Leaders Need To Understand They Will Never Please Their Employees

Author

Roger Trapp

February 2, 2017

Another month, another survey suggesting that employees are not sufficiently engaged, not satisfied or downright unhappy. At a time when organizations of all sorts appear to be bending over backwards to make themselves appealing to would-be employees, reading these reports must be more than frustrating. It must be exasperating. No doubt there will be plenty of heart searching in human resources departments and boardrooms – and the result will be even more initiatives designed to attract the approval of the famously hard-to-please millennials who make up an increasingly large share of the working population.

But smart leaders need to stop for a moment and take stock. As the columnist Lucy Kellaway pointed out in the Financial Times last week, working life is much better than it used to be. “Not only are offices bright and beautiful, we do not even have to go to them if we do not feel like it – we can work at home instead. Bosses have been taught not to shout. There are gyms and free fruit.” This is not to be complacent. Of course, there are – as we know from reports of court proceedings – still, sadly, cases of office bullying, sexual harassment and other instances of bad behavior. It is just to offer some context. In general, just as going to school is now a lot more pleasurable than it was in the “good old days” of fearsome teachers and learning by rote many hark back to, so too is going to work. Leaving aside the matters of zero-hours contracts and inequalities of pay, people are for the most part much better treated – and far less exploited – than were their counterparts even a couple of decades ago.

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The problem is that – as with so many things – expectations have changed. Not so long ago, offering free use of a gym in the office basement and even minor kitchen facilities was something genuinely novel that might persuade a few people to work for one business over another. Now, such perks are standard fare – like holiday entitlement. So employers who believe that more of these sorts of things – cycle racks, massage rooms, pool tables etc etc – will halt the negativity are fooling themselves. It is an arms race, with somebody around the corner always likely to offer something better.

On top of this is a change of attitude towards complaining, or at least voicing an opinion. Thanks to social media – and the tendency for every business that any individual ever transacts with to seek feedback – we have all become used to commenting on everything that happens to us. Indeed, there are people who will not choose a holiday, buy a vacuum cleaner or hire a plumber without first reading countless online reviews. The problem is that the reader does not necessarily know anything about the reviewer. They may be an habitual complainer or just have had a bad day when they decided to put finger to keypad – or have completely different expectations or aspirations to the reader. And so it must be with employee attitude surveys. What one person finds a downside about a job – the pressure, say, – another might find exhilarating. In other words, employers should be wary of taking them at face value.

This is not to say that surveys should be ignored or even abandoned. They just need to be analysed more closely than has perhaps hitherto been the case and they should be put in context. Accordingly, few would be surprised to learn – as stated in a recent research from the global people management business Lee Hecht Harrison Penna – that millennials (18 to 34-year-olds) are twice as likely as colleagues aged 35 to 54 to share their true feelings about an employer on the internet. Noting that the millennials are also more likely than older colleagues to take note of negative reviews on professional sites, such as Linked In and Glassdoor (hardly surprising either since they post such comments themselves), LHH Penna urges employers to take various steps to counter the negative attitudes.

These include ensuring that if people do decide to leave they go on a positive note, creating a positive sense around the company via social media and ensuring that managers forge good working relationships with those for whom they are responsible. These all sound sensible enough. But they are unlikely to change much, for the simple reason that millennials are extremely different in their attitudes to just about everything – not just work – from those that preceded them. Quite simply, they do not appear to believe in the trade-offs that older generations accepted. Instead, they have a somewhat idealistic conviction that it is possible to have it all. Where this comes from is not entirely clear. It could be that replacing those old-fashioned teachers with a cadre of educators convinced that anything is possible (and backed by ever-supportive parents) is responsible. Or it could be that the modern, globalized world in which everything is available almost instantly and often at extremely low prices is the key factor. Or it could be something completely different. But no matter what the cause, employers are unlikely to be able to change things.

All they can do is accept that this is the modern world, hire people on their merits without expecting them to stay and not be too stubborn to hire them again when they realize that the organization that attracted such good online reviews is no better than the one they left. After all, the LHH Penna survey also identified a growing number of “boomerang employees”, with nearly 80% of workers saying they would consider returning to an ex-employer if the timing and deal were right. This suggests that they are possibly not as idealistic as it appears. Or maybe experience just makes them more realistic.

 

This article was written by Roger Trapp from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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