What You Like About Your Job

Data show what makes HR professionals tick—and it may surprise you.

By Adrienne Fox Dec 1, 2011
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Ask any good HR professional what factors contribute to job satisfaction among employees, and you will get a thoughtful, researched answer. Ask that same HR professional what factors contribute to his or her own job satisfaction, and you are likely to get the same answer—but probably only because HR professionals have thought more about their employees than themselves.

Recent research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reveals that HR professionals generally have different drivers of satisfaction than their workforces. Moreover, there are wide gaps between what is important to them and their satisfaction levels with those elements.

SHRM researchers polled a statistically valid sample of 600 employees in 22 industries for the just-published 2011 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement research report. For HR Magazine, they asked the same questions and studied responses from a separate survey of 504 HR professionals. The results, found in SHRM Research Spotlight: HR Professionals' Job Satisfaction and Engagement, may provide insight into your own career and suggest personal and professional goals for you and your staff.

Less About the Benjamins

The research found that HR professionals have very different factors for satisfaction than the rest of the employee population, according to Mark Schmit, SPHR, vice president of research at SHRM in Alexandria, Va.

While compensation consistently ranks in the top five for employees, it ranks 17th out of 26 aspects affecting whether HR professionals are satisfied at work. "In most job satisfaction surveys of all employees, including ours, compensation is always near the top," Schmit notes.

Are HR professionals so well-paid that compensation becomes a nonfactor when it comes to satisfaction? Not exactly. "Compensation is ranked so low because HR professionals love their jobs and view it as a calling rather than just a job that pays the bills," Schmit says.

The top factors contributing to job satisfaction for HR professionals: Having opportunities to use their skills and abilities, followed by relationships with their supervisors, communication between employees and senior management, the work itself, and autonomy to make decisions, according to SHRM's survey.

However, less than half of the HR professionals who responded reported feeling "very satisfied" with each of the following factors:

  • The relationship with their supervisor (48 percent).
  • Having opportunities to use their skills and abilities (41 percent).
  • The work itself (40 percent).
  • The autonomy to make decisions (36 percent).
  • Communication (21 percent).

The third-ranked aspect, communication between employees and senior management, registered the largest gap between importance and satisfaction—48 percentage points. The most important aspect, opportunities to use skills and abilities, had the second-largest gap—42 percentage points. "HR professionals feel like they have a lot more to offer than what is being used by senior management," Schmit says. "While they may be helping others use their full potential and are facilitating communication among employees and management, HR professionals are not fulfilled themselves."

The job satisfaction scores of HR professionals who are hourly or nonexempt employees align more closely with the scores of general employees, according to Schmit. For instance, "They look for recognition to motivate them, whereas high-level HR professionals don't need that; the work itself is recognition enough."

‘I can see how the employees change and grow firsthand.’

What Makes HR Tick

The data come to life in interviews with HR professionals.

Carla Wiggins, HR director and sole practitioner at Livingston Hospital and Healthcare Services in Salem, Ky., has worked there for 26 years. Satisfaction for Wiggins comes down to two things: her relationship with senior management and the work. "I am a valued member of the senior management team, and I have a voice here," she says. "The work itself is interesting because it is constantly changing in regard to laws and employee relations."

Compensation is important, but it isn't a big factor in satisfaction, Wiggins adds. At the beginning of her career, gaining experience for her resume was the main motivation. But over the years, mentoring younger professionals and seeing them succeed has been rewarding. Wiggins has many stories about employees who have succeeded within or outside her organization, due to her tutelage.

Abbi Olsen, assistant vice president of HR at Peoples State Bank of Bloomer in Wisconsin, has been in her role for one year and has an unusual perspective, having come from a marketing background. Olsen is more satisfied in HR because she is dealing with internal customers—employees. "I get to see my impact internally vs. working externally with customers," she says. "I can see how the employees change and grow firsthand, whereas customers come and go. A product development person works on a product for years and then puts it in the marketplace and doesn't get to go to every buyer's home to see how the product affects the buyer. I get to see my customers daily and see how my work affects them."

Listen to Dave Reid, PHR, talk about the profession, and it's clear that it's all about the work. "HR evolves and progresses, and you are always finding new ways to deliver," says the HR manager at Cameron International, an oil and gas equipment manufacturer in Lafayette, La. "It's always interesting. I can do HR at a manufacturer and have different issues there than at a high-tech firm with a younger workforce. You have to assess and change how you deliver HR depending on your workforce needs, the demographics or the industry. That's interesting and challenging to me."

Compensation is a necessity, of course, he adds, "but it's not what gets me out of bed early every day. I get to see how my decisions affect people on the line almost daily. You go home feeling very satisfied if something you did had a profound impact on your employees. You also see very quickly when something goes wrong, and you can course-correct it quickly, too."

As a middle manager in HR, Reid will evaluate future opportunities based on whether there is access to senior management. His sentiments are in line with the SHRM survey findings: Middle HR managers first look for opportunities to use skills and then seek relationships with their immediate supervisors. Senior-level HR executives ranked opportunities to use skills at the top but said communication between employees and senior managers was the second-most important aspect to satisfaction.

