How To Make Workers Happy By Susan Adams

It’s no surprise workers are unhappy in this economy. Sure, there are bits of good news, like today’s report that private employers hired 222,000 in February, the most since last April.  The jobless rate has inched down to 8.9%, according to the Labor Department, which seems like a positive sign.




But the official unemployment number is based on a survey where people report that they’ve looked for a job in the last four weeks. Plenty of folks have given up looking, or are working part-time when they wish they had a full-time job, which means that the true number of unemployed in America is much higher.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies this broader number as “U-6.” In February the U-6 unemployment rate was 15.9%.

With joblessness running that high, it’s no surprise that workers remain at their posts, even when they feel disgruntled. A survey released today by consulting firm Accenture showed that only 43% of women and 42% of men were satisfied in their jobs, yet nearly three quarters, 70% of women and 69% of men, plan to stay put. Accenture says it queried 3,400 professionals in 29 countries. To address widespread worker dissatisfaction, in its press release accompanying the survey, an Accenture executive recommends that companies create “a culture of mentoring, developing diverse teams that provide new experiences and offering volunteer opportunities that engage their people and expand employee networks.” That all sounds good, if a little vague.

Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School, has a more specific suggestion: Let employees give away their companies’ money. Norton wrote a nice piece for Forbes last year, summarizing his research that shows how giving away money makes people happier than spending money on themselves.

Focusing on the workplace, Norton ran a study where he looked at two companies, a large bank and a pharmaceutical sales firm. He examined the impact of giving workers a straight bonus, and giving them the same sum of money, but instructing them to donate it to charity. He used an Australian outfit called Karma Currency, that sends out virtual money through its website and then lets people pick an organization to receive the donation.

Norton experimented with small sums of as little as $20, and he administered employee satisfaction surveys before and after the employees did their donating. He also measured the performance of sales teams at the pharmaceutical company, before and after they gave away money.  The companies picked a list of 20-30 charities available to the employees.

Probably because I worry too much, Norton’s results seem startling to me. Even if I were only giving away a small amount of my company’s money, I imagine I’d fret over which recipient to choose, and agonize further about the time I were taking to make that choice. Norton says that employees took only three or four minutes to make their decisions, and his before and after surveys showed that overall employee satisfaction rose by 15% after the workers made their donations. The sales peoples’ productivity also soared. Norton claims that for every 15 euros the sales people gave away, they racked up 4.5 euros in sales. Norton’s conclusion: allowing employees to give away your company’s money “has a much bigger impact on employee morale than other kinds of incentives you can give out.”
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