A consensus is emerging that there has been a shift in the attitudes and values of the U.S. work force and that this shift has been accompanied by increased dissatisfaction with many aspects of work. The evidence for this shift and disaffection has emerged from two camps: systematically recorded observations from case studies and surveys and from autobiographically based observations.1 Many of these observations are, however, isolated case studies or personal reminiscences. Also, there is little documentation of actual increases in dissatisfaction over time. Thus the core question “Is this shift in attitudes and resultant dissatisfaction a myth or is it a reality?” remains to be answered.
In this article we present a new synthesis of employee attitude data gathered over a 25-year period that show that employee values are changing and that dissatisfaction is increasing and manifesting itself in ways that have major implications for management. (See the sidebar for a description of our data base.) Here is a summary of our findings:
- There is consistent difference of opinion expressed by employees at many levels in organizations. We call this consistent difference, in which managers are usually more satisfied than are clerical and hourly employees, the “hierarchy gap.” This gap is usually greatest between managers and hourly employees.
- Most employees agree that their company is not as good a place to work in as it once was. The percentage of managers perceiving improvement in their companies has been steadily decreasing over the past 17 years.
- Discontent among hourly and clerical employees seems to be growing. The distinctions that once clearly separated clerical and hourly employees are becoming blurred. Both groups value and expect to get intrinsic satisfactions from work (e.g., respect, equity, and responsiveness), which were formerly reserved for managers. The work force itself and what it demonstrably values are indeed changing: all parts of the work force are beginning to overtly articulate their needs for achievement, recognition, and job challenge.
- Most employees rate their pay favorably. However, hourly and clerical employees’ satisfaction with pay does not offset either their high level of job dissatisfaction or their feeling that they are not treated with respect as individuals. In contrast, managers feel that they get intrinsic satisfaction from their jobs, not just good pay.
- Currently, there is a downward trend in employees’ ratings of the equity with which they are treated. In addition, expectations of advancement are the lowest they have ever been.
- Employees increasingly expect their companies to do something about their problems and complaints; yet fewer than a fourth of the hourly and clerical employees surveyed rate their companies favorably on this issue.
The findings lead to the conclusion that employee values are changing and that dissatisfaction is increasing. This is not a myth; it is an emerging reality. As such, it provides a major challenge for management in the 1980s.
In presenting the findings, we discuss employees’ basic, global attitudes toward their companies and their jobs. Then we discuss employees’ specific attitudes toward “extrinsic aspects” of work like pay and security and their attitudes toward management and supervision. Finally, we discuss their attitudes toward what might be called intrinsic, or esteem-related, aspects of work.
We look at each set of attitudes from several perspectives: from a focus on current issues, we observe attitudes from 1975 to the present; from a focus on trends over time, we present data gathered between 1950 and 1959, 1960 and 1964, 1965 and 1969, 1970 and 1974, and 1975 and the present; from a focus on differences in groups’ attitudes, we show data from the viewpoint of managers, clerical employees, and hourly employees.
Attitudes Toward the Company & the Job
When employees are asked to rate their company as a place to work compared with other organizations (see Exhibit I), a hierarchy gap emerges; this gap presents itself time and again across a wide variety of issues. In fact, the gap exists to some extent in virtually every company surveyed, where, in moving from managers to clerical and then to hourly people, one finds fewer and fewer satisfied employees. Furthermore, when these data are examined in 5-year periods, we find that this relationship has remained fairly constant despite fluctuations in the level of satisfaction with the company over the past 25 years.
Exhibit I How Would You Rate this Company as a Place to Work Compared with Other Companies or Organizations You Know or Have Heard About?
At one time or another, there were sharp drops followed by slight increases in all three employee groups’ favorable ratings of their companies. Employees’ satisfaction with their companies has always been the lowest among hourly employees and has dropped most steeply among clerical employees. When compared with other attitudes reported in this article, however, attitudes toward the company as a place in which to work are among the more favorable held by managers and, despite the declines, by clerical and hourly employees as well.
