“We’re at a complete loss,” the CEO said when he called. No matter what we try, we can’t make our employees happy. “We pay obscenely high wages and have backed off from our requirement that employees work on-site five days a week. But if you walk around our offices, ninety percent of the employees look unhappy.”
“High wages don’t make employees happy if they don’t like their jobs or their employers,” I told him. “Instead, high salaries handcuff employees to jobs they’d rather leave because they can’t find better-paying work.”
CEO: “But we’re doing other things too. We’re a lot more flexible than we were. We let our employees work from home two days a week.”
Me: “Working two days a week from home might have felt like a dream come true pre-pandemic, but may not seem enough to employees who enjoyed the freedom of working from home five days a week.”
CEO: “Well, what the heck do we do? We do an employee survey once a year and try to fix what employees complain about.”
Me: “How do your survey’s 2023 employee satisfaction scores compare to 2022′s?”
CEO: “They’re lower.”
The painful reality
“You’re not alone,” I told the CEO. According to Gallup’s 2023 workplace report, employees in the U.S. are unhappier with their jobs and employers than in past years. Over 60% of employees admit they’re disengaged, and another 19% report being miserable at work.
BambooHR’s survey of 57,000 employees corroborates widespread employee discontent, documenting that employee job-satisfaction scores have sunk to their lowest level since early 2020. According to a third survey conducted by the human capital technology company Alight, 34% of U.S. employees “often dread” starting their workday, an 11% increase from 2020.
These signs of employee unhappiness show up every day in resignations, low productivity, voiced concerns and attitude issues. Employee discontent and disengagement exist despite increases in salary, flexibility and paid time off. These advances don’t counter the inflation that erases salary increases; the cooling job market that leaves some employees stuck in jobs they don’t want; the isolation experienced by remote and hybrid workers; and the micromanagement felt by some employees forced to return to in-office environments.
“Employees want to be happy with their jobs,” I told the CEO. “They don’t want to drag themselves to work, watching time crawl slowly by until they can leave for the day. Employers that want to make employees happy can. Here’s the essential truth — employers need to pick the right employees, offer them meaningful work and treat them well.”
Creating a workplace in which employees like coming to work starts with hiring employees right for the employer’s jobs. In “Managing for Accountability,” I devoted over a tenth of the book to how an employer can assess which employees would be the right fit and stay motivated long term. By asking questions such as “If you were offered two jobs, what would lead you to choose one over the other?” and “What are the small things that would tell you in six months that you’d picked the wrong job?” employers can discover the employees who will like what the employer offers.
Next, employers that want employees to invest full effort in their jobs need to answer, “Here’s what you’ll receive from your investment.” Managers can’t motivate individual employees using a “one size fits all” approach. From day one, they need to understand what motivates each of their employees, their employee’s job and career goals, and what kind of communication and supervision will bring out the best from their employees.
How can the manager learn this crucial information? They need to ask employees questions such as “How does this job match up to what you expected when you accepted the position?” “What have you found challenging this week?” and “What can I do to help you?”
“That sounds too simple,” the CEO said.
“All it takes is time,” I said, and then asked, “How many of your managers make the time to check in with their employees each week?” The bird-that-flew-into-the-window look he gave me told me his answer, so I added, “Quiet leading creates quiet quitting. That annual survey you use serves as a job satisfaction autopsy. By the time you hear and fix the complaints, morale has died. You need to take your employees’ pulse regularly. Managers need to spend the time to build effective relationships with their employees.”
“It’s that easy?” the CEO asked.
“There’s more. You personally have to lead your organization, interact with your employees, and remind them in an authentic way of ‘why’ they’re working under your leadership and for your company. But we can get into that next week. Besides, if what I outlined above was easy, every company would do it. I’m guessing if your managers start to implement the simple strategies I’ve suggested, it will shock your employees — because it doesn’t often happen.”