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Record low job satisfaction is opportunity for unions, warning sign for employers

According to a survey recently released by the Conference Board, only 45% of Americans are satisfied with their job – an all-time record low. This is not an aberration resulting from the recession and its effects, since the job satisfaction rate has been declining for some time. Most commentators attribute the decline mainly to the negative impact of increased employee contributions for health care and slow wage growth. While these are no doubt factors, it should also be recognized that employees have much higher expectations today for what their job should provide, beyond the paycheck issues. Employees expect their jobs to be interesting, provide meaning, and allow them to participate in decision-making as part of a team. As these heightened expectations remain unrecognized and unfulfilled by employers, job satisfaction plummets.

Unions appear to have a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on the rising dissatisfaction. Union organizing in the private sector hasn’t accelerated in past years, though. Big Labor seemingly put all its eggs in the political basket, hoping the Employee Free Choice Act and other legislative changes would make organizing as automatic as it has been in the public sector. With EFCA stalled, the jury is still out over whether this strategy will pay off. In the meantime, unions may be primed to increase their organizing efforts in 2010, as opposed to waiting for Congress and the President to deliver legislative change.
For employers, these record low numbers should be a call to action. The first step is to determine the level of job satisfaction at your workplace – is it below 50 percent? If so, your business is in the “danger zone,” opening the door to a host of problems. Larger companies use sophisticated (and expensive) written surveys to measure job satisfaction, which is not a realistic option for most small and medium-sized businesses. Here are some cost- effective steps to monitor whether your company is approaching or has fallen into the “danger zone:”

• Make sure someone in the organization is responsible for collecting feedback from front line supervision on employee morale and issues that could, or are, causing dissatisfaction. This must be standardized so it occurs on a regular basis and is analyzed by Human Resources or top level management. Without centralized collection and analysis, obvious red flags indicating discontent may be missed.

• Don’t let managers and supervisors become “desk jockeys” – make sure they understand that a critical part of their job is to interact with employees and take the pulse of the workplace on a consistent basis.

• At any smaller group meeting with employees, save time at the end for questions and comments and encourage employee participation. This provides an opportunity to surface issues, measure morale, and read body language.

• Conduct employee sensing sessions at least yearly to give employees an opportunity to raise issues and vent frustrations. This is most effective when facilitated by independent employee relations specialists, because it minimizes the fear of retaliation and allows employees to speak freely. Sensing often provides a more accurate and in-depth read on employee job satisfaction than formal written surveys.

Paying attention and measuring employee morale and overall job satisfaction is the first step toward reducing the organization’s vulnerability. How do companies improve job satisfaction? Stay tuned for some suggestions and tips in a follow-up article coming soon.


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