When employees rate their departments (see Exhibit II), the hierarchy gap appears again: managers respond most favorably, followed by clerical employees and then by hourly employees. While the ratings given to departments are moderately high compared with other ratings we examine later, they are lower than those given to the company as a whole.
Exhibit II Overall, How Would You Rate the Department in Which You Work?
Clerical and hourly employees’ ratings of their departments have declined steadily over the years, although the trend was slightly reversed among hourly employees during the late 1960s, a period in which managers were giving their departments lower ratings.
In the early 1970s, managers’ ratings of their departments improved, while ratings by hourly employees declined. This trend occurred during a recession period when managers were generally forced to tighten their grip on departmental expenses. Managers were evidently more satisfied with their tighter departments, while hourly employees became increasingly dissatisfied with this state of affairs—thus the sharp drop in their ratings of departments.
There are many possible reasons for the conflict between management and hourly employees’ philosophies about what constitutes a well-run department. For example, a cost-conscious manager, with an eye on his or her own future in an organization (which probably involves a move out of the current department), may not be willing or able to attend to the human relations concerns that would satisfy his or her subordinates. Hourly employees, on the other hand, are more likely to expect to remain in their own departments and to desire to build a lasting and satisfying work environment there.
The unfavorable attitudes of hourly employees, though the results of short-term cost-reduction programs, might have significant long-term effects. If the underlying reasons for these negative attitudes are not identified and corrected, poor quality work, increased waste, restricted output, lateness, and absenteeism may result. These are changes that often follow a deterioration of positive attitudes and that may greatly increase operating costs.
In addition to company and department ratings, employees were also asked whether they thought their company had become better or worse as a place to work (see Exhibit III). For all three employee groups, these ratings are now at an all-time low. In addition, managers, hourly employees, and clerical people give more critical ratings on this item than on any of the other items considered in this article.
Exhibit III How Would You Rate this Company as a Place to Work Compared with What It Was When You Started Here?
Of special interest in this context is the fact that all three employee groups consistently rate their company more favorably when comparing it with other companies than they do when comparing their company with what it was like in the past. In other words, most employees think their company is better than other companies, although not as good as it once was.
Certainly, personnel policies have not remained stagnant over the years. Companies today are not managed the same as they were in the past. Although management practices and personnel policies have been evolving, it appears that employees’ values and expectations have been evolving at an even faster pace. Evidently companies will have to increase the pace (and appropriateness) of their efforts to change if they are to keep up with their employees’ changing values.
In addition to asking about employees’ overall opinions concerning their companies, we asked employees how they liked their jobs (see Exhibit IV). The hierarchy gap in job satisfaction is currently as wide as it has ever been; there is a spread of 29 percentage points between managers’ and hourly employees’ ratings. And it is not because managers are finding increased satisfaction in their jobs—their satisfaction ratings have remained at a high level over the past 25 years—but rather because satisfaction is decreasing among hourly and clerical employees.
Exhibit IV How Do You Like Your Job—The Kind of Work You Do?
It is the gap and the downward trend in hourly and clerical employees’ satisfaction that we find so disturbing. Certainly, dissatisfaction is not new. To many, work may never be anything other than an unpleasant, inescapable fact of life, at best—a way to pay bills, associate with other people, and have scheduled things to do. Rapid advancement in technology and automation, the increasing impersonality of work and large organizations, and the instability of time-honored values and traditions are certainly prime contributors to dissatisfaction. The impact of these forces on the working world is not yet as visible as was the dissent in colleges during the late 1960s, but discontent among hourly and clerical employees is every bit as pervasive and seems to be growing.
In the past it has been assumed that all levels of white-collar employees identify more closely with management than they do with hourly employees. The data indicate, however, that the distinctions once separating clerical and hourly employees are hazier and have less application today than before.
