Information – coming to a workplace near you

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In various columns and articles (pdf) Ive pointed out the irony of the fact that, at a time when were deregulating the labour market, were paying next to no attention to the problem of getting information to prospective employees about the quality of workplaces. Though workplaces try hard to keep their employees happy both because it generally improves their productivity and because unhappy workers walk, the fact is that a lot of employees prefer the devil they know to the devil they dont. It would, as I argued in an op ed a few years ago be great if we had a decent, transparent market in job satisfaction. And it wouldnt be that hard to achieve. Because I dont think its up on Troppo, I am posting the old op ed on improving the market for work satisfaction over the fold.

But the purpose of this post is to tell you that someones giving it a try – right here in my home town of Melboure. As I discovered reading The Ages IT supplement yesterday – lured by a headline reading HR gets the Web 2.0 touchHot Employers is now offering companies that pay it a fee to subscribe a service whereby their employees can be surveyed on line. The sponsoring firms receive a report on the results as they would from any HR firm, though the automation of the process presumably lowers costs considerably.

But Hot Employers also allows subscribers to publish the results of the survey. As you can imagine, if a firm did well on the survey, publicity for that fact could offer a powerful way of promoting itself to prospective employees. Thus you click on a button Find a good employer and can search for employers with Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in your area, or your industry.

Of course its a long way from having a good idea – thinking they oughta do this to actually bringing it off. A visit to the site confirms that its very new and so a search doesnt turn up many companies. I would have felt more reassured if the site looked like it was backed with more money, as thats important to making a mark and so developing a critical mass. The net is littered with good ideas that failed to achieve critical mass.

But I really wish the guys at Hot Employers the best with their business. The op ed is over the fold.

Making the market in work satisfaction work

Next to our health and relationships with close family and friends, nothing matters more to us than the quality of our working life. Now ask yourself this. Last time you considered a job offer, how much did you really know about it? Did you know how happy others in the organisation were with their own jobs, how family friendly it was even how safe it was compared with other firms?

It’s odd isnt it? If you want to know if youll like a movie or a book or even a washing machine, theres no shortage of independent information, particularly in these days of the net. But if you had to choose between working for say McDonalds and Burgher King, or KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers, youd be hard pressed finding much information on their performance in generating rewarding, satisfying jobs outside of their own promotional material, let alone independent reviews of such important issues.

We can do much better. We dont need to hire an army of government careers advisors or workplace inspectors. After all, were only trying to make an established and competitive market better informed. We could start by using important information thats already available. Good workplace safety usually goes with good management, high productivity and satisfied workers. So we should publish individual workplaces workers compensation premiums, benchmarked against industry and economy wide averages. They provide a ready proxy for workplace safety. We could do so on a central website and we could require firms to give their employees and prospective employees this information.

We can do much better still. We could require workplaces over a certain size to conduct periodic confidential employee surveys of workplace issues. Employees would be asked the questions that matter most to others wondering whether theyd like to work in their workplaces. Is the work satisfying? Is management flexible in accommodating out of work commitments, responsive in encouraging and acting on employee feedback? Does it provide effective career paths through the workforce? Are managers well chosen and competent?

Large and medium sized firms worth their salt do this anyway, so all we need to do is get them to agree on standardised formats and publish the results in a manner that facilitates ready comparisons. Right now employee surveys are offered to firms by a host of Human Resources firms and the service used to be provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics which is in a particularly strong position to reassure employees in the integrity and confidentiality of the process.

Compared with a lot of government intervention in the labour market and elsewhere, this would be cheap and light handed indeed. And facilitating good information flows in markets is one of the core functions of government.

Right now firms do try to keep their workers happy they want them to stay. But once the veil of ignorance was lifted, the rewards to the firms who best met the thirst for satisfying employment and the penalties for the worst performers would intensify dramatically. The high visibility of good performers would enable them to take the pick of the job seekers.

Those who want a balance in their lives between work and family commitments could say goodbye to their endless battle with hostile corporate cultures and join workplaces of like mind. Those of a more Darwinian bent could continue their struggle for survival at the Darwinian end of town.

And the management skills that produced the high work satisfaction ratings would likewise be on show for all to see. Who knows what miracles might happen? Managing people well might become as important within corporate Australia as financial control. In short we would have a vigorous and efficient market in job satisfaction like we have already for less important things in our lives, like the market for consumer goods.

And thats before we count another huge benefit. If job satisfaction came at the expense of productivity a few tea breaks here, a slower assembly line there then those decisions would have been made freely to purchase more job satisfaction, and so in general to the benefit of all involved in the choices made. Undoubtedly some would moderate wage demands for happier working lives.

But all the research suggests that for all but the most menial jobs (and many would argue even there) there are strong synergies between job satisfaction and productivity and the higher the skill level, the stronger the effect. Given this, improving the market for work satisfaction will boost productivity.

Its hard to think of a better example of a new approach to economic reform for which the community thirsts and politicians scramble economic efficiency and productivity improvements that also enhance human wellbeing. Prosperity with a purpose no less!

Any takers for the current election?

Published as Enriching market for work satisfaction will aid productivity, Sydney Morning Herald, September 29, 2004.

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