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5 Foolproof Steps to Happier Employees

You won't know how to make employees happy unless you ask. Here's how to get the most useful feedback from them.
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How much time do you spend making sure your employees are happy at your company? If the answer is "not much," "not enough," or even "none at all," the time to do something about it is now. In a recent survey by talent management firm Right Management, 95 percent of employees said they either had firm plans to find a new job in 2014, or were considering a move and had recently updated their resumes. Given these numbers, it seems a safe bet that at least some of your employees may be seeking other opportunities right now.

If they are, the economy is on their side. "Now that we've started to see some growth, people are looking for a BBD--a bigger, better deal," notes Scott Ahlstrand, Right Management's senior vice president of talent management. "If you're an employer, you'd better be focused on people right now, because opportunities are starting to come up." That's doubly true for hard-to-hire skills such as engineering or software development. For these specialties, he says, "There are significant shortages worldwide."

There's good news for small employers: Although you may not be able to compete with mega-employers when it comes to perks or pay, small companies are in a much better position to foster employee engagement than large ones. "Sometimes large companies get almost generic in the way they interact with employees," Ahlstrand says. "A small company can have a unique niche: 'This is who we are and if you're this type of person you will fit in here.'"

But just depending on your small size to keep employees enthusiastic about your company isn't good enough. Instead, Ahlstrand advises, identify the specific areas that matter to your team. Here's how:

1. Don't assume you know what they want.

And don't assume that what made employees at other companies happy will work for yours. "People look to make improvements very generically, based on something they read in a book or magazine," Ahlstrand says. That's the wrong approach.

2. Start with an anonymous survey.

Your first task is to find out which aspects of their jobs matter most to your particular workforce. "But if you go around asking people, you won't get an honest answer," Ahlstrand says. Instead he recommends quantitative research--an online survey that employees can fill out anonymously. These days there are so many easy-to-use tools that are inexpensive or free, it's almost silly not to do surveys.

3. Ask how you're doing on the issues they care about.

Your survey should offer employees a list of qualities that might make them value their jobs. These may include such items as career development, relationships with their direct managers, quality of the work their team produces, whether they feel their opionions are valued, and so on.

"Ask two sets of questions," Ahlstrand says. "'How much do you agree that this is important?' and 'How good are we at this?' Look for the gaps between what they think is important and what your company is doing well. And ask what management can do to make things better.

4. Plan possible responses ahead of time.

Although you're asking for their input, you should also have a plan of action in place, depending what you learn from their answer. "Here's what you don't want to do: Get the results and have each manager sit with his or her team and try to brainstorm ways to do better," Ahlstrand warns. "They will do it ineffectively and it will take too much time." Worse, he says, they may suggest solutions that are impossible or undesirable and you'll be stuck explaining why their brainstorming turned out to be a waste of time.

Instead, before the survey goes out, sit down and plan out what specific actions you will take, depending which two or three items turn out to be most important to respondents. But wait--if you already have ideas for ways to make employees happier, shouldn't you just go ahead and try them? "No organization can do everything," Ahlstrand explains. "Just because something seems like a good idea to you doesn't mean you should make that change until you have quantitative proof this is the best thing to do at this moment." Instead of trying to do everything you can think of, focus hard on the two or three areas employees tell you they care about the most.

5. Don't ask about things you can't or won't change.

Just as important as what's on the survey is what isn't there, Ahlstrand says. "A lot of companies ask employees how they feel about compensation and benefits, knowing they've got policies in place that aren't going to change." It's a bad idea, he says. "When you ask employees about what they want, there's an implicit promise that you're going to do something about it."

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IMAGE: Andy Peters/Flickr
Last updated: Jan 22, 2014

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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