Editor's Note: The Cost of the Disengaged

By  Mitch Morrison, Vice President & Group Editor

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If you haven’t heard, the economy is still sluggish, and many are holding onto jobs merely because of their health coverage. Others are quitting and signing up for Obamacare, saying goodbye to employment they long ago wanted to escape but couldn’t because of fears of losing medical insurance.

Some equate job satisfaction with salary, looking at employment in purely monetary terms. The Democratic Party, for instance, has declared 2014 the year of the minimum-wage increase. Fearing lost support over Obamacare, Democrats in Congress and across many states are demanding an increase in baseline salaries, seeking to spur union-organized demonstrations such as the ones last fall at McDonald’s and Walmart. They are using minimum wage as a driver to boot out Republican incumbent governors in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Maine and other states where the officeholder is considered vulnerable.

Economists will forever debate whether minimum-wage increases kill jobs or spur the economy (because folks making more will presumably have more to spend). While the debates are great entertainment, they fail to address a more fundamental issue: Why do we like some jobs and companies more than others?

Over the past 12 months, I’ve received more than two dozen resumes from mid- to upper-level convenience store chain managers. Some are driven by situations such as family relocation. Most, however, come with notes like this (edited for clarity): “As you know, I was brought in to grow XX category. But there is no room for experimenting or changing anything in our plan-o-gram. I’m told just to keep everything status quo. I wasn’t hired to be a caretaker; I was hired to grow the category!”

From another: “I have one of the most successful districts, but my boss routinely interferes and, instead of trying to help our store managers, is making their lives more difficult.”

In a fascinating article last year, the American Psychological Association presented a report called “More Than Job Satisfaction.” The article underscores that “finding meaning in one’s work has been shown to increase motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment, and to decrease absenteeism and stress.”

Yet a 2013 Gallup study called “State of the American Workplace Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders” found that 70% of the U.S. workforce said they were either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work. Gallup defines unengaged workers as those who have “checked out,” putting in the hours but not the passion.

Over the past 12 months, I have talked to dozens of workers at c-stores and other retail outlets. Among the more than 100 establishments I’ve visited, five chains stand out: Pret a Manger, Wegmans, Trader Joe’s, Kwik Trip and QuikTrip.

“We make the sandwiches in the morning, and we are encouraged to offer our own ideas,” one Pret employee said. “What I like is that whatever’s left over goes to food pantries instead of the garbage.” This employee said he shared the company’s values of sustainability, healthier ingredients and friendly customer service, which he said reached from management to frontline workers. And he liked that even though he made about $12 an hour in New York City, his boss valued and often solicited his ideas and those of his colleagues.

“For me, this is my second job,” said a cashier at Trader Joe’s. “Yet if I had to, I would quit my main job, even though it pays a lot better. You get to do everything here. You’re encouraged to try out the products, and you are told to be yourself and to talk to the shoppers. It’s not about just getting people through the checkout. … It’s about getting to know your shoppers.”

Think about these two people, from Pret a Manger and Trader Joe’s. Theirs is a shared story. Their cultures actively encourage engagement, within the corporate structure and between employee and customer. Their cultures are rooted in meaning and anchored in values centered on people, community, health and the environment.

What I’m hearing from the folks looking for new work is that they don’t feel valued or that their companies have lost their meaning (or perhaps never had it).

How big a deal is this? According to the Gallup report, actively disengaged workers are more likely to steal from their companies, be a negative influence on co-workers and drive customers away. Active disengagement, it says, costs U.S. companies $450 billion to $550 billion a year. Enough said.

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