In the May 1970 issue of the Opinion Research Corporation Public Opinion Index, it was noted that many clerical employees perform routine functions in large, impersonal operations.2 This observation led the authors to hypothesize that there are many similarities between “a paper-pushing factory” housing clerical employees and a production plant and that these similarities cause similar changes in clerical and hourly employees’ satisfaction. Now, more than eight years later, the hypothesis can be supported. Since 1970, clerical employees’ job satisfaction has declined another 10%, and hourly employees’ job satisfaction has dropped over 5%; the gap is narrowing. At the same time, managers’ ratings of job satisfaction have stayed about the same.
Taken as a whole, the results presented so far project a picture of decreasing satisfaction among hourly and clerical employees with both their work and their companies. For managers, no downward trend exists, except that managers agree with hourly and clerical employees that their companies are not as good as they once were.
Extrinsic Satisfactions: Security & Pay
When we examine specific extrinsic aspects of work satisfaction, beginning with job security (see Exhibit V), we find that most employees in all three job categories feel secure in their jobs. These attitudes rank among the more positive we discuss here.
Exhibit V Rating of Company on Providing Job Security
The majority of hourly employees have felt secure in their jobs since the late 1960s. The dip in the degree of this feeling during the early 1970s evidently reflects the impact of the recession and the large number of layoffs it caused. The recession did not have the same effect on managers or clerical employees, but then the cutbacks for their positions were not generally as severe as they were for hourly employees.
Employees’ satisfaction with pay (see Exhibit VI), despite continuing concern about inflation, has substantially increased in recent years. It is only managers, however, who indicate high satisfaction with their jobs along with high satisfaction with their pay. In contrast, hourly and clerical employees rate their pay more favorably now than before but, as groups, indicate decreasing satisfaction with their jobs. While favorable pay is necessary for employees in all jobs, it does not appear to be sufficient to bring about job satisfaction among clerical and hourly employees.
Exhibit VI Rating of Company on Pay Rates (Your Pay)
This high satisfaction with pay is initially surprising in light of recent inflation and the resulting decline in purchasing power. Part of the reason for these improved ratings is undoubtedly failure on the part of many employees to differentiate between what they are paid (nominal wages) and their purchasing power (real wages). In an inflationary period, nominal wages rise, in part because of the inflation. Employees may not initially realize that raises are primarily inflation adjustments and that purchasing power has not increased. With chronic inflation, however, employees begin to recognize its effects when they evaluate raises. When this happens, maintaining high levels of satisfaction with pay will require much larger raises.
In summary, the ratings of these extrinsic items are favorable in all employee groups but seem to have little impact on the satisfaction of hourly and clerical employees. People in these job classifications have previously been assumed to be oriented toward extrinsic rewards. Apparently, other factors are contributing to their lessening satisfaction.
Attitudes Toward Management & Supervision
More than three-fourths of the managers recently surveyed rate the ability of top management favorably (see Exhibit VII). Little more than 50% of the clerical employees do so, and less than 40% of the hourly employees currently give ratings of “good” or “very good” to the ability of top management in their companies. Relative to other attitudes, these are moderately high ratings for managers and moderate ratings for clerical and hourly employees. All three employee groups show increased satisfaction with the ability of top management in recent years.
Exhibit VII Rating of Company on Ability of Top Management
With regard to ratings of the quality of supervision (see Exhibit VIII), the same pattern emerges. These data suggest that efforts to upgrade management and supervision in recent years have been successful. However, taking job satisfaction ratings into account, the data also indicate that such supervisory upgrading, often accomplished through human relations training, does not affect the job satisfaction of hourly and clerical employees.
Exhibit VIII Rating of Company on Quality of Supervision (Providing You with a Supervisor You Respect)
While hourly and clerical employees’ attitudes toward management and supervision are less favorable than their attitudes toward other extrinsic rewards such as pay and security, none of these attitudes shows a downturn that would account for the decrease in job satisfaction. A downturn that might better account for the decreases in overall satisfaction appears in the items we turn to now.
Attitudes Toward Esteem-Related Factors
Opportunity for advancement, feeling that one is respected by the company, believing that the company listens and responds, and sensing that the company treats one fairly can all satisfy esteem needs on the job. The findings below suggest that there is much room for improvement in these areas.
