How to work when your boss does not care

Posted on August 17, 2016

Royal Mail has said that it may not be able to afford its staff’s defined benefit pension scheme beyond 2018. The venerable UK postal business is unlikely to be the only company to take this drastic measure. The collapse in government bond yields, which pension funds use to calculate their ability to pay future benefits, has tipped schemes around the world into crisis.

Plunging annuity rates mean the future looks grim, too, for workers with defined contribution pensions, who have to provide for their own retirements with the proceeds of what they have paid into their plans.

    The gloomy pensions scene is one way in which life has deteriorated for developed-world workers. Real wages for most people have been stagnant while executive pay has soared.

    Add to that automation, outsourcing and job losses because of low-cost competition and it is no surprise that surveys show employees are discontented, disengaged and mistrustful.

    The most recent annual Edelman Trust Barometer, produced by the public relations company, showed that large numbers of workers no longer trusted the company they worked for. In Japan, only 40 per cent trusted their employers. In France it was 48 per cent and 57 per cent in the UK. In the US, nearly two-thirds of employees trusted their companies but that has to be set against other downbeat US surveys.

    Gallup’s most recent polling of the US workforce showed that 34.1 per cent were “engaged”, which meant they worked with “passion” and felt a “profound connection to their company”.

    Another 16.5 per cent were “actively disengaged”, which meant they were not just unhappy but were undermining their colleagues’ work. The largest group, 49.5 per cent, were simply not engaged. They had mentally “checked out” and were just going through the motions. This may not look that bad: over a third were enthusiastic about their jobs and many of the others were at least not getting in anyone’s way.

    You could paint an even brighter gloss on Gallup’s figures by noting that the “engaged” figures are the highest it has recorded. Between 2000 and 2013, the proportion of US workers found to be engaged never rose above 30 per cent.

    But it is going to get worse. The employees of the future are the least happy: only 29 per cent of millennials feel engaged with their work.

    Workplace satisfaction questionnaires have their critics. A 2014 survey of the research in Human Resource Development Quarterly concluded that there was no consensus on what employee engagement was and that it was difficult to draw conclusions about what helped or hindered it.

    But most of us can probably recognise Gallup’s findings. In more than 40 years of visiting the US I have, as a customer, noticed the growing bifurcation of employee attitudes: there is a group who is still delighted to serve you and a growing number who seems to think your turning up has ruined their day.

    Employee disenchantment has costs beyond poor customer service: absenteeism, shoddy work and high turnover.

    So given that pension problems and low-cost competition are not going away, what, other than slashing their top executives’ salaries, can employers do about staff unhappiness?

    First, make sure their companies are well considered. One of the questions Gallup asks is whether the mission or purpose of the company makes staff feel their jobs are important.

    Companies should not be misled by the word “mission”. Mission statements count for little. This is about whether people are proud to tell their friends, family and neighbours that they work for the company.

    That means providing a decent service, not becoming a constant source of complaint on social media and staying out of trouble. Nobody is proud to work for a company embroiled in scandal.

    Second, companies cannot tell staff to take care of their own pension provision, thus expecting them to take adult responsibility for their retirement, and then treat them like children in every other way.

    Employee disenchantment has costs beyond poor customer service: absenteeism, shoddy work and high turnover

    Excessive monitoring and control are the enemies of an engaged workforce. Explaining to people what you expect of them and letting them use their initiative to achieve it is the hallmark of effective management. If employers fail to improve the lives of their workers, what can employees do themselves? Working takes up such a large proportion of our lives. It is a shame to spend it unhappy, seething or just switched off.

    If you have poor managers, look elsewhere for validation: to your colleagues or, if you deal with them directly, your customers. Treating them well even when your company does not is likely to leave you, as well as them, far happier.

    It is also a way of improving your reputation and increasing the chances of a job offer from someone who notices and appreciates you.

    This month, a mother wrote a Facebook tribute to a London Underground worker called Pip, who, for years, has been making sure that pregnant women have seats during the rush hour. Many others said he had helped them too.

    We all like praise from our bosses. But being praised like Pip is far better.

    michael.skapinker@ft.com

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