Unhappy employees don’t contribute much and rarely stay for long.
Micrel, the semiconductor company I founded and led for 37 profitable years, had happy employees. We had the highest retention rate in the industry, and though it is not a common metric, I believe we had the highest boomerang employee rate – boomerang employees being those who leave and decide to come back to a better corporate culture.
Increasing your employee’s happiness directly relates to increased productivity and profitability. Ignore this and you build a machine with rusted gears. But to increase employee happiness, you have to know what makes employees unhappy, and what doesn’t make them happy; and you need a means for measuring it all.
A state of mind
Happiness is a state of mind. The human mind is a complex machine, but one with some basic inputs and outputs. When the fundamentals of a happy mindset are monitored, people will adjust the remaining parts of their work life. Stated differently, take care of gross employee happiness and they will manage their net happiness. [see “Chapter Four, The Body,” in my book Tough Things First, for deeper descriptions of the center of employee happiness]
Happiness is affected by both positive and negative influences. Reduce the negative, without bankrupting the company, and amplify the positive. It is vital to understand what really makes people happy over the long term. A bonus check will make an employee happy … for a week. A kind supervisor who actively listens and values the employee will make them happy for an entire career.
Happiness, then, isn’t material, but spiritual. At the center of spiritual happiness is the belief in one’s value. People who don’t think of themselves as valuable tend to be unhappy. Make an employee a mindless cog doomed to repetitive work where they never see the results of their labor, and they will be unhappy.
There is a famous story about FedEx that illustrates the point. A small child was trapped in an abandoned well, and the rescuers needed a specialized piece of equipment that was on the other side of the country. They called FedEx and the person who answered the phone made it happen, at no charge, and without supervisor approval. This is part of the FedEx culture, one that hires people to make good decisions on their own. That front-line employee knew the value she provided that day, and that value was amplified by the faith the company put in her. All of this was purely spiritual.
There are several elements that drive the upside part of the employee happiness equation:
Recognition: Does the employee receive recognition for their contribution? This can be a grand public gesture, such as an Employee of the Year award, or simply a supervisor who pats them on the back and authentically says, “Great job.”
Supervisors: The quality of one’s boss is a daily happiness control valve. If the boss is unlikable – if he is abusive, controlling, unsympathetic – then nobody working for him will be happy. But if he listens, collaborates, and appreciates employee effort, happiness rises.
The Work: Nobody likes a stiffening job, so it is every supervisor’s responsibility to make work meaningful. This does not mean making work entertaining, but assuring that the value of the employee’s contribution is obvious to the employee. Even dull jobs are made better when the outcome is seen as valuable.
The Company: Some companies have a horrible reputation (one local tech firm is known to its own employees as the Death Star). A company with a good culture, that treats customers well, that is honest in its dealings and is part of the community, makes employees feel they are part of something positive, which in turn makes them positive.
The happiness quotient
Take those four items – recognition, supervisors, job and company – and score any employee on a scale of one to ten. If the sum of those scores doesn’t rise above 28, then you have an employee with just enough demotivation to not care about their work, or to find work elsewhere.
If in doubt, start with your supervisors, because they are directly involved in three of the four elements – themselves, employee recognition and the employee’s job. Training great supervisors leads to great employees and greater corporate happiness.