Thursday, March 27, 2008

The hard truth regarding employee happiness

My father worked for the United States Postal Service for thirty years. He received incremental pay raises, a steady paycheck, a pension, rarely worked a day of overtime, and even received an award for never taking a sick day in fifteen years. He was in at 8:30am and home by 5:30pm, and I never heard him complain once about his job. Without asking, you would presume he was happy with his work.

In the last ten years I have held a total of seven “career” positions, and I have been in business for myself. I have been a copywriter, design technologist, Web developer, creative consultant, interface developer and I am currently employed as a software engineer. I have worked anywhere from eight- to twenty-hour days, and my pay grade has varied by as much as $50k. Without asking, you would presume I am never happy with my work.
Contrasting opinions

There are several explanations for the contrast after taking a longer look at our situations. The first of which involves the economic uncertainty that appears to plague my generation. Guaranteed pensions and stock options are a thing of the past, and if the economy in the US (at the time of writing this) tells us anything, no one can even promise you a steady paycheck. The reality is that the marketplace, no matter the market, is simply different now than it was forty years ago. The fact that two of the positions I formerly held were lost due to bankruptcy and downsizing are testimonies to that fact.

The second view is that the generation gap is significant enough to warrant the difference. Our attitudes regarding career accomplishments are vastly at odds because there is almost forty years between us. A sense of entitlement is much more prevalent in the workforce today, and there is no room for growth at a company that will not meet certain demands. So many have received untold wealth with little effort, that it is now becoming an intrinsic ideal among all employees. Without that get-rich-quick potential, is it worth it to invest a lifetime at any corporation?

The third view is that I am simply different than my father. My aspirations, my view on family and friends, what I consider achievement, how I arrive at success — all of these cause me to pursue career interests with a unique perspective. It might be that my happiness is directly related to each of these personality traits, and there is nothing by anyone else’s doing other than my own that will cause me to be happy. Because these beliefs and values shift, it may cause a shift in how I view each employer.
The complexity is daunting

When you begin to understand the complexity of the problem, you realize how difficult it can be for an employer to make the vast majority of employees happy. Being in the business of information technology, I can tell you that there is also a cultural rift between this field and any other, which creates an even more complex (and at times volatile) atmosphere. Employee happiness is the coup de grĂ¢ce for management and HR, so much so that outlandish attempts are made to find the perfect non-compensatory benefit.

I find it interesting that there are so many possibilities, and I thought it would be helpful to list just a few I have stumbled across in my day. You can get on-site daycare, sales kickers, game rooms, chair massages, dual (or triple) monitors, exercise machines and showers, retail discounts, paid training, free lunches, concierge service, access to on-staff nutritionists, accountants, and computer technicians, after-work socials, holiday parties, shuttle service, and the list continues.

This begs the question, why are all those now necessary to employee happiness? Could it be that each and every one of those is quite possibly smoke and mirrors, hiding the hard truth that most businesses can no longer guarantee what was once permanent, and therefore must replace the permanency with temporal niceties? Stop to think about this for one moment before you dismiss this as one man’s pessimistic outlook. Was my father happy with his job primarily because there was at least a small sense of certainty with respect to the nature of his employment?

My dad could be fairly certain that if he did a good job, came into work on time, was respectful to his peers, and was responsible for his actions, that he would receive everything promised to him on the day of his job interview. That is not to say there was never a mistake made by management, but the likelihood that he would get passed over for his hard work and dedication was less of a concern. The relationship between himself and the post office was symbiotic, and it was understood that the livelihood of both employee and employer were dependent on both doing exactly as promised.
What to do about it

If that is the case, then I want to explore the alternatives, and what I consider to be the prerequisites that all employers should adhere to in order to create an atmosphere conducive to employee happiness. This exercise is not as complicated or scientific as you might think, but these three requirements certainly require some forethought when you are job hunting.
1.) Fair wages for a fair day’s work

The question running through your mind is undoubtedly, how do you decide what is fair? This is not that difficult to determine, and it involves little research. The first point to consider though is that fair does not involve your life situation. Debt, a mortgage, hobbies, private school for the kids — none of these matter when you consider your future salary. The fact is, you have experience, a job history, skills, education, and a mean average cost of living. These will help to determine what is fair.

