Even in a downturn, work can be rewarding

Respect does more for employee morale than money.

Posted: July 25, 2011

By David Polk

Today's work environment is a tough one. With nearly 10 percent of Americans looking for a job, employers have the pick of the litter and can get away with demanding more for less. This can mean long workdays, less compensation, and sometimes poor working conditions.

But while employers and managers can take advantage of employees in difficult times like these, they can also take some relatively easy steps to keep them happier.

From conducting an annual nationwide survey on professionalism among entry-level employees, as well as spending a lot of time studying workplaces in general, I know employees have a variety of motivations. But I haven't found one who thrives without acknowledgment.

As the psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs suggests, employees' basic needs go beyond income. In a work environment beset by downsizing and increased workloads, it may seem as if there's no time to recognize an employee for a job well done. But ignoring the importance of acknowledgment - taking the attitude that "your reward is in your paycheck" - is a shortsighted approach to management.

In his 1959 book The Motivation to Work, Frederick Herzberg described the factors that increase job satisfaction and therefore workplace morale. After interviewing people about their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their jobs, Herzberg made a distinction between what he called "hygiene factors" and "motivator factors."

Hygiene factors have an effect on job dissatisfaction. When a job is deficient in these areas, employees become dissatisfied. They include salary, work conditions, and relationships with other employees.

Motivator factors affect job satisfaction. Here is where recognition for a job well done comes in. Along with recognition, motivator factors include achievement, growth, and a sense that the job is rewarding in and of itself.

Interestingly, improvements in salary and other hygiene factors were found to have only short-term effects, briefly decreasing job dissatisfaction. It was the motivator factors that had long-term effects, keeping employees satisfied and motivated over time.

Major-league baseball produced an example of this last month, when Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman resigned on the heels of a winning streak, saying he had been "disrespected" by his employer. That was just one of many news stories that have illustrated the importance of Herzberg's motivator factors. Perhaps you remember Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who quit his job in grand fashion last year after he felt he had been disrespected.

Given the economic environment and the current employment outlook, it's become more unusual for someone to walk away from a job as Riggleman and Slater did, acknowledgment or not. Many employees who would like to tell their employers to "take this job and shove it" just can't afford to.

But when the economy rights itself, many employers who have failed to respect their employees will find themselves on the losing end. High turnover ultimately hurts company morale and the bottom line. So employers would do well to tap into what motivates their staff and make sure they have communicated with those who bring value to the business.


David Polk is a professor of behavioral sciences at York College of Pennsylvania. He conducts an annual survey on professionalism for York's Center for Professional Excellence. He can be reached at dpolk@ycp.edu.

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