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Dissatisfied Workers? Not Here

According to a new study that has been getting a lot of attention, only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their jobs.

The job satisfaction survey commissioned by the Conference Board research group was first conducted in 1987 and has been conducted every year since 2005. Never before have so few people said they were happy with their jobs. Back in 1987 nearly 70 percent of those surveyed ranked their job satisfaction level as either a 4 or a 5 out of 5.

Some of the decline in satisfaction can be attributed to the recession, as many workers are forced to take jobs they might otherwise spurn. Younger workers, who have the highest unemployment rates, also have the lowest job satisfaction. But, according to the authors of the study, the record low is not a result of the recession alone. Job satisfaction has been sinking for the past two decades, they said.

Other studies, however, present a less gloomy view. Gallup polls taken every August from 1989 to 2009 indicate that job satisfaction has remained relatively stable, ranging from 85 to 94 percent. Studies by the University of Chicago, which has been conducting its General Social Survey since 1972, peg happiness within an even narrower range of 85 to 87 percent. Tom W. Smith, head of the polling center at the University of Chicago, did admit, however, that happiness is not constant across age and profession. Only 25 percent of roofers are satisfied with their work, he said.

I suspect that the differences are largely a function of how the various surveys are conducted. As political pollsters know, the answers you receive often depend on how the questions are framed and presented.

Here at Palisades Hudson, all our workers are highly satisfied with their jobs. I know because I am their boss and they tell me so. Actually, I know because we have a long track record of retaining our successful employees over many years, during which they grow and advance professionally.

Job satisfaction and professional success are not unrelated. Many economists are worried by the Conference Board study, fearing that, if Americans are unhappy with their jobs, they will be less productive. Lynn Franco, one of the study’s authors, said, “What's really disturbing about growing job dissatisfaction is the way it can play into the competitive nature of the U.S. work force down the road and [have an impact] on the growth of the U.S. economy — all in a negative way.”

But the connection goes in the other direction as well. Workers who are given the opportunity to make themselves more productive and to accomplish what they want to accomplish professionally are happier. At our firm, each full-time staffer writes an annual personal development plan in order to identify his or her career goals. Then supervisors and managers prepare frank and detailed notes, and I discuss with the employee how he or she is developing and what he or she wants to accomplish in the future. We work together to try to make it happen.

I think another reason for our low turnover rate is the flexibility that we offer. Despite all the pressure and deadlines that come with preparing taxes, managing investments and other aspects of our financial planning business, we try to give employees as much control over their lives as possible. When people are sick, they stay home. When their family members need attention, they stay home, come in late or leave early, and others step up to pick up the slack. If someone needs flexible hours, we work it out.

Another key is fairness, both actual and perceived. We try to make all our policies, including compensation policies, open and transparent. A manager cannot play favorites without destroying workplace morale. When an employee sees a co-worker leaving early to take care of a sick child, he needs to know that that is not because his co-worker is particular favorite of the boss, but because it is company policy that anyone in that situation can take the time off that he or she needs.

If it is true that workplace satisfaction is declining, then workers and bosses both have to take on the job of improving the work environment. "It is [a] two-way responsibility," said Linda Barrington, another of the Conference Board study’s authors. In addition to bosses paying attention to employee satisfaction, “workers also have to figure out what they should be doing to be the most engaged in their jobs and the most productive.”

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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