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Study Workers Are Disengaged but Staying Put

November 19, 2006
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Meet the new American worker: less satisfied, less engaged, but no more likely to leave his job.

Those are the conclusions of a new study by human resources consulting firm Sibson that surveyed some 1,200 employed people in the United States. The report found satisfaction scores dropped for all major categories of work rewards, including compensation, benefits, and career development and advancement. Also tumbling was the level of engagement, defined as a combination of a worker’s understanding of company direction and his motivation to achieve corporate goals. Just over half of employees rated themselves as engaged or highly engaged.

Yet the percentage of workers planning to quit within a year remains at 16 percent, the same as it was three years ago. The results add up to the specter of workers who are "quitting on the job," according to Sibson.

"Just because you don’t have a turn­over problem doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem," says Jim Kochanski, who leads Sibson’s organization effectiveness practice.

The report comes amid reduced retirement and health care benefits, stagnant earnings for typical workers and fears of outsourcing. Meanwhile, cynicism toward corporations is fueled by massive executive pay packages along with scandals such as Hewlett-Packard’s spying project.

Some observers, though, see a surge of corporate interest in establishing a good reputation and building trust. Sibson asked about company reputation for the first time in its study this year. It found that 76 percent of respondents gave a favorable rating to their company’s reputation—a relatively high score, Kochanski says.

But other measures related to employees’ sense of affiliation to their employer were gloomier. The level of trust in management fell from 63 percent in 2003 to 56 percent this year. Just 53 percent of employees gave favorable ratings to their organization on the question of its fairness in decisions.

The career category—which refers to long-term opportunities for development and advancement in the organization—showed the greatest dip, with favorable ratings in this area falling from 71 percent in 2003 to 53 percent this year. Satisfaction with the level of training plunged to 47 percent from 70 percent three years ago. And career satisfaction dropped from 61 percent in 2003 to 41 percent.

Americans’ growing unhappiness with compensation has something to do with pent-up demand for salary increases, says Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation at research and software firm Salary.com. He also attributes the frustration to a switch to pay for performance, where workers may get a bonus but often don’t see their paychecks rise much, if at all.

"It doesn’t feel like you’re getting as much money," he says.

Karen Noble, senior consultant at HR advisory firm WFD Consulting, says employees aren’t leaving discouraging situations because they’re too busy working to seek a new position. "It’s a full-time job, as we all know, to find a job," she says.

Among the steps organizations can take to avoid workplaces full of detached zombies, Kochanski says, is designing jobs that increase employees’ decision-making responsibilities. "Work content is very important both for motivation and retention," he says.

Ed Frauenheim

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