Recruiting and Keeping Employees: a new-old way

Recruiting and keeping workforce is much in the news these days. The Great Resignation, Ghosting or whatever, the fact remains that many businesses are finding it very difficult to recruit and retain employees, especially in entry level and lower tier positions. 

There are a few obvious problems that come to mind: a low unemployment rate, a population aging out of the work force, low population growth, and shutdowns of immigration.  But there seems to be more, demographics can’t explain everything.   Something’s wrong with the relationships between employers and employees. Whatever sense of bonding there once was has been dissolved. 

There’s been a lot of speculation about what’s going on.  The answer may lie with a management theory, based on disreputable research, made popular in the early 1960s.  In 1958, Frederick Herzberg published a ground breaking piece based on his work with engineers and accountants at a large GE factory.  He claimed there were two stages to keeping and motivating employees.  

The first stage he called hygiene factors.  These were things like pay, benefits, working conditions, policies and procedures, safety, quality of supervision, and decent relationships with coworkers.   They established the baseline to be met for employees not to be dissatisfied with their jobs.  They were not motivators, but they were necessary to avoid wide spread employee dissatisfaction.  

The second stage Herzberg called motivators.  Motivators included the nature of the work itself, having a sense of purpose worthy of one’s time and effort, the sense of achievement valued by others, recognition from management that workers were valued assets to the company, that there were opportunities for growth and advancement, interesting, challenging work that fed the need adults have to exercise responsibility.

It sounded great, was widely published, and found its way into most management curricula.  The problem was that the research on which it was based didn’t hold up to scrutiny.  It was, in short, an invalid study.

However, things can be invalid and yet true.  In the 64 years that have passed, empirical evidence has piled up to suggest, despite the error of his ways, Herzberg was probably right. 

Good pay and decent benefits are not enough to motivate anyone.  They are necessary baselines.  That’s all.  In fact, no company or boss can motivate anyone, but they can create conditions in which employees find their own motivation.  Establishing those conditions is what Herzberg labeled as motivators.  Sadly, over the last four decades or so, employees have come to be treated as disposable commodities, modern day serfs, especially at the bottom end.  It’s the feudal mentality of work or starve – no one owes you anything more than that.  

Whether it was the pandemic, four years of Trump, demographic changes, new technologies, or some wild and crazy combination of everything, we may never know, but employees appear to have risen up spontaneously to demand that if jobs are to be filled and turnover reduced, employers must provide the needed hygiene factors and the desired motivating conditions.

Hard core conservatives hope this form of foolishness dies out, and soon, so the economy can return to a more servile, less demanding workforce.  Biden’s Build Back Better Plan would throw a monkey wrench into their hopes.  Keeping it from passing might very well help them realize their desires.  If so, it will continue the process of relegating The United States of America to second tier status on the world stage, but it would help keep power and wealth in the hands of a few.

We are unlikely to ever return to the norm of life long employment in one discipline or for one employer.  We do have the possibility of using Herzberg’s ideas as the foundation for a 21st century set of norms opening to   workers a life of opportunity and contentment. It would be a move toward restoring the foundations of loyalty between employer and employee.  It can’t be done if the only measure of success is the quarterly report and bottom line.  It can’t be done if business owners ascribe to themselves all rights and privileges while treating employees as replaceable commodities. 

Look at it this way.  You cannot buy anything these days without getting a customer satisfaction survey in the mail or a request to fill one out online at the bottom of every receipt.  No matter that most surveys are thinly veiled marketing gimmicks, the fact remains that we have been led to expect to be satisfied and to report on it.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that employees are thinking, if customer satisfaction is important, then why not treat my status as employee the same way.  The old ways won’t work.  Coating them with sugar and spice doesn’t make them new ways.  It’s time to move on to a new way of thinking about employment.  The result, I think, will be a better national economy able to lead the world  into a more prosperous future for all.  

Final note:  For several decades I was among those teaching this stuff to managers.  They all loved it, eagerly adopted the vocabulary, and changed their practices not one iota.  The cult of libertarian individualism, to the exclusion of all else, had too great a hold. Let’s hope for a different outcome this time.

4 thoughts on “Recruiting and Keeping Employees: a new-old way”

  1. Good stuff, Steve. I hope you are right about the possibility for the future. With a young adult child entering the work world in full soon, I will be interested to see where this goes because the next generation to hit the work world comes with very different expectations than the ones of the preceding generations.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Steve. I have been recently reading Thomas Piketty’s Time For Socialism: Dispatches from a world on Fire, 2016-2021. Pikkety is a French economist, and his essays have been very enlightening to me, particularly how very differently European countries deal with economic issues and what matters to them. For example, we in the US always hear about how productive our workers are; Pikkety has research showing that workers in France and Germany are just as productive as US workers; they simply don’t work as many hours as ours do. Also, linked to some of your thoughts, he describes how some European nations require significant percentages of workers to be on executive boards of businesses and companies (often between 30% and 50%!) which is quite different from our business models with zero employee input and stockholders being the only concern.

  3. My wife and I worked for a “company” (a private school in Seattle) that went from a Herzbergian approach to its teachers to — what to call it? — Taylorian? (after Frederick William Taylor). About two-thirds of the way down we jumped ship. Interesting: benefits were always good, but salaries were not competitive, at least not at first, but still people stayed for entire careers because of the motivators, as well as some of the hygiene factors. Thanks for writing this, Steve.

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