Are your employees happy or just hanging in?

(Editor’s note: I am pleased to welcome Laurie Breitner as a contributor to Succeeding in Small Business. Here is her first post.)

It’s a bit scary contemplating any change in such an uncertain economy, but what better time to take a look at your business to examine what’s going well and what could use attention. For example, when was the last time you checked in on your employees’ level of satisfaction?

Unfortunately, some employers are getting too used to operating in a “buyer’s market.” After all, they reason, where could their employees get other jobs in this economy? Be careful not to get caught in the trap of this kind of short-term thinking.

If your business – like so many others – has had to cut costs, chances are that at least some of those cutbacks negatively impacted your employees.

Are your employees paying a greater percentage of health care costs?

Have you made staff cuts expecting remaining employees to take on additional responsibilities without increasing pay?

Have pay rates at your business stagnated or been cut back?

Have training programs and other employee benefits been cut?

In the early months of the recession in 2007, we were all in shock. Few knew the extent of problems or could have predicted the slow pace of recovery. Employers made cuts as temporary measures to sustain their businesses during a bad patch; now, several years later, those cutbacks have not been reversed and many employees are becoming bitter.

How do you know if this malaise infects your workplace? These are some symptoms of employee dissatisfaction:

• Increases in customer complaints

• Losing long-time customers for no apparent reason

• Increases in employees’ tardiness or use of sick time

• Increases in employee complaints about other employees

How can you know for sure if your business has a problem? Ask and then listen.

Talk with your employees individually and in groups. Listen to their concerns; acknowledge all issues and let them know what will be done and what actions have to be postponed until better times. Let them know under what circumstances changes will be made. For example, if monthly sales of a certain number can be sustained for three months. Take action to ensure that your employees know how much you value and appreciate them.

There are many no and low cost ways to show your appreciation:

• Take the time to visit with each employee to get to know her or him as a person – inquire about family members, favorite teams or special events.

• Thank each employee sincerely for his or her contribution. Let each know her or his important role in delivering your company’s product or service.

• Catch employees doing something well – going above and beyond for a customer or staying late to meet a deadline.

• Ensure that employees are informed about the company, its priorities, performance and plans.

• When possible, involve employees in decision making. Seek employees’ feedback on the customer experience in your business.

What’s your payback for this extra effort? Satisfied, involved employees offer a distinct competitive advantage. Employee satisfaction is positively correlated with increased sales, improved customer loyalty, increased employee innovation and companies’ overall financial performance. And, if your employees are happy where they are, your company won’t suffer the high turnover that’s likely to occur in many businesses when the job market ultimately improves.

Since 1991, Laurie Breitner has assisted organizations with operational improvement, organizational development and strategic planning. Learn more at

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