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What HR Professionals Love About Their Job

Compared to U.S. employees overall, HR professionals are more satisfied with their jobs, according to 2013 SHRM data.

November Cover EDITOR'S NOTE:Our online version of this article includes information that has been updated and corrected since the print edition was published.

Like a home-cooked meal, a good job can be deeply satisfying—and HR professionals are pleased with what they’ve got cooking. They get a lot of satisfaction from their work—even more so than they did in 2011. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) just released two reports—one surveying 600 U.S. employees in 22 industries on various job satisfaction factors and another polling 347 HR professionals using the same questions.

The 2013 HR Professionals’ Job Satisfaction and Engagement research report found that 45 percent of HR professionals are "very satisfied" with their current jobs—a jump from 36 percent in the 2011 survey.

But while HR professionals’ job satisfaction levels have gone up, U.S. employees’ satisfaction overall has remained stable. Thirty-six percent of U.S. employees overall are "very satisfied" with their current job, according to the 2013 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement survey report, consistent with 38 percent in 2012.

The stagnation in job satisfaction could be a result of changes within employees’ organizations or of external factors such as economic pressures, according to SHRM. And even though overall job satisfaction has risen among HR professionals, they are not immune to the effects of economic uncertainty, as evidenced by the higher value they placed on stability, job security, health care and paid time off in 2013.

As in 2011, opportunities to use their skills and abilities in their work topped the list of "very important" factors contributing to job satisfaction among both HR professionals (cited by 81 percent of respondents) and U.S. employees (59 percent) in 2013. In addition, 81 percent of HR professionals said their relationship with their supervisor was "very important" to job satisfaction, up from 79 percent in 2011.

Back to Basics

What’s particularly interesting is the increase in importance to HR professionals of "basic" factors, such as paid time off and health care/medical benefits. A broader category of "benefits" was ranked No. 9 in 2011 and No. 5 in 2013 by HR respondents. The organization’s financial stability (cited by 64 percent of respondents) and job security (62 percent) ranked No. 7 and No. 12, respectively, last year.

Sarah Koustrup, director of human resources at National Hospitality Services LLC in Fargo, N.D., attributes the rise in the importance of health care benefits to HR professionals to their understanding of the changes taking place in that area. "As HR people, we are in deep with health care reform," she says. "When we hear numbers of how much it costs for individuals, we appreciate that our company offers it."

Dollars and Sense

Even with recent economic turmoil, pay still doesn’t take precedence for HR professionals. The survey found that 59 percent of U.S. employees rated overall compensation "very important" to job satisfaction, compared with 50 percent of HR respondents. "Historically, HR professionals tend to place items such as compensation at a lower importance compared to the general workforce," notes Christina Lee, a researcher at SHRM in Alexandria, Va., who worked on the survey.

"HR is a job with a lot of meaning," Koustrup says. "Pay matters—don’t get me wrong. But if you feel good about your job every day—if you are in a good environment and are passionate about it—then the money is less important than the other intrinsic factors."

Mindy Pavilonis, HR director at AvCraft Technical Services in Myrtle Beach, S.C., believes that HR professionals deserve greater rewards for their contributions to the business. She has a unique perspective on job satisfaction drivers, having spent 18 years in marketing and operations before going into HR 10 years ago. She is the sole HR practitioner at AvCraft, a 120-employee maintenance, paint and modification services company for commercial aircraft.

"I think our profession is underpaid, given all that HR does for the business," she says, "especially in today’s highly regulated and legal environment."

Pavilonis became an active member of her local SHRM chapter as soon as she joined AvCraft and now speaks to HR professionals about making sure they are being paid what they’re worth. "I am fairly compensated in this market, but I know I wouldn’t be if I had not pushed for it," she says. "The amount of work HR does is staggering, and it should be compensated on par with finance, sales and marketing, and operations." ​​

Dollars and Sense

One difference that emerged between the responses from HR professionals and those from the overall employee group was in the area of communication. Although 65 percent of HR respondents said communication between employees and senior management is "very important" to job satisfaction, only 50 percent of U.S. employees agreed.

"Communication between employees and senior management is something HR focuses on far more than the general population," says Barb Bronson, senior recruiter at The Vanguard Group, an investment management firm in Malvern, Pa. "Employees think it’s a nice-to-have, and HR considers it a must-have."

That statement resonates with Koustrup. She interviewed with three companies a year ago before accepting a position at National Hospitality Services, which owns and manages 14 hotels across the country. She was impressed by the CEO’s ability to articulate the connection between treating employees well and great customer service. Koustrup reports directly to the CEO, who views her as a peer and engages her in all areas of the business, she says.

Bronson says the link between communication and HR professionals’ job satisfaction comes down to support for HR initiatives. "When HR wants support from senior management, the need is sometimes better expressed by line managers. So that line of communication is important to HR," says Bronson, who has been a recruiter at Vanguard since 2004, first as a contractor and now as a full-time employee.

In addition, 65 percent of HR professionals ranked autonomy and independence to make decisions as "very important," compared with 47 percent of U.S. employees.

"What I appreciate in my organization of a little more than 300 employees is that if I see something that doesn’t make any sense, I can find out why it’s being done that way, and, if it still doesn’t make sense, I can change it," says Carolyn Petrich, director of HR at Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare in Lakewood, Wash.

Just over half of HR professionals (55 percent) said it was "very important" to their job satisfaction to contribute to the overall business goals of the organization, compared with 35 percent of U.S. employees overall. Petrich knows firsthand how important that is. During her years as an HR consultant, she left each project feeling unfulfilled because she didn’t know if her plans would be sustained in the long term. Now, however, as an HR professional integrated into an organization, she can look back on her contributions over 18 years—and that is gratifying, she says.

