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Pay Now Top Reason for Job Satisfaction
First time in 5 years compensation ranked No. 1; job security most important during recession

By Dana Wilkie  5/11/2014

Pay is now the No. 1 contributor to job satisfaction—the first time that compensation has been so important to U.S. employees in at least five years, according to a poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Asked what was very important to them in a job, 60 percent of responding employees said it was compensation/pay, making this the biggest contributor to job satisfaction. The survey was conducted in 2013 and released May 8, 2014.

The last time compensation/pay was the top contributor to overall job satisfaction was the pre-recession year of 2007. For four straight years after that, compensation/pay took a back seat to job security as the No. 1 reason for being content with a job.

Alex Alonso, SHRM’s vice president of research, cautioned that despite the poll’s findings, the manager-employee conversation should never be “only about pay.”

“At a time when salary budgets aren’t increasing significantly, employers might want to emphasize overall benefits packages—including health care, retirement savings and paid time off—as a way to help them retain skilled workers,” Alonso said.

However, Sherry Wright, national organizer for the AFL-CIO’s Working America project, said  that focusing on retirement savings and time off shouldn’t come at the expense of better living wages for Americans. 

“If you talk to some folks who are making $7.25 hour with a family of four and two incomes, they’re probably going to admit they’re struggling,” Wright said. “Maybe they’re happy to have a job, or to get along with their co-workers, but they are not happy to be trying to piece together a living and live hand to mouth every month.”

According to the survey, more than one-half (56 percent) of employees reported receiving a raise during the previous year, a 6 percentage point increase from SHRM’s 2012 poll findings. A much smaller portion (36 percent) reported receiving a bonus in the previous 12 months, a 3 percentage point decrease from 2012.

The poll surveyed 600 randomly selected employees at various sized companies during the summer of 2013. SHRM conducts a survey of employee job satisfaction and engagement each year.

‘Relationships’ Less Important to Executives  

For the third straight year, employees rated relationships with immediate supervisors among the top five things contributing to job satisfaction. Compared with 2012, this aspect jumped from the No. 5 to the No. 3 reason for liking a job. Middle managers, however, more frequently said that relationships with direct supervisors were “very important” than did employees at the executive level.

“Employees frequently associate their perception of their supervisor with their overall attitude toward the organization,” the report authors wrote. “In fact, management issues are one of the major sources driving up employee turnover. This reason alone speaks to the multiple implications the employee-management relationship has on an organization. Poor management has widespread consequences, ranging from diminished employee morale and reduced productivity to damage to an organization’s reputation.”

Even if relationships with direct managers are important to workers, communication with senior managers appears to be less so. In 2013, half of the respondents said communication with senior managers was very important to them—a decline of 7 percentage points from the previous year. That decline displaced this “communication” aspect of a job from the top five list of job satisfaction contributors to the No. 6 position. Women indicated this aspect was more important to them than men did.

Pay Importance Crosses Generations, Most Job Titles

Four generations of employees—Millennials, Generation X, Baby Boomers and veterans—ranked compensation as either the first or second aspect of job satisfaction, according to the survey. It was also among the top three job-satisfaction contributors across employee groups, such as those who are in nonexempt positions, in professional jobs and in middle management.

Only executives failed to rank compensation as one of their top three job-satisfaction contributors. In fact, pay didn’t even rank in the top five for executives, who most often said that the chance to use their skills and abilities, and “the work itself,” were the most important aspects of a job.

Recession Years

Pay was “very important” to workers during the recession years, but the last time it topped their list was in 2007, when 59 percent of respondents said it was the biggest reason for job satisfaction. From 2008-2011, the top reason for job satisfaction was job security. In 2012, it was the opportunity to use one’s skills and abilities.

In 2013, the No. 2 and No. 3 reasons for job satisfaction—behind pay—were job security and the opportunity to use skills and abilities, with 59 percent of respondents ranking each as “very important” to them. 

That pay, security and the ability to use skills were ranked so closely indicates “that employees are still feeling the impact of the recession monetarily and also psychologically,” said Evren Esen, director of SHRM’s Survey Research Center.

“I think the reason [pay] is important now is that employees are still sticking with their jobs, unsure about whether they want to test the economic waters with a new job,” Esen said. “Because of this, they are not able to gain the large jumps in salary that sometimes come with moving to a new job with a new organization. Employees are continuing to feel financial pressures as the economy is still not thriving; this makes the desire for more money important to employees.”

The AFL-CIO’s Wright offers a different reason.

“As CEO pay skyrockets and bonuses become more egregious, the average worker looks at their pay, which is not rising and hasn’t risen for years, and that’s why people are more and more dissatisfied with their compensation,” Wright said. “Also, the recession is not over for many people; the economy is still struggling. So many are graduating college with intense amounts of debt. They are not getting jobs, and if they are lucky enough to get a job, they aren’t getting ones that pay enough or where pay improves over time.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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