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Is It HR's Job to Ensure Workers Are Happy?

Two experts debate the issue.


 yes
HR is the custodian of the employee experience.

Bernard C. Coleman III
Company culture is an organization’s calling card, and given that employees spend so much time working, organizations are best served by delivering a great culture.

The ability to do so creates an industry differentiator. When talent is deciding to join or stay at any organization—assuming total compensation is competitive for the role—the individual’s happiness (or anticipated happiness) becomes the deciding factor.

HR is the steward of the employee experience. It’s responsible for creating an environment in which employees are engaged at work, and engaged employees lead to better business outcomes. We know there is a link between employee engagement and employee happiness. 

As the custodian of the employee experience, the HR function is, at its core, in the business of enabling happiness while measuring and managing employees’ expectations of the overall culture of the organization. 

According to a Pew Research Center study, work is one of the primary areas from which people derive meaning—second only to family and children. And when employees find their work meaningful, they experience increased job satisfaction, higher engagement and a stronger sense of organizational loyalty. HR professionals’ role is key here: Because they help reinforce the betterment of the workforce experience, it’s in HR’s best interest to ensure that employers are constantly updating and adapting the experience to optimize for happiness.

HR teams are in the driver’s seat because they have the deepest understanding of the employee experience and the ability to directly influence that experience by putting the right resources in place. At my company, Gusto, for example, we have an employee assistance program as well as an ombudsperson service through tEQuitable; these resources allow us to offer tools to enhance the employee experience and simultaneously support our employees in their times of need or at any point in their lives. In other words, HR can use these tools to help employees achieve happiness at work.

When you think about happiness, it really is just another name for engagement. As defined, engagement is the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace (read: happiness at work). 

The people team is the architect of the employee experience, and the better this experience, the more likely employees will achieve happiness, career satisfaction and high levels of productivity. HR monitors the experience via surveys, examines employee net promoter scores, shares engagement data and progress with organizational leadership, offers solutions to improve the experience, and monitors the outcomes quarter by quarter. 

It all starts with the five drivers of engagement: purpose, development, a caring manager, ongoing conversations and a focus on strengths. Each of these drivers is enabled by HR, which plays an outsized role when you think about all the pieces the function touches.

When talent is recruited, HR kicks off the interview process and signals to candidates what the company’s culture is like. If that person advances in the process and is hired, they’ll go through the onboarding process and new-hire orientation. Later, the employee will share input in engagement surveys, participate in semiannual performance reviews to receive coaching that catapults them to the next level, and enroll in learning and development opportunities so they can grow in capability. They also may leverage internal mobility to find roles they can ascend to or join an employee resource group to find community. 

Each of those milestones is owned or influenced by the HR team. That is the totality of the journey and the experience.

Bernard C. Coleman III is the chief diversity and engagement officer at Gusto, an HR technology company based in San Francisco.


no

Workplace happiness is a team effort.

Katelynn Jimenez, SHRM-CP


HR can’t do it alone. Business leaders, managers, HR leaders and employees themselves all play a role in workplace happiness. 

There are many workplace factors that affect employees’ well-being:

  • Do employees have good relationships with their bosses?
  • Do they have sufficient training?
  • Do they have access to the resources they need?
  • Do company leaders communicate frequently?
  • Are employees provided adequate compensation and good benefits?

An employee’s boss may have the greatest influence on that individual’s happiness at work. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report found the biggest source of employee burnout is unfair treatment at work. That’s followed by an unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support and unreasonable time pressure.

It’s important that supervisors support workers’ well-being. Managers must ensure that employees have the resources they need to do their jobs well and that they feel respected. Managers also can help provide learning opportunities for employees to grow and thrive.

One way to measure happiness is to ask for employees’ honest feedback about their jobs. Managers can gather employee feedback in one-on-one sessions, and HR can send formal employee satisfaction surveys to workers. But if employees don’t see changes, they won’t bother sharing their true feelings again. 

HR professionals can have an impact on worker satisfaction in the areas of recruitment, benefits and compensation, and they should help ensure the right people are placed in the right jobs. As the first point of contact for new employees, HR should communicate job requirements and company values to ensure workers get off to a good start. They also must ensure that company benefits are explained and that employees clearly understand and agree to the compensation offered at the outset.

When employees are adequately compensated, they feel respected and are more motivated to go the extra mile at work. 

Business leaders contribute significantly to workers’ happiness by providing enough resources and employees to handle the workload. Sharing information about the business will help workers understand what they are working for.

However, employees also play a large role in ensuring their own happiness at work. If they don’t share their feelings about their jobs and the companies they work for, there is no way for HR and other leaders to know if they’re taking the right steps to ensure employee well-being. The employment relationship is a two-way street. If employees remain silent, nothing will change and they will grow even more unhappy until they leave or are let go for poor performance.

Let’s be honest: Some workers will never be happy. These difficult employees complain incessantly, fail to do their work and dampen their colleagues’ morale. HR can advise managers on how to hold difficult conversations with these workers, but the employees ultimately might be happier somewhere else. 

While HR can offer advice and recommendations, business leaders and managers play a greater role in influencing employee morale. Business leaders control resources. Managers work with employees directly. HR can pinpoint where the problems lie by determining which departments have higher employee turnover and lower productivity. 

However, HR can only carry the baton so far when it comes to achieving worker happiness. It is up to business leaders, managers and employees to get it over the finish line.

Katelynn Jimenez, SHRM-CP, is a Nashville, Tenn.-based HR generalist and recruiter in the veterinary industry.

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