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Uplifting Employees

Raising and maintaining employee morale takes sincere communications and respect.HR Magazine, August 2007

Traci Bell was really impressed with how her employer, David Weekley Homes, dealt with the layoffs of some of its employees. The chairman “made a video to explain what was going on, why it was going on, and what the company was doing to take care of those team members,” says Bell, a sales coach for the Houston-based homebuilder.

But it was the way her bosses and co-workers supported her after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease that really cinched her loyalty to the company. Bell had to be out two days every other week for six months, followed by two rounds of stem cell transplants. Everyone worked around her schedule and pitched in to help, and then she found out two days before Christmas that her team members in Charlotte, N.C., and Charleston, S.C., had donated 117 of their personal vacation days to her. “I will probably never work anyplace else,” she says.

While Bell obviously has a reason to be satisfied with her employer and job, it doesn’t take that type of crisis to build employee morale, 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 (SHRM). “The truth is employees don’t need much,” says Simpson-Bint. “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. Workers under 25 years of age were most dissatisfied (two out of five), while workers ages 45 to 54 expressed the second-lowest level of satisfaction (45 percent).

Additionally, a poll taken by CCH HR Management in October 2006 found that absenteeism is up in U.S. workplaces, and that there was a direct association with absenteeism and employee morale. Nearly twice as many companies with “Poor/Fair” morale reported an increase in unscheduled absences over the past two years compared to companies with “Good/Very Good” morale (33 percent vs. 17 percent). Moreover, 46 percent of companies with low morale reported that unscheduled absenteeism is a serious problem for them.

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., doesn’t necessarily agree with the surveys. First of all, he notes, employee morale and job satisfaction are not the same thing, though polls don’t always take that into account. 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.

When it comes to job satisfaction, the general population of employed workers who have a choice—though perhaps not a great deal of choice—will self-select themselves into roles and occupations they like doing, Klein says. Employee morale, on the other hand, reflects an employee’s attitude about the company and is “a function of leadership and management practices,” Klein explains. He notes 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.

Often companies where morale is low try quick fixes like giving raises or new benefits or holding employee events, but that won’t work over the long run, says Steve Byars, vice president of administration for AMX Corp., a hardware and software solutions company headquartered in Richardson, Texas, and one of the 50 Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America in 2006 and 2007.

Taking Employees Pulse

Boosting employee morale starts with knowing where morale stands. For that, Klein recommends a multifaceted approach. He offers the following suggestions for taking an accurate pulse of your employees:

  • First, do a cross-sectional survey of all employees.

  • Get that data into the hands of managers.

  • Give managers the responsibility to feed it back to their employees and create an effective action plan.

  • Then, measure behavior: Track the kinds of actions people are taking, the schedule for meeting their goals and the percentage of managers who are accomplishing their action items. These are statistics that you can report to your executives, and that your executives can exert some control over—because they can control leaders, but not attitudes.

  • Help managers understand how career and lifestyle events impact employees. Oftentimes, legal folks are guiding HR, saying managers shouldn’t get too close to their employees because of a liability associated with that. But in fact, there’s a liability in not getting close with your employees.

Exploring Trust Issues

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.”

Byars agrees. “If we violate a trust, we’ve lost,” he says, which is why if the company has bad news, management tells employees the bad news “first and immediately.”

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 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. “One team member has a son in the military, and we’ll talk about when he’s coming home. Or I’ll ask how a team member’s daughter is doing in school, just touching base a little on the personal side, as well as the professional. It’s part of who we are.”

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.
The NRC’s McDermott has seen this universality first hand. He was a guest speaker in May with representatives from two major companies in the nuclear industry at the North American Young Generation in Nuclear meeting in Miami. “We each had our charts with us about what we provide as a workplace, and they were identical. We all could have used the same set of charts.”

There are, however, some generational differences. “Younger people are more interested in hearing we want them to have a life, not just a job,” says McDermott, but mid-career or late-career people place higher importance on pension benefits.

Gerhard agrees. “Older people are more focused on security and job continuity, while younger people are looking for training. They consider themselves free agents, and at the end of every season, they decide to bid their services out to someone else.”

Katie Donaldson, PHR, senior HR manager at AMX, finds that younger employees need more “attaboys” than older generations, while Simpson-Bint puts it even more succinctly. The younger generation, he says, wants to work someplace “cool.”

But everyone craves recognition. 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.

Don’t Stop Working On Relationships

One thing that distinguishes companies where morale is high is their commitment to improving employee relations. Simpson-Bint says that even though Future US made the 50 Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America list, he knows the company could do better. “We aren’t perfect,” he admits, “but there really is a desire by management to be engaged in the issue of employee happiness.”

McDermott, too, is proud his workplace was honored as a top place to work, but he has no illusions as to how quickly things can change. The NRC has been in a hiring frenzy lately. “We aren’t a done deal,” he says. “I’m waiting to see my wonderful ratings plummet in two years, because we are overcrowding our new workers. When new workers come in, I welcome them and say, ‘We are so grateful you have joined us, but we are going to treat you like sardines and squash you in.’ That’s not good for morale.”

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


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