Reid says HR managers looking to recruit and retain key HR professionals should provide challenging work, along with opportunities to work cross-functionally with other senior leaders to see the organization from a strategic viewpoint.

Having an impact across all levels of the organization keeps David Curtis coming back every day to his job as HR director at WillowWood, a 100-year-old prosthetic limb manufacturer based in Mount Sterling, Ohio. In 20 years, Curtis has seen the profession evolve from administrative to strategic. "The most surprising thing to me is how much coaching and mentoring is involved, and it is probably one of the most satisfying parts of my job," he notes.

Using coaching skills also makes HR satisfying to Cindy Zwickel, SPHR, a training specialist at Servpro Industries Inc., a cleaning and restoration franchisor based in Gallatin, Tenn. "When you have people who are really good at what they do, finding ways to improve their skills and challenge them can be challenging."

Zwickel says autonomy plays a role in her satisfaction, as do connections and access to leaders across the organization. "I like having the authority and the trust of senior management to make decisions, but that all goes out the window if access to leadership is compromised. I see the two going hand in hand. So, if I lost one or the other—autonomy or access to management—then I wouldn't be satisfied."

What One Thing?

When asked to identify one job attribute that would undermine their satisfaction, HR professionals generally point to the work itself or their impact through the support of senior management.

If the work got boring or less challenging, Zwickel says, it would be a detriment to her satisfaction. But, she adds, "challenging" does not mean "overwhelming."

"HR people can burn out easily because of the immense pressure to find good people, motivate and retain them," she explains. "For me, challenging work must have the support of the senior management team to make the pressure bearable. That support helps maintain the balance between being busy and challenged and being stressed-out and overwhelmed."

Curtis has a similar perspective. "The ability to work closely with the CEO and do strategic planning for the company is really important at this stage of my career," he says. "Losing that would knock out a major pillar of what makes this job worthwhile."

Olsen agrees that losing access to senior management would drop her satisfaction at the bank, noting that "If you aren't being heard and are having no impact, then what's the point?"

Decoding Drivers

Valtera, a Chicago-based talent management consulting firm, has collected data annually on how employees value 27 attributes of the work environment. In this year's analysis, completed in February, Valtera segmented the responses by HR professionals. Valtera did not disclose the size of the sample.

Unlike the SHRM survey, Valtera's research focuses on engagement drivers rather than job satisfaction. "Job satisfaction captures whether an employee is content or gratified in their jobs, whereas engagement captures what makes the employee go above and beyond the basic job duties," explains Kyle Lundby, a director at Valtera in Durham, N.C.

Still, the results are similar. "Less-tenured HR professionals tend to have engagement drivers in line with other professions, such as having a good relationship with their supervisors and having opportunities to grow," notes Wayne Lee, research consultant at Valtera. "The engagement drivers of HR professionals with longer tenures differ slightly in that they look for alignment between their values and the organization's as well as wanting a good relationship with upper management." 

The matchup between what the employee wants and what the organization offers is what Valtera calls the "employee value proposition."

"Employees have their own values they use to evaluate whether to stay or leave the organization" based on what the organization offers employees—such as culture, benefits and career development opportunities, Lundby says.

He explains that values attract employees and engagement drivers retain and motivate them.

"values such as pay, benefits and job security attract HR professionals, but opportunities to grow and use skills, innovation and organization stability are what retain and energize HR professionals," he says. "To hang on to key HR professionals, organizations need to focus on the engagement drivers."

Lundby encourages HR professionals to examine what drives them. "Self-reflect on what engages me, whether it is the opportunity to grow or interesting work or using my skills and abilities," he suggests. "Investigate the organization beyond the tools used to attract me, such as pay, benefits or flexibility, and determine whether the company offers the things that energize and engage me."

Values attract employees, and engagement drivers retain and motivate them.

Taking Stock

The SHRM data provide a snapshot of what your HR colleagues in other organizations say is most important to their satisfaction and to what extent they are finding those elements in their organizations. The gaps between importance and satisfaction levels can provide a road map of where to focus efforts. "Those gaps can help determine what they can work on or whether they are faring better or worse than their colleagues," Schmit says. "You may discover you're not alone in feeling like your skills and abilities aren't being used to their fullest. In other words, maybe the grass isn't always greener somewhere else. Once you realize that, focus on what you can do to improve the situation at your organization."

Schmit advises senior-level HR professionals to use the SHRM survey results as discussion points with staff members to find out whether they are satisfied. When the SHRM researchers asked HR professionals if they were likely to look for another job this year, 42 percent said "likely" or "very likely."

"Senior-level management should look at that and pay attention to what factors uniquely attract and retain HR professionals—or risk losing them," Schmit says.

The author is a contributing editor and former managing editor of HR Magazine.

What do you find most satisfying about your work as an HR professional?
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