“If one wanted to crush and destroy a person entirely . . . all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.”—Fyodor Dostoevsky
My father-in-law owned restaurants. Like retail, it was a rough, tough business. His loudest and most common gripe was not being able to find good help. Competent, trusted waitresses, dish bussers, bartenders, even managers were hard to find. And the good ones were even harder to keep, many jobs back then being thankless tasks for pennies and nickels.
Sixty years later, good help is still hard to find. But work has changed dramatically. My father-in-law was looking for hard-working people. Today, employers and employees are looking for much more. Philosopher Roman Krznaric says in a recent book, “The desire for fulfilling work—a job that provides a deep sense of purpose and reflects our values, passions, and personality—is a modern invention. . . . the spread of material prosperity has freed our minds to expect much more from the adventure of life.”
Indeed, contemporary employers seek people with characteristics that go well beyond baselines like solid work ethic, and they’re willing (somewhat) to pay for attitudinal traits like motivation, passion, loyalty, innovation, and creativity. When they find them, they hold on tight. Or do they? As Krznaric points out: “Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles and been so unsure about what to do about it.”
We’ve been lucky. Our attrition rate is very low relative to other small businesses, and retention rates for staff extending beyond 10 years is very high. A recent study conducted for Monster.com indicated that one of every two workers reported dissatisfaction or indifference to their current job. Eighty percent updated their resumés in the past six months, and almost two-thirds of workers reported that they look for new jobs either “all the time” or “frequently.” U.S Labor Department statistics indicate that 3.1 percent of employees leave their jobs in any given month.
Really pretty staggering when you consider that the unemployment rate and the constriction of businesses in the past five years have created high barriers to entry for better options. Yet the numbers persist, belying a high degree of failure among companies to seriously engage their staff with cultural compatibility, variety, purpose, or creative and challenging work.
As one who runs a company, I’d hate to think that 60 percent of the people I greet by name each day are actually looking for another job. On the other hand, it’s unreasonable to expect that colleagues don’t have the right and responsibility to their careers and their families to seek the best possible opportunity—not just financially, but those that offer purposeful and self-actualizing environments for what they do eight to 10 hours a day, five or six days a week.
Like most companies, we don’t possess the financial wherewithal to compensate people at levels exceeding industry standards, but we do try to maintain effective enough communication between managers and their staffs to remain aware and sensitive to situations or workloads that might require a reconsideration of compensation, budget notwithstanding. We will readily increase salaries if we believe they’re warranted and will offer unsolicited increases when performance dictates. But according to nearly every bit of research I read about employee satisfaction, it’s not the comp that floats their boat. It’s more about, as Krznaric suggests, “finding work that is life-enhancing, that broadens our horizons and makes us feel more human.”
We don’t always succeed at delivering the goods. Nor do we succeed in retaining our best employees. We lose good people. But short of losing a superstar, the silver lining is there’s usually opportunity in turnover. And, there are times when even the best people simply tire of their role and need a new challenge. There’s little a company can do to beat that dead horse.
Peter Drucker proposed a measure for how employees judged their job satisfaction, called the Equity Theory. Put simply, it asks: Do I get back what I put in? I have a feeling that the majority of people looking for alternative work would unanimously agree that they are not fairly compensated or appreciated for the work they put in. Some may be correct. As managers, we know some are not. Regardless, it’s a great question for every manager to ask, in reverse: Do we give back to each of our employees what they put in?
Companies that choose not to ask the question—or that resist focusing on offering a modicum of respect and dignity, an engaging, embracing culture, or the chance to flex creative, ideative, and intellectual muscles—risk having their staffs wandering the hallways wondering if the grass is greener, or worse, harvesting their updated resumés from the company photocopier.