Unhappy Employees: Why You Need to Care

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unhappyEmployees aren’t happy. There are so many studies out there that prove this it’s almost a crime to link to anyone of them (but here’s one ). Whether it’s an industry inside blog about employee engagement  or a straight up op-ed piece with frightening statistics, the message is clear. Employees are just plain old dissatisfied and we are, as the old saying goes, really supposed to pay attention to this (ed. note: not really an old saying).

Why? Because, and it should be obvious by now, with culture scions Starbucks, Zappos and Southwest garnering new headlines every quarter, happier employees make BETTER employees. And better employees make more effective teams, spread a significantly higher amount of hotshot consumer buzz and affect the bottom lines of productivity and revenue. In fact, Gallup was quoted in the New York Times, placing the price of America’s disengagement crisis at a staggering $300 billion in lost productivity annually. James K. Harter found, in a 2010 study, that lower job satisfaction foreshadowed poorer bottom-line performance. So, the research backs up vendor and analyst claims alike.

“Corporations listed in Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For in America” had equity returns that were 3.5% per year higher than those of their peers, indicating that employee satisfaction correlates positively with shareholder returns”, says Alex Edmans of the Wharton School. The results of his study of companies from 1984 through 2009 also indicate that, contrary to prior research, employee satisfaction need not represent managerial slack.

The study above dates back to 1984, so why are we still debating employee engagement? And despite recent economic woes, why is management so bad that employees are still tremendously unhappy? According to a report from Mercer, an outplacement and consulting firm, difficult working conditions, stressed managers and low base pay are all contributing factors. And as the job market heats up — January posted the lowest unemployment numbers since 2008 — employees are even less inclined to stay in positions that make them miserable.

However, despite clear evidence to the contrary, executives don’t seem to appreciate the correlation with Morgan Stanley CEO famously telling disenfranchised employees “if you’re really unhappy, just leave”. Even Silicon Valley is getting in on the action with Larry Page telling unhappy staff to “get out”. It gets lonely at the top, I bet. Even more lonely when you’re telling everyone to wave bye-bye.

While managers have often gotten a bad rap for being the broken cog in the engagement wheel, executives are now look like the ones with the black eye. But as as traditional jobs pave the way for new roles, there are some saying that engagement sits squarely on the shoulders of the employee. Jason Lauritsen says the best thing an organization can do is to “stop bubble wrapping employees”.

Being accountable in failure is about leadership because accountability erases blame and accusations that often make failures far worse than they ever need to be.  Accountability is the truest form of empowerment.

Even Harvard Business Review got on the bandwagon, insisting that even as the surveys show employees aren’t loving their jobs, they’re sure not going to leave them. In Why You Won’t Quit Your Job, author Daniel Gulati stipulates that because of humans’ natural risk aversion, chances are you won’t quit your job anytime soon:

As a whole, the group displayed a distinct preference for hitting just another small milestone, rather than starting from the bottom of a different (but potentially more lucrative) mountain altogether. This strong human bias toward accumulating small wins is what we call progress, but paradoxically, it seems to be inhibiting many individuals from reaching their true potential.

But for those who want to start fixing the problem, there are lots of resources out there, but beware, Blessing and White state that engagement surveys without visible follow-up action may actually decrease engagement levels. So unless you are completely committed to turning the tide in your organization, you shouldn’t start!

By Maren Hogan