Ratings of advancement opportunity are among the lowest given by all employee groups since 1975, and they have never been much higher than they are now (see Exhibit IX).
Exhibit IX Rating of Company on Chance to Get Ahead (Opportunity for Advancement)
Clearly, the majority of employees in clerical and hourly positions do not perceive that their efforts will be rewarded by promotion. While ratings for managers are higher, even many managers do not feel that the opportunity for advancement is good. This perception is certainly a disincentive for many employees at all levels and is contrary to the prescriptions of most practitioners and theorists of motivation to work.3
Clerical and hourly employees’ current ratings of extrinsic aspects of work, such as pay and job security, are considerably more favorable than their current ratings of advancement opportunity. When these employees perceive that their basic needs for adequate pay and job security are being fulfilled (as they do now), esteem-related factors such as advancement opportunity become more salient. Employees’ attitudes toward factors like advancement opportunity, then, will probably continue to deteriorate unless concerted short-term efforts are made to correct what clerical and hourly employees currently consider to be limited advancement opportunity.
Another critical finding in this area is that, since 1975, the majority of hourly and clerical employees have not rated their companies favorably on treating them with respect as individuals (see Exhibit X). While the current management-hourly gap in job satisfaction is as wide as it has ever been (shown in Exhibit IV), the gap in ratings of the amount of respect shown to each group is even wider. Neither hourly nor clerical employees view themselves as being among the privileged recipients of this important source of satisfaction.
Exhibit X Rating of Company on Respect Shown to Employees as Individuals (Treating You with Respect as an Individual)
If clerical and hourly employees rate their supervisors higher than before, one might wonder why employees feel at the same time that they are not being treated with respect. One explanation might be that hourly and clerical employees see their supervisors as helpless to provide them with the kinds of rewards they desire. This disaffection may also be a phenomenon of large corporations, where the faceless corporation is viewed as the villain.
Currently, the majority of clerical and hourly employees are not particularly pleased with opportunities to communicate upward. Although managers’ ratings of companies’ willingness to listen to employees’ problems and complaints have become more favorable in recent years, the opposite trend is found among clerical and hourly employees (seeExhibit XI).
Exhibit XI Rating of Company on Willingness to Listen to Your Problems and Complaints
Listening is only part of the solution to upward communication problems; the other part is doing something about the problems once they are voiced. Few of the hourly and clerical employees we have recently surveyed give favorable ratings to their companies on doing something about problems and complaints (see Exhibit XII). While managers clearly feel the company is more responsive than other employees do, still under 50% of the managers surveyed give favorable ratings on this issue.
Exhibit XII Rating of Company on Doing Something About Employees’ Problems and Complaints
During the 1950s, employees seemed to have a lower set of expectations for company responsiveness. While companies seem to be doing more now than they were during the 1950s, what they are doing today is simply not viewed by employees as acceptable.4 As employees have become more educated and have developed new values, their expectations for responsiveness from their companies have changed. Employers must now begin to change their patterns of responsiveness to accommodate these changes in employees’ values and expectations.
While employees at all levels perceive that there have been inequities, since 1960 both hourly and clerical workers have been especially critical of their employers’ “fairness in dealing with employees,” that is, “playing no favorites” (see Exhibit XIII).
Exhibit XIII Rating of Company on Fairness in Dealing with Employees (No Favorites)
What we are witnessing may well have been initially caused by traditional management favoritism but more recently may perhaps be attributed to such other factors as a clearly articulated sense of an individual’s right to be treated fairly, a decreasing tolerance of inequity (even if favoritism has not increased), and a concern about Affirmative Action requirements.
Our data indicate that 45% of today’s managers think employees are dealt with fairly. While this is more than double the number of hourly and clerical employees who feel this way, it is also only about one-half the percentage of managers who felt this way in the 1950s. Where once only hourly and clerical employees complained of perceived inequities, many managers now do so as well. Whatever their sources, perceptions of inequity seem to be affecting all employee groups negatively.
