Improve Your Employees' Job Satisfaction With an increasing number of workers eager to find a greater work/life balance, find out what you can do now to keep your employees happy.

The tough job market of the past two years has made life verydifficult for those who are either unemployed or underemployed. Andso you might think that your employees, because they have jobs,would be ecstatic. They aren't. While no doubt grateful for apaycheck, U.S. workers are actually less satisfied than they'vebeen in many years.

A November 2003 survey by CareerBuilder, a leading job-searchWeb site, documents the extent of this dissatisfaction. The surveyfound that nearly one in four workers are now dissatisfied withtheir jobs, a 20 percent increase over 2001 levels, with some sixout of ten workers planning to leave their current employer forother pursuits within the next two years. A similar survey by theSociety for Human Resource Professionals revealed that more thaneight out of ten workers intend to look for a new job when theeconomy heats up.

As an employer, you have good reason to be concerned aboutfindings like these. A recent Ernst & Young survey calculatedthat the cost of replacing a high-level employee may be as much as150 percent of that departing employee's salary. And matterscould become worse very quickly. While the economy continues torebound, existing workers will find job-hopping an increasinglyviable option. And if predictions of widespread worker shortages bythe latter half of the decade come true, these conditions will onlybe exacerbated.

How should you respond to this impending exodus of valuableworkers?

First, it's important to understand why your employees mightbe dissatisfied. Over the past two years, as business budgets havetightened and remaining employees have been forced to take onlarger workloads, employees have experienced significantly addedstress without receiving compensatory rewards.

The longer-term issue, however, is simply that employees appearto want more in their lives than just work. As Tom Silveri,president of strategic HR solutions provider DBM, says,"Let's face it, the era of dot-com craziness, 18-hourworkdays, and perks like 'Bring Your Dog to Work Day' aregone. In fact, in a recent poll of human resources professionals,66 percent indicated they had seen an increase in requests forflexible work schedules during the past 12 months."

Could it be that the 163-hour rise in average annual work hoursover the past two decades has finally started to take its toll?

One solution is for you to implement what's typically calleda "work/life balance program." And it doesn't have tobe elaborate. Even simple changes will have your employees feelinga greater balance in their lives. Consider what happened recentlyat Hewlett-Packard's Customer Engineering division, whichprovides on-site hardware support for HP customers. To fulfillHP's promise of a rapid response, customer engineers wereforced to wear pagers 24/7. No problem at first. But ascustomers' operating schedules increasingly broke theboundaries of the normal workday, HP's overtime costs soaredand morale suffered, with employees typically losing sizable chunksof their evenings and weekends to service calls.

HP's response? Even without a formal policy, managersallowed employees to create their own work schedules. Somevolunteered for three-day, 12-hour schedules, with four hours ofwork on Monday, enabling those employees to be involved in familyand school activities during the week. This change allowed weekdaycustomer engineers to make personal plans for the weekend, knowingthat others were covering those shifts. The benefit to HP? Overtimecosts fell by 36 percent, and the dozens of customer engineers whowere thinking of leaving stayed on the job, holding recruitment andtraining costs down.

Flexible work hours aren't the only way to increase employeesatisfaction. Here are some other steps you can take to boost yourworkers' loyalty and dedication while reducing turnover:

  • Provide workers with responsibility-and then let them useit. Most surveys show that the greatest source of employeepride and satisfaction is the feeling of accomplishment that comesfrom having-and exercising-responsibility. Yet many businessowners, consumed by fears of a shrinking bottom line, have turnedmicromanagement into an art form. Unfortunately, few thingsemployers do cause more employee dissatisfaction. Here's thereal bottom line: If you can't trust your employees to be ableto think and act on their own, you probably shouldn't havehired them in the first place.
  • Show respect. Frustrated by a faltering economy,diminishing markets and meddling investors, many business ownerslook close to home for someone to blame-all too often, that'stheir own employees. The result? A growing number of employees feellike they're being viewed as the enemy, not as loyal partners.It's little wonder so many workers seem ready to jump ship atthe first sign of opportunity. On the other hand, companies thattruly value their employees earn more than gratitude-they winenhanced dedication and productivity as well. So be sure to showyour employees how much you respect and value them-tell them howmuch you appreciate them, throw them a pizza party, recognize anemployee of the month, do anything you can to show them how muchyou care.
  • Recognize the whole person. Employees are more than9-to-5 robots who turn off at night and can't wait until thestarting bell rings the next morning. All workers have lives,interests, and friends and family outside the office-and most areconstantly struggling to balance increasingly hectic schedules.While companies can't sacrifice unduly to the whims of a singleindividual, making concessions where possible-allowing a long lunchbreak to attend a child's school event, for instance, orpermitting a sales executive to fly out on Monday morning insteadof Sunday night-can pay huge dividends in the long run.
  • Mark out a clear path to growth. Some employees arecontent to remain where they are in an organization, but most wantto grow in their careers over time. While annual performancereviews were originally designed to promote this goal, too oftenthey have become empty, "Dilbertized" rituals, moreembarrassing than ennobling. By contrast, business owners who wishto increase worker satisfaction tend to look past formalities andestablish genuine growth paths for all their employees, not justtheir senior executives.

When implemented throughout an organization, common sensepractices like these can have profound effects. Ernst & Young,for example, realized savings of more than $40 million over severalyears from reduced turnover. First Tennessee Bank boosted profitsby $106 million within just two years and, in one division,increased productivity by 50 percent. And a survey of technologycompanies by business consulting firm inMomentum found that moreaccommodating business cultures helped propel annual average salesgrowth of more than 140 percent, compared to 10 percent in lessaccommodating cultures.

The bottom line is this: Trends toward increasing jobdissatisfaction can be reversed, and even employees with low moralecan become motivated and enthusiastic again. But it takes work-andcreativity-on the employer's part. According to JillCasner-Lotto, vice president of the Work in America Institute, forwork/life programs to succeed, there must be both bottom-up andtop-down support. "[Support from the top] iscritical-senior-level management sets the tone, creates theenvironment in which these initiatives can happen, and thenprovides the resources," says Casner-Lotto. "But thistop-level commitment must be combined with mid-level and front-linemanagerial support and grassroots employee involvement if it is tobe truly successful."

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