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Is Your Employee Morale Suffering?

Filed under Managing the Workplace. Fact checked on May 24, 2012.

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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.

Employees'
Rank

Item
Employer's
Rank
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
Work Smart

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 companies do:

  • arrange a forum where employees can come prepared to discuss morale issues and problems
  • ask employees to complete a written survey
Warning

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 jobs.

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.
Tools to Use

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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