision, and they want to be kept in the know about the organization. Americans want to be fairly compensated—but they also value managers who consistently provide appropriate guidance and recognition. Finally, they will stay with employers when they feel their work is challenging, rewarding and not intrusive of their personal time. It all sounds so easy, but it’s not.
Understanding to what degree your workforce is satisfied and engaged, and how that will affect future behavior, is not simple. It’s complex. To truly understand and influence the employee experience, begin by asking the right questions in the right way, using a methodology that is proven to yield the insights you need to take predictively successful actions. By understanding how and which aspects of satisfaction and engagement impact specific behaviors, organizations can effectively design employee initiatives that will achieve measurable business outcomes.