Contributing to the business is why Josephine Simmons, PHR, joined SatCom Marketing LLC in Brooklyn Park, Minn., four years ago. The telemarketing firm’s CEO needed someone to build the HR infrastructure from scratch and reshape the culture of 250 employees. Simmons was motivated by the challenge. "Work cultures are hard to change, and if you can take credit for doing that by virtue of who you hire, what behavior you model and reward, and what best practices you use, it’s highly satisfactory," she says.

The survey also found a surprising gap between HR and U.S. employee responses on flexibility and work/life balance issues as a satisfaction driver. Only 43 percent of U.S. employees overall said those issues were "very important" to job satisfaction, compared with 58 percent of HR professionals.

"When I hire recent college graduates, all they talk about is work/life balance, so it’s fascinating to me that the survey did not find what I’m finding in the market," Bronson says.

"I was shocked by that," Koustrup adds. "We had this huge outcry about the Yahoo CEO’s decision to eliminate the company’s telecommuting program, and yet only 43 percent of employees feel that flexible work schedules are ‘very important.’ It makes you wonder why that number is low."

Koustrup and others note that their firms do not have formal flexible-work programs; rather, managers are trained to handle requests for flexible-work arrangements on a case-by-case basis. Koustrup speculates that flexibility may be less important to employees because they are just happy to have jobs or because they perceive that formal programs don’t work.

However, 29 percent of U.S. employees did rank family-friendly benefits as "very important" to job satisfaction, while only 22 percent of HR professionals did. Such perks include domestic partner benefits, subsidized child care, elder care referral services and scholarships for family members.

Aside from pay and benefits, other areas U.S. employees considered more important to job satisfaction than HR professionals did were corporate social responsibility and commitment to "green" issues.

Pavilonis thinks HR professionals would rate sustainability initiatives higher if they weren’t tasked with implementing them. "As an employee, I think it’s important," she says, "but as an executive, I see the time and money it would take to implement."

Getting Satisfaction

Overall, HR professionals have high job satisfaction—86 percent were "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" when asked about their current job, as were 83 percent when asked about their current company. Four-fifths of U.S. employees overall were "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" in their current job, and 77 percent felt that way about their current company.

In particular, HR professionals are satisfied with the variety in their job and being able to work on different projects using various skills—and nearly half (46 percent) said this was "very important" to job satisfaction. Similarly, HR professionals are "very satisfied" with how safe they feel at work (cited by 54 percent of respondents), the amount of paid time off they receive (55 percent) and their relationships with co-workers (45 percent).

When it comes to communication between employees and senior management, there was a gap between how important this is to HR professionals and how satisfied they are with it. While 65 percent said such communication was "very important" to their job satisfaction, only 18 percent were "very satisfied" with the current level of communication at their company between employees and senior management—a difference of 47 percent. There was a 33 percent discrepancy between what matters most to HR and actual job satisfaction in terms of opportunities to use skills and abilities: 81 percent of HR respondents said it was "very important," but only 48 percent were "very satisfied" with the opportunities they had.

Compared with other employees, HR professionals generally report more job satisfaction with paid time off (cited by 55 percent of HR respondents vs. 35 percent of U.S. employees overall), feeling safe in the work environment (54 percent vs. 42 percent), their relationship with their immediate supervisor (50 percent vs. 37 percent), and their opportunities to use their skills and abilities (48 percent vs. 33 percent).

There’s always room for improvement, however, and it seems to be most needed in HR-related areas such as recognition (28 percent of HR respondents are "very satisfied" with this), compensation/pay (27 percent) and career advancement in the organization (19 percent).

Because HR professionals are the experts on these issues, people assume they are taking care of themselves. Not so, says Koustrup, who explains that HR professionals are "so worried about everyone else" that they may not be focused on improving their own situation. "When you have a good relationship with your supervisor, you can have those frank conversations."

Danielle Guidry, vice president of HR at TelCo Federal Credit Union in Baton Rouge, La., says it’s up to HR to ask for recognition. "I want to know that I’m doing a good job and that I add value, so I ask my boss how I’m doing," she explains. "It doesn’t have to be a formal recognition, but in the context of making sure you’re on the right path, it’s valid to ask."

Career advancement is trickier, Guidry notes. "For our employees, we have implemented career tracks. But for an HR professional, especially in my organization, there’s no clear next level. My goal is not to be the CFO or CEO one day." She has worked at TelCo for eight years and supervises two HR practitioners serving 66 employees.

Guidry reports to the CEO and is involved in strategic projects inside and outside of HR, such as the credit union’s recent implementation of remote deposit capture technology. She says she would be much less satisfied if she didn’t have her CEO’s trust.

Deal Breakers

When asked about the likelihood that they will look for work outside their organization, 61 percent of HR respondents said it was "unlikely" or "very unlikely" within the next 12 months. But they named a few deal breakers that could change their minds.

"It’s something I’ve thought about because our CEO, COO and CFO are all older," Guidry says. "When they retire, what if the new leaders don’t support my involvement in strategy and want me to be more administrative? That, for me, would be a deal breaker. If I can’t contribute at a high level, it would be a huge demotivator for me."

For the past year, Pavilonis has taken on more administrative work related to organizational changes that took place after an acquisition. "It’s what the business needs right now, so I am doing it—but it is affecting my satisfaction," she says. "I have spoken to my supervisor, the CEO, about the compromise I’ve made and that I need to start transitioning myself out of these duties before they stick."

Pavilonis is confident she will make that transition back to using her skills because of the relationship she has with her CEO, and she expects her job satisfaction to increase as a result. As the survey showed, HR professionals know that being able to use their skills and abilities to add value to their business is critical to making their job delicious.

Adrienne Fox, a contributing editor and former managing editor of HR Magazine, is based in Alexandria, Va.

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