Is Your Employee Morale Suffering?
It's safe to say that the higher employee morale is, the better it is for your business. A workplace with high morale has employees who feel that they are treated fairly and valued and appreciated. Asking your employees for their input or doing a written survey is a good way to find out whether the morale in your workplace needs to be improved.
Every employer wants a high level of morale in their workplace because low morale can result in workplace problems that not only affect you and your employees, but your bottom line. There are several factors that contribute to high morale in a work environment. Employees must feel that they are:
- treated fairly
- valued and appreciated for their work
- recognized for their work
- paid a fair wage for their work
- doing work that is important
Employee Morale Study
In one study, employees were asked to rank 10 items, in order of importance, that they wanted from their jobs. Their employers were then asked to guess how they thought their employees would rank the same 10 items. The results, set out below, were surprising.
|1 ||Interesting work ||5 |
|2 ||Appreciation and recognition ||8 |
|3 ||Feeling "in on things" ||10 |
|4 ||Job security ||2 |
|5 ||Good wages ||1 |
|6 ||Promotion/growth ||3 |
|7 ||Good working conditions ||4 |
|8 ||Personal loyalty ||6 |
|9 ||Tactful discipline ||7 |
|10 ||Sympathetic help with problems ||9 |
(Niebrugge, Vicki, Declining Employee Morale: Defining the Causes and Finding the Cure, NOVA Group.)
Notice that employees ranked "interesting work" as what they want most in their jobs, although their supervisors thought that the employees would rank "good wages" as the most important. In fact, "good wages" were ranked only fifth by employees.
So what do the results of this study mean? For one thing, it's good news for you, since working for a small business tends to mean employees have to wear a lot of hats and have more interesting jobs. It also means that factors such as feeling "in on things" and having their work appreciated mean a lot more to employees than you may think. While these types of perks seem easy to give to employees because they may not cost a lot, if you're interested in keeping your employees happy and productive, take these "soft issues" seriously.
It's not just about money. Some skeptics say that it's all about money and that if you pay people enough, that's all that matters when it comes to getting employees to be productive and loyal. But pay usually tends to become very important only when the employee feels his or her pay is below standard for what similar workers earn elsewhere. If your pay is in line with industry averages, chances are that your employees' job satisfaction hinges more on the "soft issues" than on the fact that they may earn a few dollars more or less than their peers.
Okay, how can you gauge employee morale? There are a couple of steps you can take to figure out whether employees are happy and what to do about it if they aren't:
- recognize signs of low morale
- ask your employees what they want
Signs of Low Employee Morale
Low morale may exist among your employees, but you may not realize it. There are some obvious signs that you can watch for, though, including:
- excessive absenteeism or tardiness
- high turnover
- poor work quality
- increasing number of errors in work
- necessity to re-do work frequently
- lack of enthusiasm about work
- jealousy or fighting among staff members
- complaints from customers about service
Having some of these present in your business may not be indicative of a morale problem. In the case of errors in work and poor work quality, there may be training issues to address. If work quality is poor, don't make the immediate assumption that the employee hates his or her job. It's important to recognize that if an employee has not been adequately trained for the work he or she is expected to perform, morale can suffer.
In all but the worst cases — the ones where employees clearly hate their jobs — you may have to do a little research to find out if employees are unhappy and what it is they're unhappy about. Once you know, you can rectify the problem.
Asking Employees What They Want
The simplest, most obvious way to get information about how your
employees are feeling is to just ask them. Are they getting what they
want out of the employment relationship or is there some gripe about
working conditions that you can correct? The most obvious time to do
this is if you conduct annual or semi-annual performance reviews,
in the context of discussing the employee's pay raise. As a part of
that process, you can bring up the issue of what the employee likes and
dislikes about the job, and the general working environment.
You must recognize that workers may not always be honest with you,
either because they are afraid that you, as their boss, may retaliate,
or because they don't really know why they are unhappy. If you suspect
that morale is a serious problem among your employees and you don't know
why, you can make a point of taking one of your most trusted employees
aside and asking his or her opinion. Or, you can do what some larger
- arrange a forum where employees can come prepared to discuss morale issues and problems
- ask employees to complete a written survey
Forums and surveys can be very valuable in ferreting out problems.
However, we suggest that you think long and hard before taking either of
these two steps, as employees will often take them as confirmation of
their suspicions that something is wrong, and you'll raise their
expectations as to your intention and ability to make significant
improvements in their jobs. If you can't or won't deliver significant
changes, they may feel even worse than before. Obviously, this is not
the outcome you want!
Utilizing Employee Forums
If you suspect that morale is suffering and you have only a few
employees, a written survey may make employees feel more comfortable,
but it certainly won't make their comments anonymous.
Instead, you may want to arrange an individual meeting with each
employee, or a group meeting at which everyone can express their
concerns. If the problem lies with a particular employee, individual
meetings may be most appropriate.
However, remember that employees may not feel free to speak to you or
in front of other employees. You should try to make it clear that you
value them enough to try to get this information, and that you are not
going to hold it against them if they criticize something about their
Setting up and conducting meetings. Here are some steps to follow if you have these meetings:
- Tell employees in advance that you want to meet with them and
tell them why (don't make it a cryptic secret either — you want them to
be honest and candid, not scared to death). To be fair and credible,
it's probably best to speak with each employee. Don't leave anyone out
or prevent anyone from participating.
