What Do Employees Want?

Every manager wants to have employees who are satisfied and highly motivated because such employees exhibit positive behaviours like persisting even in the face of difficulties, being involved in continuous learning and improvement, and constantly finding ways to improve quality and productivity. These behaviors, in turn, lead to several positive outcomes for the organization: higher customer satisfaction, greater profits, higher quality, and lower employee turnover. But how do managers achieve the goal of having highly motivated and satisfied workers? The most general answer is: Give employees what they want (within reason, of course).

But what do employees want? Managers often assume that they know what employees want, but consider the results of two surveys. The Canadian Payroll Association analyzed the frequency with which 39 specific benefits were provided by companies to their employees. The top-five most common items were term life insurance, car allowances, tuition fees, disability-related employment benefits, and professional membership dues. But another survey of worker opinions found that they rated flexible working hours, casual dress, unlimited internet access, opportunities to telecommute, and nap time as the most desirable. There are obviously major differences in these two lists, so managers are having some difficulty assessing what employees want.

Several other studies are consistent with this conclusion. For example, a Sirota Survey Intelligence study which assessed employee satisfaction levels at 237 different companies during the period 1994-2003 found that only 14 percent of these companies had workforces that could be classified as "enthusiastic." When the stock prices of 28 companies with enthusiastic work forces were compared to the average for publicly traded companies, it was found that they outperformed the average prices by more than two-and-a-half times, while companies with unenthusiastic work forces lagged far behind the average stock prices. Companies with enthusiastic workforces also had fewer customer complaints, lower employee turnover, and higher quality in their products.

Another study of more than 3,000 Canadian employees that was conducted by Watson Wyatt Canada revealed the following:

  • 46 percent would consider changing jobs if a comparable job became available
  • Only 40 percent of employees believe they have real opportunities for advancement with their current employer
  • Only 27 percent of employees see any connection between their job performance and their pay

In yet another study, the Gallup Organization focused on the attitudes of 7,200 workers in Canada, the U.S., and Great Britain. The survey revealed that on most measures of job satisfaction, Canadian workplaces ranked behind those of the U.S. For example, only 47 percent of Canadian workers were completely satisfied with their boss, while 60 percent of American workers were. Only 29 percent of Canadian workers were completely satisfied with their opportunities for promotion, while 40 percent of Americans were. And 37 percent of Canadian workers were completely satisfied with the recognition they received, while 48 percent of Americans were. Canadian workers were also less satisfied than U.S. workers on several other issues, including the flexibility of their work hours, workplace safety, relationships with co-workers, and the amount of vacation time they received (even though they usually received more than Americans).

Most employees start work with considerable enthusiasm, but they often lose it. Much of the blame is laid at the feet of managers whose attitudes and behaviors depress employee enthusiasm. These include failing to express appreciation to employees for a job well done, assuming that employees are lazy and irresponsible, treating employees as disposable objects, failing to build trust with workers, and quickly laying people off when the business gets in trouble. Managerial assumptions about employee satisfaction with pay can be particularly problematic. For example, many managers assume that workers will never be satisfied with their pay. But only a minority of workers say that their pay is poor or very poor, and many rate it as good or very good.

One of the simplest ways for managers to motivate workers is to praise them. Yet this occurs far less often than it should. A Globe and Mail Web poll showed that 27 percent of the 2,331 respondents had never received a compliment from their boss. Another 10 percent had not received a compliment in the last year, and 18 percent had not received a compliment in the last month. This result is disturbing, since another survey showed that 89 percent of employees rate recognition of their work as very important or extremely important.

When there is a big difference between what companies provide for workers and what they really want, we should not be surprised if motivation and satisfaction levels of workers are not high. The real question is this: In the most general sense, what can be done to make worker and company needs more consistent? Part of the answer is provided in yet another survey, this one based on responses by 8,000 Canadians. That survey found that the three most important things (for employees of all ages) were (1) to be treated with respect, (2) to be dealt with fairly, and (3) to feel a sense of connection with the organization they worked for. All of these are things that managers can have a very positive influence on.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Why do you think that managers so often fail to understand what employees want?
  2. On several different measures of job satisfaction Canadian workers report less job satisfaction than American workers do. Why might this be the case?
  3. One of the surveys mentioned above found that the three most important things employees wanted were (a) to be treated with respect, (b) to be dealt with fairly, and (c) to feel a sense of "connection" with the organization they worked for. How important are these factors in each of the motivation theories discussed in the text?

Sources: Tavia Grant, "Favourite Perk? Not a Blackberry," The Globe and Mail, September 10, 2008, p. C1; Wallace Immen, "Boomers, Gen-Yers Agree: It's All About Respect," The Globe and Mail, January 24, 2007, p. C1; Wallace Immen, "The Continuing Divide Over Stress Leave," The Globe and Mail, June 10, 2005, p. C1; also Jeff Buckstein, "In Praise of Praise in the Workplace," The Globe and Mail, June 15, 2005, pp. C1, C5; also Virginia Galt, "This Just In: Half Your Employees Ready to Jump Ship," The Globe and Mail, January 26, 2005, pp. B1, B9; also David Sirota, Louis Mischkind, and Michael Meltzer, "Nothing Beats an Enthusiastic Employee," The Globe and Mail, July 29, 2005, p. C1; also Virginia Galt, "Business's Next Challenge: Tackling Mental Health in the Workplace," The Globe and Mail, April 12, 2005, pp. B1, B20; also Virginia Galt, "Canadian Take Dour View on Jobs, Bosses, Angels," The Globe and Mail, October 18, 2004, pp. B1, B7; also Virginia Galt, "Worker Stress Costing Economy Billions, Panel Warns," The Globe and Mail, July 21, 2000, p. B9; "A Better Workplace," Time, April 17, 2000, p. 87.

