A Publication of WTVP

One of the most pressing workplace problems these days is worker morale. Given a choice or an opportunity, a majority of workers-from offices to factory floors to health care facilities to schools-say they'd leave their present job immediately and find a better job. What reason do they give for wanting to leave immediately? Simple: they hate their jobs. No wonder we have quality issues, productivity problems, absenteeism, and conflict reaching unprecedented levels.

As we observe Labor Day, a holiday honoring the contributions of American workers in a land of economic opportunity and productivity, we need to think carefully about workplace morale and how managers and executives can influence and improve it. Workplace morale also has ethical implications because, inevitably, supervisors and managers have to make tough choices when dealing with troubling attitudes and actions or poor policies and planning.

There are many causes behind workplace morale problems. For example, bad policies or no policies can be a real discouragement to workers. Sometimes when an employer asks me to deal with a workplace problem as a consultant, I have a look at a personnel manual. One employer's handbook-actually, a few pages stapled together-stated there should be an annual evaluation, but there were no policies on how or when an evaluation should be conducted, nor any direction on how a fair evaluation would be handled.

Workers found the evaluations, when and if they were done, to be a discouraging process because they didn't know what to expect, how to prepare, or what would happen if their evaluation resulted in a poor rating. Much of the time, the supervisors struggled with morale problems, too. They didn't have consistent standards from senior management for scoring or ranking employee performance.

Another example of bad policies/no policies was found in one workplace without firm bad weather policies. Some employees decided when it snowed two or three inches that they had to stay home due to dangerous commuting conditions, while others made it in with no problem. Workplace morale sank because the manager wasn't willing to set a policy on weather closure. "We have to be flexible," she said.

Flexibility can be understood as favoritism, however. Another major problem with workplace morale, then, is a set of poorly or inconsistently applied policies. In one workplace, the employee manual hadn't been updated for more than 10 years. The bereavement policy indicated that a supervisor could give time off, up to three days, to an employee who faced a death in the family. One worker received three days off when her child died, and the supervisor clearly stated that any more time off required use of vacation time if she wanted to be paid. Another supervisor gave a single person a week off after the death of a pet. Morale took a fall in this workplace.

Sometimes poor communication can create serious workplace morale problems. In one retirement home, for example, management promoted a strong sense of bonding between staff and residents. Yet when a resident died, no one communicated the person's death to the entire staff or to other residents. The central kitchen kept sending meals to the deceased person's room, and the nursing supervisor became angry. "They should have known the person died!" Yet how would they know? In this "close-knit family," communication lines failed, and workers grew tired of the blame game.

Finally, an unhealthy workplace can create morale problems. Often, the problem revolves around one or two people in an office. They may be totally disorganized, or they could be poor time managers. Someone could be a malicious gossip or have high control needs. Or people might be rewarded if they bring income into the business-even if they make questionable deals or offer "rebates" or kickbacks to people who'll go along with a scheme. Bad behavior or fear can drive down morale among people who just want to get the job done and do the right thing.

In any case, ethical problems develop because workplace morale often develops when the inherent sense of fairness people may have about getting work done, using their time and equipment productively, and teamwork with fellow employees meets up with poor organization, bad business practice, or people who have their own agendas.
If you face a morale problem in your workplace, a good place to start is your company's mission and the end result you want to achieve. Workplace morale can be lifted when there's a good purpose in place and a good result desired. Another place to start: training people to be good managers with a focus on goals and objectives but also on getting buy-in and support from workers. That can be a tough balancing act. Finally, workplace morale can be strengthened when policies and practices are up to date and fair and ethical standards are clear and uniformly applied.

This Labor Day, think about how your workplace can develop productive and satisfied employees-and then think about how successful your business can be when clear ethical standards and fair policies are applied by people who have knowledge and training to help bring out the best in employees. IBI