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What Do Workers Want?

Survey results on what employees want from their jobs.

You aren't the first to wonder what your employees want from their jobs, nor will you be the last. . . . Here's what the surveys say

You want to know what satisfies your workers? Well, fortunately for you, a veritable industry has ballooned to tell you precisely that -- what pleases them, motivates them, makes them want to never leave your company. Measuring employee satisfaction is hardly new. Social scientists have surveyed employees on the topic for decades.

We've sifted through thousands of numbers, dozens of survey, and years of research to save you the exhausting legwork and the excruciating mind work of combing through the available quantitative research on what matters most to employees. You can rest easy. Regardless of the fact we found one survey that says white for every one that says black, the cumulative results won't startle you. It turns out your employees want the same things they've always wanted. And they're probably a lot happier with their jobs than you think. What do they want? Read on.

What Workers Really Want
Health insurance, benefits, and job security pop out as being of top importance to today's workers, which shouldn't surprise you, given an environment of mass layoffs, cost cutting, and increased health-care expenses. Since workers often must share the burden of those escalating health-care costs, it also should come as no surprise that far less than half of America's workers feel completely satisfied in terms of those three factors.

The disparity between what workers want and what they're getting may drive some employers to creative alternatives, but the gap isn't likely to close. With costs continuing to spiral upward, it's questionable just how much you can do to bridge it.

But check out how high "interesting work" ranks below. Here's a factor you can control far more directly and cost-effectively than benefits and, for that matter, compensation. Given the dramatic 22-point lead interesting work has over high income when it comes to importance to workers, where are you going to put your efforts?

"Yeah, right," you say. "All my employees want is more money." Well, statistically and experientially, that's just plain wrongheaded thinking. You can look it up. People will work for less (not less than a fair wage, but certainly less than the deepest pockets in town) if they enjoy their work and feel as if they're being treated fairly. If your workers are complaining about their pay, it's usually a sign that something else is missing.

Listen to C. J. Cranny, the man who wrote the book on job satisfaction, Job Satisfaction: How People Feel About Their Jobs and How It Affects Their Performance (Lexington Books, 1992). Ultimately, says Cranny, the chairman of Bowling Green State University's psychology department, the most important factor in creating an atmosphere that workers find satisfying is whether employees find their work "intrinsically interesting."

And it wouldn't hurt to take a hard look at how you can relieve some of that employee job stress, either.


How important is each of the following characteristics to you? How satisfied are you with it in your current job?

% of workers who . . .

ranked it as very important said they weresatisfied
Good health insurance and other benefits 81% 27%
Interesting work 78 41
Job security 78 35
Opportunity to learn new skills 68 31
Having a week or more of vacation 66 35
Being able to work independently 64 42
Recognition from coworkers 62 24
Regular hours (no weekends, no nights) 58 40
Having a job in which you can help people 58 34
Limiting job stress 58 17
High income 56 13
Working close to home 55 46
Work that is important to society 53 35
Chances for promotion 53 20
Contact with a lot of people 52 45
Flexible hours 49 39

Source: Gallup Poll, Princeton, N.J., 1991.

The More Things Change, the More They Appear the Same

The change in the level of satisfaction workers have with individual aspects of their jobs was relatively minor over the past two decades. But if anything stands out in the trend tables below and confirms some of what we observed earlier, it's that workers have grown less satisfied with benefits and pay than they have with any other characteristics of their jobs.

No surprise, argues David Abramis, an organizational psychologist at California State University at Long Beach. "When times are tight and you're worried about your job, pay becomes an important issue."

Absolutely. And when times are tight and costs are escalating, look elsewhere for a solution. It just might be found in some numbers that have hardly budged over the last 10 to 20 years, namely, the high percentage who desire "important and meaningful work" and the high level of satisfaction with "type of work." Remember how high "interesting work" ranks in importance among characteristics workers want in a job?

What do you most prefer in a job?
% of workers saying aspectwas the most important

1973 1980 1985 1990
Important and 52% 52% 48% 50%meaningful work
High income 19 20 19 24
Chances for advancement 18 19 22 16
Job security 7 6 7 6
Short work hours 5 3 3 4

Source: National Opinion Research Center surveys, University of Chicago, 1973, 1980, 1985, and 1990.

How satisfied are you with these aspects of your job?

% of workers sayingthey were satisfied

1984 1988 1990 1992
Type of work 78% 80% 77% 79%
Coworkers 76 77 77 76
Benefits 81 77 74 71
Being treated with respect 64 62 60 58and fairness
Job security 63 64 59 58
Chances to contribute ideas 54 55 56 54
Pay 57 50 47 46
Recognition for performance 44 48 45 39
Advancement opportunities 33 36 34 27

Source: International Survey Research Corp., Employee Satisfaction Surveys, Chicago, 1984, 1988, 1990, 1992.

Can You Satisfy All the People All the Time?
What your workers want depends on who they are. Forget about differences between what women and men want. Not one survey we found, including a recent ambitious one undertaken by Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women, suggests any difference among the desires of the sexes. "Men and women find similar aspects of the workplace rewarding and problematic," Rosalind C. Barnett, senior research associate of the center, tells us. Differences in expectations correspond more to education levels than anything else.

Employee satisfaction, says Cranny, is "a function of the difference between what employees want or think they should get, and what they're really getting." The problem is that many workers simply don't know what they're really getting. A study by the Wyatt Co., an international consulting firm in Boston, found that among employees who are dissatisfied with the way their benefits are communicated to them, only 13% report being satisfied with their benefits. But among those who were satisfied with communications about benefits, 75% report being satisfied. How many of your workers really know what benefits you're giving them?

Select from the following list the two factors that are most important to you in your current job.

% of respondents who chose each factor, by education level

High school graduate Some College or less college graduate
Pay 46% 42% 29%
Amount of independence 31 35 40
Pleasant working environment 30 23 17
Liking the people at work 29 24 19
Gratifying work 25 32 43
Contribution to public good 11 14 23
Important career step 10 15 19

Source: "The Chivas Regal Report on Working Americans," Research & Forecasts, New York City, 1989.

Would you say you are enjoying your work more, less, or about the same as you were five years ago?

Prof/ Sales/ Blue Overall mgrs. Tech. admin. collar
More 52% 60% 55% 51% 44%
Less 19 14 18 22 24
About the same 27 24 26 26 31
Don't know/ 2 2 1 1 1no answer

Source: "The Chivas Regal Report on Working Americans," Research & Forecasts, New York City, 1989.

All Work And No Play . . .

Remember, workers have lives, too. They may spend an average of more than 25% of any given week at their jobs, but for most people, there's more to life than work -- as is dramatically punctuated by the gap between "happy family life" and the first job-related answer in the chart above.

You want satisfied workers? Consider the study by the Wyatt Co. showing that employees who thought their employer's policies helped balance work and family responsibilities were far more likely to feel a commitment to their company as more than "just a place to work" than those who thought otherwise (62% versus 13%). And there's nothing like committed employees.

Which one of the following would most give you the feeling of success in your life?

% choosing each factor

Happy family life 62%

Ability to do some good in the world 15

Earning lots of money 10

Position and prestige in your work 6

Involvement in some creative activity 4

Fame 1

Don't know/no answer 2

Source: "The Chivas Regal Report on Working Americans," Research & Forecasts, New York City, 1989.

Last updated: Nov 1, 1992

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