- Once in the meeting, stress that you want to keep the meeting
casual and explain that you want to hear any criticism that employees
may have. Keep the feeling relaxed. Consider serving refreshments.
- Have a list of questions to prompt employees in the event that
they don't have anything to say. These types of meetings tend to start
off slowly and pick up momentum as employees realize that you are open
to feedback and suggestions.
- If it's a group meeting, make sure that everyone is heard from.
Encourage people to raise their hands and not to interrupt each other if
it appears that some employees aren't getting a chance to speak.
- If it's a group meeting, try to steer employees away from
discussions about each other. You don't want the meeting to turn into
Employee A's personal gripe session about what Employee B does wrong. If
those types of topics come up, explain that you think that this issue
deserves a discussion all its own, and follow up on it later.
- Stay focused on issues that you can control. If an employee
complains about something that is not within your control, try to stress
that you're looking for information to help you make changes to improve
working conditions for employees.
- If employees don't have anything to say or seem ill-at-ease,
conclude the session, and remind them that if they want to talk later or
write down their thoughts, you will be happy to meet with them later or
accept their memo. If you have a situation where many of your employees
do not feel comfortable talking with you, you may need to take a closer
look at your conduct as a boss.
- Be sure to take good notes and let employees know when they can
expect some type of follow-up. If you're not sure, say so, but try to
give some detail. If you ask for the information and do nothing with it,
you will harm morale more than you help it.
- If an employee criticizes your performance as a leader, do not
react harshly, defensively, or angrily. Accept the comments — especially
since you asked for them — and hide any hurt feelings you may have. Any
negative responses will inhibit employees, and you won't get the
information that you want.
- Follow up and act on good suggestions, and be sure to thank the people who made them.
The Business Tools contain a sample script for getting feedback
that you can use in conducting these types of meetings. Use it to
prepare for a meeting you might have or jot down parts of it on note
cards to use during the meeting if you get stuck.
Using Written Employee Surveys to Gauge Morale
If you have a larger number of employees, or if you have a few
employees who tend not to express themselves in meetings, a written
survey or opinion poll on employees' job satisfaction may be a better
option. It can be in paper or electronic format and it doesn't have to
be long and involved, but it gives your employees a chance to think
about what they want and to express themselves more effectively. Doing a
written survey has several advantages:
- It allows employees to take their time and think about their responses.
- It allows them to be more candid and possibly to be anonymous.
- It takes up less work time, as employees will often complete surveys when they are on break, at lunch, or at home.
- It allows you to standardize the information that you get.
Face-to-face meetings tend to give you different information on a
variety of topics that is hard to summarize.
If you choose to do a written survey, be sure to:
- Give the employees adequate time to compose thoughtful answers.
- Ask everyone to complete the survey in order to get the most
accurate information. If left to voluntary completion, only those
employees with strong negative or positive feelings will complete it.
- Assure everyone that responses will be taken seriously and kept confidential.
- Respond to the survey results within 30 to 60 days. This is the
tricky part, as you may find that employees want something you can't
provide. It will be important to make at least a first-step response
that addresses their concerns. For example, if a common complaint is not
enough vacation time, you might offer to give them an extra day off if
certain productivity goals are met.
Questions To Ask In a Written Survey
In a written survey, you'll want to keep the questions clear and easy
to answer. The more difficult the survey is to complete, the less care
employees will put into completing it. To simplify it, use multiple
choice, true/false, and comparison questions.
Open-ended questions will allow employees to give more detail but may
also make it more difficult to get a clear idea of the overall feeling
on a particular issue. In small businesses, some employees may fear that
you'll recognize their handwriting but will not be afraid to mark boxes
or circle their choices. A mix of question types may help ensure that
you get at least some response from every employee.
Interpreting and Dealing With Your Survey Results
Studies indicate that between 10 to 30 percent of employees will be
dissatisfied with their jobs at any given time. If you find that a
larger number of employees are unhappy, try to find patterns in the
areas of dissatisfaction.
If, on your survey, certain questions were answered in a negative
fashion by most of your employees, it might be wise to start with those
issues. Not only will that have the biggest effect, but you'll be
pleasing the largest number of people. Again, try to follow up on the
survey with some type of action within a reasonable period of time.
Keep your options open for solutions. Be creative and solicit
employee input in addressing some of the problems that you decide to
tackle. You might also check with other business owners to see if they
have come up with any creative solutions to similar problems.
Sometimes there won't be much that you can do. For example, the
consensus may be that pay is too low, but you may not be able to afford
to give everyone a raise. Maybe you can look at trimming benefits and
giving higher pay raises, or offering bonuses for exceptional
performance. If there don't seem to be any solutions, talk with
employees and explain your position. Maybe they can offer solutions or
suggestions. At the very least, acknowledging them and their concerns
lets employees know that you care enough to be honest with them. Don't
just ignore the problem and hope that employees will forget — they
rarely do. Giving them the brush-off will only damage morale more.
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