Get a life: Research shows that employees would like to

August 30, 2006

Your employees may be satisfied with their office duties, co-workers, immediate supervisors, and even their paychecks. But, that doesn't necessarily mean they're happy enough to stay on the job.


Recent research shows that if employees are feeling conflict between work and non-work roles, they may be dissatisfied enough to quit -- or at least think about it. And, contrary to popular wisdom, it isn't just work/family conflict that leaves people feeling job discontent. Even the loss of leisure time might vex some workers to the termination point.


The researchers also found that "job-avoidance" behaviors are obvious signals that could mean "turnover trouble ahead," but fortunately there is plenty an employer can do to curb profit-cutting employee resignations.


On a role


"Historically, people have assumed that employee dissatisfaction is primarily rooted in conditions on the job," says Peter Hom, professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business. Indeed, a quick Google search for employee-satisfaction questionnaires turned up many samples. Among the first few pages of search engine results, three out of four example surveys failed to ask even one question about work/life conflicts and how employees feel about them.


That could be a costly omission for employers who are concerned about voluntary turnover. And who wouldn't be? Experts estimate that, depending on skill levels, the cost of recruiting, replacing and training new hires is anywhere between 93 percent and 200 percent of an employee's annual salary.


This is one reason Hom teamed up with W. P. Carey colleague Angelo Kinicki, also a management professor, to explore interrole conflict, defined as "the collision between work and non-work demands." They looked at the ways this conflict increases job dissatisfaction and correlates with employee departures.


The researchers also challenged what Hom considers a prevailing "stereotype among employers that the only people who are squeezed by interrole conflict are married, and that women feel such conflict" more intensely. Hom and Kinicki performed a yearlong study tracking attitudes and behavior of employees in more than 100 locations of a nationwide retail chain. About 90 percent of the employees were male. The store locations represented a broad sample of states, regions and local economies.


"We demonstrated that interrole conflict applies to everyone," Kinicki says. Hom adds: "There are a lot of things people value that work interferes with. Some people had other jobs. Some were students." One, he recalls, was an athlete who needed time for training.


Some employees simply found their particular jobs gave them too little time for non-work pursuits. Hom reports that both he and the managers of the retail chain studied were "shocked" that so many employees were "so concerned about leisure."


Along with the prevalence of work/life conflict, the researchers proved its destructive power. "The more people have interrole conflict in their lives, the more unhappy they are," Kinicki says. "Unhappy people exhibit job-avoidance behaviors," he adds.


This was another aspect of turnover validated by Hom and Kinicki. Dissatisfied employees do send signals that are loud, clear and costly. Smart employers, they say, will take notice and action.



Wide world of withdrawal


For many disgruntled employees, economic realities delay their longed-for two weeks' notice. But, even if they can't quit, they can call in sick and go fishing, come in late to shave a little time off their day, or simply spend time chatting at the water cooler instead of working at their desks. According to Kinicki, aggrieved employees are "absent more, exhibit less effort at work, and their work quality goes down."


Although Kinicki and Hom didn't test this particular variable, Hom says he's seen researchers find correlations between a decrease in "organizational citizenship" and an increase in dissatisfaction, which eventually leads to turnover. Organizational citizenship, he explains, is willingness to do things that aren't necessarily in your job description but are good for the company as a whole. Jumping in to assist co-workers with a task or mentoring are two examples of good citizenship. Researchers in Asia, he notes, saw a decrease in such helpfulness before people headed out the door. "If you're no longer a good organizational citizen, the next step is to not be a citizen at all."


"People do go through a process of quitting," Kinicki maintains, "and it's a thoughtful process."


People consider whether they have any alternatives. They may begin a job search. "These activities take time," he continues. "This means there are plenty of opportunities to intervene if managers are paying attention to employee attitudes and behaviors."


To that end, Kinicki is a strong proponent of frequent and thorough employee-satisfaction surveys. "Companies should monitor employee satisfaction on a regular, on-going basis," he says. "Those results are predictors of who stays and who quits."


As for addressing work/life conflict, Hom notes that many employers are already wise to such issues. Employers have been increasingly "accommodating, giving people more flexible schedules or more extended leave," he explains. He also points to one retailer he knows that discovered erratic schedules were "driving part-time workers to quit," so more regular schedules became a retention tool.


Kinicki points to corporate-sponsored concierge services as a means of helping workers cope with life's demands.


"Bring in your dry cleaning, and the company takes care of it for you," he says. Or, perhaps the company offers on-site low-cost daycare. "It's all about helping people deal with interrole conflict," Kinicki adds.


Both Kinicki and Hom see work/life conflict becoming more pronounced as baby boomers' aging parents start requiring more time and attention. A recent Wall Street Journal article suggests this is already taking place, and companies are already responding. The story states that one survey found, "About one-forth of companies provide basic elder-care benefits -- mostly referrals to help workers find caregivers and legal help."


In addition, the story covers a few creative corporate initiatives, such as McGraw-Hill's willingness to enroll an adult family member -- even a senior -- in the company health plan, or Prudential Financial's program to help employees attain access to affordable geriatric-care specialists who will do in-home evaluations and treatment plans.


"Employers need to pay attention to the type of interrole conflict people have and come up with ways for people to deal with it," Kinicki affirms. Such action is more than a good-will gesture. It's smart management, as the 2005 National Study of Employers conducted by the Families and Work Institute indicates.


In that study, among the 92 percent of employers who offered at least eight work/life programs -- including flexible work schedules, family leave and childcare -- nearly half, 47 percent, reported they provide these initiatives to recruit and retain employees. About 25 percent reported they provide these initiatives to enhance productivity and commitment.


Of course, work/life programs won't necessarily keep people in your camp if some external shock, such as a pregnancy, a job offer or a spouse's cross-country promotion comes into play. And, predictably, another factor that influences turnover is unemployment rates. However, the employment market -- or lack of it -- is not as critical as you might think.



Nowhere to go


Common sense would dictate that when unemployment rates are low, workers have more job opportunities and, therefore, would be more likely to leave jobs they don't like. Such thinking hadn't previously been corroborated by scholars.


Hom maintains this is because other researchers weren't working with the same kind of broad, multistate sample that he and Kinicki enjoyed. That is, many turnover studies focus on one site or one city, thereby leaving no variation in unemployment rates to factor into turnover models.


Hom's and Kinicki's research validated the intuitive guess: Unemployment does factor into an employee's decision and ability to quit in a "nontrivial" way, Hom says.


Still, Kinicki claims, managers should worry more about job satisfaction and interrole conflict than unemployment rates, because these are better predictors of turnover. He also maintains that this is a good thing for those in charge: "Managers can't affect the unemployment rate in their communities, but they can influence the attitudes people have about their jobs."


Bottom Line


  • Conflict between work and personal life is a strong driver of job dissatisfaction and subsequent turnover among employees.
  • Such work/life conflict applies to everyone, not just those who are married with kids. It goes beyond family issues.
  • Before people quit because of dissatisfaction with the job, they'll exhibit withdrawal behaviors such as absenteeism, tardiness and other job-avoidance conduct.
  • Smart managers keep close track of employee satisfaction, watch job-avoidance actions and devise ways to interfere with these precursors of the resignation process.
  • Low unemployment rates do raise opportunities for unhappy employees, and therefore may boost turnover, but unemployment isn't as crucial as employee satisfaction in keeping turnover under control.