Answers to Questions for Discussion

  1. Why do you think that managers so often fail to understand what employees want?
  2. It might seem logical to argue that since managers are human beings just like their subordinates are, that they would have no trouble understanding their subordinates' needs. While it is true that managers are very similar to their subordinates in some ways, they are also very different.

    A key difference is evident regarding the expectations that exist for managers and subordinates. Managers are expected to carry out the management functions of planning, organizing, leading, and controlling, and to motivate subordinates to achieve the organization’s goals. But subordinates vary widely in terms of their interest in achieving organizational goals. They also have goals they want to achieve in their personal lives, and those goals may be incompatible with the organization’s goals. Managers who are strongly motivated to achieve organizational goals may assume (hope?) that their subordinates also attach great significance to those goals, but subordinates may not be very interested in such goals.

    Another factor is simply the day-to-day busyness of the workplace. Managers who have large numbers of subordinates may find it impossible to get to know them very well as individuals. Or, managers are so involved in their own work that they don’t want to spend time getting to know subordinates.

  3. On several different measures of job satisfaction Canadian workers report less job satisfaction than American workers do. Why might this be the case?
  4. Students may come up with several different reasons for the difference. One reason may be the ambivalent feelings many Canadians have about the U.S. On the one hand, the U.S. is a great export market for Canadian goods and the world’s most powerful economy. On the other hand, Canadians are continually bombarded with information about American nationalism, American attempts to dominate world politics, and the American culture (including the fact that consumer prices are lower in the U.S). As a result, Canadians may develop somewhat negative feelings about the U.S. They may also conclude that U.S. workers are better off than Canadian workers are. All of these facts (and perceptions) are reflected in the job satisfaction surveys showing Canadian workers are less satisfied than American workers are. Note that some of the preceding thinking is quite speculative, but it may well reflect the way that many Canadians think.

    Another (simpler) explanation is that American workers are actually more satisfied with their jobs than Canadians are.

    Another explanation has to do with the speculation that Canadians are less dramatic, less excitable, less aggressive, and less nationalistic than Americans are. If this speculation is accurate, these tendencies could lead Canadian workers to report lower job satisfaction even though they aren't really less satisfied that American workers are.

    Another (less obvious) explanation is based on the fact that Americans have stronger religious beliefs than Canadians do. One Gallup survey, for example, found that 90 percent of Americans believe in God, whereas only 71 percent of Canadians do (this information is not provided above). How could this information help explain lower job satisfaction levels for Canadian workers? Guy Beaudin, an industrial psychologist, speculates that since faith is more important in the lives of Americans, they do not rely as much on work for fulfillment as Canadians do. Canadians may therefore have higher expectations about work as they attempt to give their life a sense of meaning. Because these higher expectations are more difficult to satisfy in the workplace, Canadian workers report lower job satisfaction.

  5. One of the surveys mentioned above found that the three most important things employees wanted were (a) to be treated with respect, (b) to be dealt with fairly, and (c) to feel a sense of "connection" with the organization they worked for. How important are these factors in each of the motivation theories discussed in the text?

It is important to point out that since each motivation theory focuses on only a limited number of factors, a given theory may not address any of the three most important items to employees. Keeping that in mind, when students assess each motivation theory, they will likely mention some of the following items.

Most of the theories deal with the respect issue, but only indirectly. In Maslow's hierarchy, for example, the esteem and self-actualization needs are the ones that address the respect issue. McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y idea does not explicitly mention respect either, but when Theory Y assumptions are made by managers, that would be consistent with showing respect for subordinates. In Herzberg's Two Factor Theory, respect is something that would be consistent with the motivators rather than the hygienes. Job enrichment also satisfies the desire to be treated with respect because enriched jobs include increased freedom and responsibility.

As far as fairness is concerned, equity theory is the one that most directly deals with that because after employees compare their input/outcomes ratio to the input/outcome ratio of another person, they reach a conclusion about whether they are being treated fairly or not.

Some students may note that it is difficult to see a direct relationship between expectancy theory and any of the three needs mentioned by employees. Of course, it might be argued that employees desire to be treated fairly, to be treated with respect, and to feel a sense of connection to the organization, and all of these are goals that at least some individual have. Motivation will be evident only if certain parts of the expectancy model (for example, the effort-performance link and the performance-reward link) fall into place properly.

Of the three needs mentioned by employees, the one about connecting with the organization does not seem to be a focus of any of the motivation theories. Perhaps this is because the idea of connecting is a very general (and hard-to-measure concept). However, such a connection is very likely to exist if managers handle situations effectively (i.e., use the ideas in the theories to motivate people).