The esteem-related items, then, are those that employees rate most critically. The decreases in favorable attitudes regarding equity, respect, companies’ responsiveness to employees’ problems, and advancement opportunities most clearly parallel the overall drops in ratings of job satisfaction reported earlier. Thus the esteem-related items seem to account for the recent downturn in overall job satisfaction, while extrinsic items, such as satisfaction with pay, do not.
These attitudes suggest that there are strong disincentives to perform well on a job, since some of the major rewards for good performance are missing, and employees perceive that management makes many decisions arbitrarily. It is here, in the area of providing opportunities for individual growth and challenge and of developing ways to recognize and respond equitably to the needs of the work force, that efforts to change need to be focused. It appears clear that current changes in extrinsic areas such as pay and job security will be less likely to improve job satisfaction.
What Management Can Do
The 1960s were characterized by increasing demands for as well as tolerance of self-expression, self-fulfillment, and personal growth—everywhere but in industry. These demands are really just beginning to be voiced in industry, where employees at all levels, many of whom are recent graduates, now feel that they too are entitled to experience some intrinsic satisfaction from their work.
There seem to be at least three possible explanations for this trend: first, that the newer work force values different things; second, that the older work force has changed what it values; and third, that the work force is just beginning to overtly articulate what it has always covertly valued. However, regardless of the reason, the fact is that companies are currently faced with employees’ changing values and need to respond to these differently than they have responded to the values previously expressed by employees.
The changes reported here are ubiquitous, pervasive, and nontransient; any reversal is unlikely in the foreseeable future. The goal for management is to be aware of and prepared for new and surfacing employee needs, before it is forced to take reactive, ignorant, and resistive postures.
Certainly companies cannot, and should not, tackle all problems and complaints simultaneously, but managers can and should be responsive to some problems of high priority as they surface.
In many cases, employers make serious efforts to respond to contemporary employee values, but, predictably, much of their initial response has been characterized by redoubling efforts to use traditional solutions such as pay raises and human relations training for supervisors. As these solutions have failed to effect the desired outcomes, some corporations have explored new alternatives.
One of these alternatives is a new approach to a company’s own employee attitude survey results. Traditionally employee attitude surveys have been regarded as studies conducted solely for the use of management. Now companies are beginning to view surveys as a legitimate form of upward communication requiring appropriate feedback downward of survey results and relevant corrective action plans from management.
By giving employees at all levels an opportunity to participate in shaping a meaningful questionnaire and then feeding back the survey results to them, management can open both upward and downward communication channels. This two-way communication process is continued when employees are asked to generate, for review by management, realistic solutions to their own problems identified by the survey results.
Of course, the problems described in this article will neither disappear nor be cured overnight; many are deeply rooted in society’s recent revolutions. Although such findings may seem to paint a bleak picture of the outlook for effective employee relations, this is not necessarily the case. What is undeniably required, however, is that corporations recognize the new realities within which they must function. The crucial issues then become the degree to which management can successfully identify, anticipate, and address these changing values as they surface, or before they surface, in their own organizations. But, make no mistake about it, changing employee values are no myth. They will be the realities that companies must face in the 1980s.
1. Some of the recent work in this area includes: Dan H. Fenn, Jr. and Daniel Yankelovich, “Responding to the Employee Voice,” HBR May–June 1972, p. 83; Herbert Sheppard and Neal Herrick, Where Have All the Robots Gone? (New York: Free Press, 1972); U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Work in America: Report of a Special Task Force to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1973); Robert Schrank, Ten Thousand Working Days (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1978); Studs Terkel, Working (New York: Pantheon, 1974); and B.J. Widick, ed., Auto Work and Its Discontents (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1976).
2. “Employee Relations: Signs of Increasing Discontent Among White Collar Workers,” p. 10.
3. See, for example, Edward E. Lawler, Motivation in Work Organizations (Belmont, Calif.: Brooks-Cole, 1973).
4. David W. Ewing, “What Business Thinks about Employee Rights,” HBR September–October 1977, p. 81.