Start by reviewing open positions that you are qualified for in comparable cities across the country. For instance, eliminate sweeping generalizations about pay grade by avoiding comparisons like Detroit to San Fransisco, or Atlanta to New York. Average the salary ranges for matches on similar job descriptions, as well as your experience, and you will find out quickly what is fair. Then, find employers who will stick by these same standards.

A manager once explained to me why several employees were granted a senior title, when it was obviously unwarranted based upon their performance. He said that they were great negotiators, and because HR matched the salary to the title, the two then became inseparable. Many did not consider that fair, including the manager. He spent a considerable amount of time trying to level the playing field for current and new employees, and was completely honest about it. This is the type of fairness that you will need to seek.
2.) Honesty in all things before and after

Four months before the Internet bubble burst I was employed with an interactive agency building dot com startups. Every day my entire department would come into the office and surf the Internet, chat away the week over coffee, and enjoy free lunches. After a couple months a coworker and I began discussing the economic feasibility of supporting five hundred employees who had no billable hours to a single client. In our frustration we were open about our doubts, and before long management caught wind of our nay saying.

Of course, we were reassured like everyone else at the time, that all was well, and this was merely a bump in the road. The sales pipeline was full, and we would be busy again soon. Not too long after the daily free lunches moved to Friday, and then stopped altogether. At our next quarterly meeting we were each given a copy of the now infamous book Who Moved My Cheese, a patronizing tale about survival in the corporate world written at a third-grade level. The message was clear, but management would not budge. No one was going to lose their job.

I quickly became the town crier, bemoaning our demise, and telling other employees they had better update their resumes. I only received back blank stares. Tired of the whole ordeal our manager walked into our next department meeting and candidly taped two pieces of paper up on the wall. He drew a smiley face on one, and a sad face on the other. He pointed to the sad face, and said, “You can be one of two people. If this is you, then we don’t want you here.” I typed up my letter of resignation. Two weeks later everyone lost their job. The company declared bankruptcy.

Some businesses still operate under the same dishonest practices. They are unwilling to share financial data, information about why employees are here one day and gone the next, and they lack a vision that truly drives the organization past status quo. The piece of paper taped to the wall is an adequate illustration — it only makes employees sad.
3.) Respect for the common man

The final requirement for employee happiness might be considered altruistic by some, and an unquantifiable goal. Everyone views respect differently, and how can a thousand, or even ten employees come to a single consensus on what it means to be respected. My answer to that is one word — roles. I am not writing about status, or even responsibility, but more about purpose. Respect means giving each employee a role, or purpose, and communicating exactly what that should mean to them.

Not only must the employee own the role, but a business must allow them to define that role, and grant them the authority to work within the bounds of that role. I am reminded often of the TV series The Office when I ponder roles. Dwight K. Schrute, a valued employee at Dunder Mifflin, so desires to have authority bestowed upon him as Assistant Regional Manager. However, he is undermined constantly by his boss Michael Scott, who informs him incessantly he is only Assistant to the Regional Manager.

Although no one enjoys being compared to Dwight, relating to him is quite easy. He is given token responsibilities as a method of appeasement, but no authority to carry it out. He is asked to perform duties not in line with his position, and he is reprimanded for taking initiative in matters he has no business attending to at the Scranton branch. This constant limbo is nauseating to employees in the real world, and it quickly leads to anxiety and uncertainty.

The only thing worse is being expected to fill someone else’s role. When an employee is asked to pull double-duty because a fellow coworker is unable to perform, it can cause a great deal of resentment. In some situations, being shorthanded in one department will cause an overlap in roles. For a short time this might be acceptable, but if resources remain tight long term, then an employer should make amends for the blurred line between roles.
Too easy

Do these three suggestions appear too simple-minded? Could it really be all that easy for employers to keep employees happy by adhering to those principles? There really is only one way to tell, and that is to try and instill those organizational values if you are a manager, and demand those rights as an employee. Openly discussing the issues, and pushing for change in performance reviews and even during interviews will be the only way to help bring about a positive outcome.

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