There’s one question I’ve yet to be asked on an employee survey.
I’ve completed dozens of surveys over the years and helped create a few. I’ve ranked and rated my satisfaction with everything from workplace culture, teamwork, training and communications to work-life balance, the alignment of my work with the organization’s mission and vision, my trust in leadership and confidence in the future.
But I’ve never been asked what I hate about my job.
Hate’s a harsh word. Yet it lends itself to specificity.
For example, employees could (and almost invariably) give low marks to communications. But what does that failing grade actually mean and how should an employer fix it?
The mystery goes away if employees say they hate 30-minute meetings that should be 30-second emails, muddled word-salad memos written by committee that leave everyone guessing what they’re being asked to do, town halls jammed with PowerPoint decks that test the limits of human endurance and videos of leaders trying to emote for the camera and proving that not going into acting or broadcasting was a smart career move on their part.
Asking what employees hate about their jobs is essential if you have any hope of creating a happy workplace.
Here’s why. What employees hate about their jobs cancels out what they love about working for you. You can’t afford to have a zero, or negative, balance.
Customers know if employees love or hate their jobs and they’ll tell the world with online reviews. If employees are happy, they’re not quitting and you’re not scrambling to recruit and train new hires. And you’ll have a better shot at poaching talented people who can pick and choose where they work next.
“Given the advantages of a happy workplace, there’s simply no rational reason to tolerate a company culture that’s toxic (at worst) or mediocre and boring (at best),” says Nicholas Webb, CEO of a management consulting firm and author of Happy Work. “Such a workplace will slowly decline, lose profitability and suffer the exit of top employees.”
Which brings us back to finding out what employees love and hate. It’s safe to say Webb hates traditional surveys.
“We have created a ‘survey industrial complex’ of organizations that have built the perfect business model. These busy industrialists develop a survey algorithm, charge an organization to have their employees complete the survey and then report out to the client in a dashboard their employees’ level of job satisfaction.
“This massive industry is essentially an online vending machine that delivers minimal value at an extremely high cost,” says Webb. “The companies that produce surveys lose this model because it’s profitable, and truthfully most organizational leaders like it because it’s the easiest and fastest way to check the box on employee insights while creating authoritative-looking graphs and charts.”
Webb instead proposes a three-step process. First, assess whether your organization’s ready to hear the truth, even if it hurts. “If the people in your organization are resistant to new ideas – even ones that will measurably help them and make them happier – then your first task must be to change the culture and perhaps even provide training, so that you can then present them with new information they’ll embrace.”
Next up is the survey, with a focus on what employees love and hate about their jobs. “Design a survey that embraces a comprehensive and thoughtful assessment of the organization’s challenges, problems, opportunities and needs.”
And then, with survey results in hand, follow up with employees and carry out what Webb calls happiness hackathons. “These programs are incredibly effective at soliciting authentic and hard-hitting insights from employees.”
A happy workplace isn’t a happy coincidence. It starts with a serious and sustained commitment from senior leadership to listen, learn and collaborate.
“If you’re going to ask your employees to spend a significant part of their lives working for your company, then what not make them happy to do so? Cultivating a happy workplace is like putting money in the bank.”
It’s time to start investing.
Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.