Uplifting Employees

By Nancy Hatch Woodward

If you wait until a major event, such as a massive layoff or reorganization, to build trust among your employees, you've already lost half the battle. Building trust for managers is a regular occurrence. The good news is it's the little things that count the most.

"The truth is employees don't need much," says Jonathan Simpson-Bint, president of Future US Inc., publisher of special-interest magazines and web sites. His San Francisco-based company was named one of the 50 Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America in 2006 by the Great Place to Work® Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management. "That's what is astonishing to me. It's not like you have to fly them places and buy them stuff. What they want is to be recognized and feel as though they are a part of something bigger."

Polls Highlight Low Morale

If it's so easy, then why do so many polls report that employee satisfaction is at such low levels? According to a February 2007 Conference Board survey, less than half of all Americans say they are satisfied with their jobs, down from 61 percent 20 years ago. The decline in satisfaction transcends age, income and even residence.

Doug Klein, president of Sirota Survey Intelligence, a global professional services firm that specializes in organizational development and occupational psychology research, with U.S. headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., notes the difference between employee morale and job satisfaction: Employee morale refers to how employees feel about the company they are working for; job satisfaction is about how employees feel about their particular duties, he says.

Klein explains that even in companies that are struggling, solid leadership and management practices can mitigate the effects of external events like tougher competition or shocks to the industry, such as what happened to the financial sector right after Sept. 11.

Good Managers = Trust

Good morale depends on effective top management, says John Gerhard, executive director of Nixon Peabody LLP. The Boston-based law firm, recognized as one of Fortune magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work for in 2007, was noted for its low turnover. "Often poor morale is a reflection of the inattention of top management to the people in the organization," he says.

The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government 2007 survey illustrates this point. At the Department of Homeland Security, which has been cited for having extremely low employee morale and high turnover, only 40.2 percent of employees felt that the department had effective leadership. On the other hand, 62.7 percent of employees at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), cited as the No. 1 place to work by the survey, reported that the agency had effective leadership.

"Our leaders are very close to the ground," says James McDermott, director of HR for the NRC. He notes that senior managers are hands-on about everything, "and that goes with telling the real dope on what is happening and building those levels of trust. Employees want to know the real stuff, and, when they conclude they are hearing the real dope, then you get your dividend -- trust. Once you get there, you are home free."

Building trust is all about communicating effectively with employees, says McDermott, and it can't be one-sided. "As soon as we hear something from the staff they are having a problem with, we jump on it," he explains. "We tell them we hear them, and we let them know what we are going to do and then we follow through and get it done. The worst thing you can do is come in and glad-hand everyone and say you are going to do this and do that, but then nothing happens."

At Houston-based David Weekley Homes, which also made it onto Fortune's 100 Best list, managers have "planned encounters" with their team members, usually every week. What makes these meetings different is that employees drive the agenda, explains Mike Brezina, vice president of HR for the homebuilder. Employees know they can discuss anything that impacts their jobs in those meetings.

Monica Vagholkar, communications coordinator in the marketing department at David Weekley Homes, says the most useful aspect of these meetings is that her boss really cares about what is on her plate and what she needs help with.

In addition, managers often express interest in what is happening in the personal lives of their employees. "If my employees aren't giving me an update on some of the important things going on in their lives, then I'm going to ask," explains Brezina.

What Employees Really Want

Sirota's research has shown that there is a universal set of elements that employees want from their workplace, regardless of an individual's role, education or geography. They are:

  • Working for a company they can identify with.

  • Working at a place where they are enabled -- they have the supervision, authority, information and resources they need to be successful.

  • Being rewarded for their successes. Regardless of what anybody says, Klein notes, employees are looking for a meritocracy.

  • Having productive workplace relationships with their co-workers.

According to the employee satisfaction survey that Nixon Peabody does every 18 months, the second most significant driver for employee morale is recognition, says Bill Simpson, director of HR for the law firm, "and I don't mean recognition in terms of running out and buying a gift certificate." Sure, they want a pat on the back, but what people really want is to be recognized for what they bring to the table, he explains. They are interested in being integrated into the decision-making process, so they feel they are playing a critical role in the organization. "It [has to do] with this thing called respect, and it doesn't cost any money," says Simpson.

Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine.

Terms of Use: © 2007 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

[ Back to Fall 2007 Issue ]​


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