Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2003 / 19 Adar I, 5763

Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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Consumer Reports

Workforce temperature rising; employer TLC in demand | In the wake of ongoing business and accounting scandals and the economic downturn, we would naturally expect that employees' feelings of trust in their employers would have taken a nosedive, and that employees' concern over corporate ethics would have skyrocketed.

In the fall of 2002, Towers Perrin - a leading global human resource consulting firm - launched an innovative study to understand the issue in greater depth. The HR consultancy wanted to better understand not just the mood of the workforce during a time of severe cost-cutting and risk-shifting, but also how and the extent to which employees' views affect business performance and productivity.

The hypothesis for the study was initially focused around employee trust, but the open-ended nature of the survey led to a surprising set of results about the emotional state of employees and how it ultimately impacts organizational performance.

So, what specifically is so surprising about the study results?

First, it is quite striking, in the wake of so many scandals over the past year, that trust in the sense of corporate ethics is not top of mind for employees at all.

Rather, feelings of confidence and competence on the job, or lack thereof, are currently weighing on the hearts and minds of employees. Employees are not thinking about work above and beyond their personal experience and direct line of sight.

Perhaps in this day and age, when people are moving from job to job or even career to career quite cavalierly, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that employees are more loyal patrons to "Self Inc." than they are to the ethics and practices at the most senior levels of their organizations.

Still, it is disconcerting to realize that most employees are not thinking more broadly about the welfare of their organizations.

The study shows the following "laundry list" to be top-of-mind concerns for employees:

  • Self-doubt and distractions

  • Lots of stress, no fun

  • Boredom and repetition

  • Big concerns about management competence: lack of confidence in its ability to manage (rather than its ethics)

  • Monumental concerns about workload: fewer employees forced to do more with less

  • Minimal anticipation, some dread

  • Insufficient recognition and rewards

  • Insufficient sense of contribution

  • Fear about risky economy, layoffs and retirement security

  • Lack of mobility

In addition to collecting 1,000 employee responses from medium- and large-size companies, the study also collected the employer perspective of the workforce from 300 senior HR executives.

As it turns out, employers overestimate the influence management and the future have on employees, and underestimate how important it is for employees to feel self-confidence in and from their work. They also underestimate the importance of development opportunities, challenge, rewards and recognition.

Forty-three percent of employees in the sample felt intensely negative emotions and no strong positive emotions about their jobs. Looking more closely at this group, 28 percent are definitely planning to leave; 48 percent would not actively seek a new job but would be open to a good offer.

Even more worrisome, 25 percent of this group are planning to stay in jobs they don't like and clock their time.

Perhaps the "silver lining" of the study is that 70 percent of senior executives and regional heads in the study felt positive about their current work experience; this is in contrast to the group of mid and lower level employees, in which only 45 percent felt positive.

The difference for executives is they get more of the things that create a positive work experience. Senior executives are more positive about their abilities and the level of challenge. They feel they have more opportunities to make a contribution, see the results of what they do, and be recognized and rewarded for it. They receive more fulfillment from the people they work with and the energy they get from their work.

These findings raise a whole new set of questions for the workplace.

Do senior level employees rise to their roles more because of their strong sense of competence and confidence, or do those roles engender those feelings?

Can organizations take on and effectively address employees' feelings of competence and confidence on the job?

Are there ways employers can replicate that sense of control and challenge for mid and lower level employees?

Even if the workload cannot be lessened at the present time, can employers find other ways to satisfy their workers through recognition and reward programs?

So the North American workforce, on the whole, is not happy with the challenge and circumstances of their current jobs, but corporations are going to say "so what?" if it doesn't impact the bottom line.

To this end, Towers Perrin analyzed the relationship between individual respondents' levels of intense positive emotion and their specific employers' financial performances, as measured by five-year total shareholder returns. The resulting positive linear correlation is statistically significant with 99 percent confidence.

Whether business performance precedes engagement or engagement precedes business performance, the important take-away is that it's a cycle that leads to both happier employees and happier shareholders again and again.

As the study demonstrates, there is great potential for organizations to harness employees' emotional energies to affect the bottom line. In fact, the pool of emotion collected for the study was double the amount seen in any market research study with this same research approach. Unfortunately, currently these feelings are largely negative.

North Americans want to feel good about going to work each day, and don't want to just clock their time. "Work is not just work" for North Americans, particularly as we are spending more and more of our days at our computers and increasingly identifying with how we make our living.

Organizations need to recognize that periodic attending to employees' "temperature" is just as important as - and closely related to - attending to "quarterly numbers."

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Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments on medical- legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists. Comment by clicking here.


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