Workplace Culture

The Last Word: Stewing in Silence

By Ronald Alsop

Dec. 8, 2010

Nearly 35 years ago in the satirical movie Network, television newsman Howard Beale exhorted his viewers to open their windows and yell the now-famous line: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Today, I’m sure many workers would love to bellow those same words to their bosses. Trouble is, they’re too afraid to speak up in this still shaky job market.

Overworked and overstressed, many employees are frustrated and frightened. They feel they have little control over their work lives and, even worse, little hope that things will get better anytime soon. Moreover, they worry about reprisals and job loss should they vent their feelings. Certainly, the employee-employer bond has been fraying for many years, but it seems more tenuous than ever.

The opening two feature stories in this month’s magazine illustrate the plight of fatigued, disgruntled employees and the risks of spouting off about workplace grievances, even on personal social networking sites. It’s noteworthy that two employees quoted in the stories requested anonymity to avoid any flak from supervisors.

In a widely watched National Labor Relations Board case about an employee who was fired for bad-mouthing her boss on her Facebook page, an administrative law judge should soon clarify how far workers can go in letting off steam. But no matter what the decision, companies understandably don’t want employees trashing them—especially in public. Research has shown that employees can be extremely influential in shaping the public perception and reputation of the companies where they work. One way to discourage negative word-of-mouth is to assure employees that they can speak frankly to managers about their workload and other stressors without negative consequences.

Clearly, there are plenty of workplace stressors these days. Many of the employee surveys that cross my desk repeat the increasingly familiar themes of feeling overworked, unappreciated or underappreciated, disengaged, depressed and restless. In two surveys earlier this year by Manpower Inc.’s Right Management talent development business and LinkedIn, 79 percent of employees reported heavier workloads because of layoffs, and three-quarters said they almost always put in more than 40 hours a week. The rank and file aren’t the only ones with bigger burdens: In surveying supervisors, Robert Half International Inc.’s OfficeTeam staffing division found that nearly one-third of them are not taking extra time off between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

How long will restive workers put up with the fatigue and fear? It’s unlikely that many will bolt soon because, as this month’s Data Bank feature shows, landing a new job today often means accepting lower wages. But as the economy strengthens, companies will likely see some of their top talent depart. In its Global Workforce Study this year, the consulting firm Towers Watson & Co. found that half of the workers didn’t see any career advancement opportunities in their current jobs, and 43 percent said they believe that they must change employers to move to a higher-level position. Even so, 81 percent said they weren’t actively seeking a new job—at least not now.

To prevent a talent drain, farsighted managers will no doubt figure out ways to relieve the stress and motivate their best performers to stay put. Some employers are trying to prevent burnout by limiting the number of work hours and even requiring that lunchtime be spent outside the office. Others are helping employees set reasonable goals and priorities to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps the most valuable strategy is to make employees feel valued and help them see opportunities ahead.

In choosing the winners of this year’s Workforce Management Optimas Awards, I noted that several entries demonstrated the powerful impact of employee engagement efforts on morale and retention. IBM Corp., for example, won the award for Global Outlook because of its worldwide Blue Opportunities initiative that enables employees to explore new roles in different parts of the company. Before instituting the program, IBM had been disturbed to learn that workers were leaving because of a perceived lack of career growth options.

The much smaller Planned Cos. received the Optimas Award for Vision in recognition of its online School of Professional Development that has helped reduce turnover among its employees in janitorial, concierge and building security services. President and CEO Robert Francis says that the school sends the message to workers that, “We value you. We’re proud of you.” That’s exactly the sort of sentiment that could comfort tired, tense workers at many companies right now.

Workforce Management, December 2010, p. 42Subscribe Now!

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