Calling It Quits is a series about the current culture of quitting.
Companies nationwide spend hundreds of millions of dollars assessing their workers’ satisfaction and engagement. Some have added quarterly, monthly and even weekly check-ins to their annual surveys.
But, according to a recent Gallup report, stress among workers is globally at a record high. A majority of workers say they are not fulfilled at their jobs. Certain sectors, like tech and media, are experiencing waves of layoffs. And over the past year, rates of job-quitting nationwide reached its highest level since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping track more than two decades ago.
So, where’s the disconnect? Are surveys the wrong tool? Are employees not telling their managers the truth about their dissatisfactions? Or are the bosses not listening?
The answer is a little of all of the above, said Alexander Kjerulf, co-founder of Heartcount, which creates software designed to measure employee happiness. “The traditional approach has become a rote exercise that’s done because everyone does it,” Mr. Kjerulf. “But few people actually see any value in it — and that goes both for employees and management.”
He noted that the surveys too often are too long and conducted too infrequently. Employees worry they will face retribution for negative responses, and companies don’t act on the feedback they receive.
Of course, the question of why many employees feel stressed and disconnected goes far beyond the effectiveness — or lack thereof — of such surveys. And it’s not a great mystery what most workers want.
“Improving life at work isn’t rocket science, but the world is closer to colonizing Mars than it is to fixing the world’s broken workplaces,” the Gallup State of the Global Workplace 2022 report said.
Having a poor manager leads the list of reasons people are discontented with their jobs. Last year, a survey of 3,000 employees in a variety of fields by GoodHire, a company that provides employee background checks, found that less than half feel their managers are open and honest about salaries, benefits and promotions, and that they truly care about their employees’ progression.
In a large study of burnout, Gallup found in 2020 that the top source was “unfair treatment at work.” That was followed by an unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support and unreasonable time pressure.
Woven throughout these issues are values: believing your ideals are consistent with your organization’s.
While there is a fair amount of research linking more satisfied employees with higher profitability and productivity as well as with lower rates of turnover, there is scant large-scale studies on whether companies typically follow up on employee responses to job engagement surveys.
Nonetheless, for six decades, an entire industry has grown around measuring employee satisfaction through numerous criteria. Such assessments started in the 1960s with large companies, said Alexander Alonso, chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management, or S.H.R.M.
“A variety of different kinds of companies out there started to put an emphasis not just on how do I identify a high potential employee, but how do I make them continue to tick and stay on the high potential path?” Dr. Alonso added.
Those surveys, as is still common, often used a negative-to-positive scale of 1 to 5, or something similar, to gauge how much an employee agrees or disagrees with a particular statement, along with some more open-ended questions.
About 80 percent of companies now conduct job engagement surveys, an increase from 62 percent in 2010, according to S.H.R.M.
But for some, satisfaction seems too low a bar, said Anne Maltese, director of people insights at Quantum Workplace, a software company that sells employee engagement surveys and other assessment tools and compiles an annual “Best Places to Work” list. “You may be satisfied because you don’t have to do much,” she said, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually inspired by your work.
Companies are partly hoping to address this issue by using new technology that has vastly changed how and how often they get feedback from their employees. That includes delivering surveys on phones and other devices and using QR codes or apps.
Mr. Kjerulf’s company, based in Denmark, sells an app that’s also called Heartcount to ask employees three questions every Friday. The questions — “How has your relationship been with your manager in the last week? Do you feel like you made a difference last week? Did you receive any positive feedback?” — change weekly.
Unlike most job engagement surveys, employees are told the information they provide is not anonymous, as certain company members can see the replies. This allows managers to address any worker concerns directly and quickly, Mr. Kjerulf said.
“We fully realize the potential for abuse,” he added. “If used in a toxic workplace, replies could be used against people.”
Even with more traditional — and fully anonymous — job engagement surveys, workers often fear that they will be reprimanded or fired if their answers aren’t largely positive. Gartner, a research and consulting firm, found in a survey published in 2020 that only 21 percent of employees felt comfortable being entirely truthful about what they wanted from their work experience.
One way to try to ensure more trust is to hire an outside company to conduct the assessments with guarantees that information like I.P. addresses will not be shared, said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the president and chief executive officer of S.H.R.M.
“Companies who don’t want to spend the money or think they don’t need a third party are absolutely limiting their ability to get as much truth as they can out of employees,” he added. But it’s a pricey choice: Annual surveys and in-depth analysis by an outside firm can run about $250,000 for large companies, Dr. Alonso said.
For Sarah Jaffe, the author of “Work Won’t Love You Back,” there’s a broader factor undermining trust. Surveys too often are little more than window dressing for companies that profess to care about workers’ happiness, but they fail to provide “basic needs, such as decent wage and autonomy on the job,” she said.
“Not feeling like your boss is spying on you all day,” she added. “Flexible scheduling and basic respect for you as a human being.”
Cynicism also stems from some leaders ignoring results or spinning the data to make them seem more positive than they are, said Leigh Branham, a talent management consultant and author of several books on employee retention.
Mr. Taylor, who served as head of human resources at several large companies before joining S.H.R.M., said employers should be transparent with employees about how they plan to use surveys — whether it’s largely to get a sense of the organization’s climate or to institute real change — and what information they plan to release to employees. And they need to stick to those promises.
He recalled that at one of his previous jobs, leaders refused to disclose how employees responded to a question about whether they trusted senior management, despite pledging to do so. “Frankly, our management did not like the results, because some of the stuff was very, very negative,” he said.
Conducting a survey and not taking action “is like pulling a pin on a grenade and not throwing it,” said Mr. Branham, who, with his co-author Mark Hirschfeld, analyzed over two million employee engagement surveys and exit interviews for their book “Re-Engage.”
Managers who provide good coaching and feedback are one of the most important aspects of making sure people stay engaged, he said. But in many workplaces, managers are not taught how to do this effectively.
Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, sees this all the time. She runs an exercise in her M.B.A. class, where half the class gives one-on-one feedback to the other half. The “managers” are instructed to tell their “employees” that they are not doing well and will probably will not be promoted. (Many of her students already work in management positions.)
Typically, Prof. Fishbach said, the “employees” hear that they are doing great and are likely to be promoted. Managers often fear they will undermine motivation if they’re too critical, she said, “completely missing the point that if you’re helping someone and on their side, if you’re giving them information that they can use, they will be motivated to do better.” On the other hand, she also said that if employees hear only criticism without constructive coaching, they will be motivated to quit.
Engaging in these sorts of conversations “is very difficult and people think they are natural experts,” she said.
Prof. Fishbach and others agree that surveying employees about their attitudes and concerns about their workplaces can be helpful. But that is one small part of the complex dynamic needed to create a fulfilling workplace.
“Many companies that do engagement surveys are so disappointed in the results that they can’t bring themselves to share them with employees,” Mr. Branham said. “Or they aren’t as fully committed to the difficult work of culture change to take action.”