Chickens coming home to roost - when HR decisions impact morale

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer July 28, 2023
Things change and so do workforces. But the current wave of workforce surveys may be noting some ‘surprising’ results that top executives either didn’t expect or don’t want to see. Why is this happening and what must change?


Businesses might want to reconsider any plans they currently have re: surveying employees. I just finished a call with a Finance executive at a major technology firm. She shared a number of observations from their recent annual employee survey and the results, which were a ‘surprise’ to top leadership, were actually quite predictable given some recent management decisions. 


That particular firm had implemented a number of actions on the left side of the graphic above. According to the executive I spoke with, the return to office mandate is likely the principal trigger for some dramatically lower engagement scores in their recent study.  And, even though the executive I spoke with cautioned the leadership team against the return to office mandate as it would create morale and retention issues, they went forward with it. Now, their scores (on a five point scale) are down approximately two points across several dimensions.  


Any time that executives commission one of these studies they run the risk of getting surprised. But, the reason for the surprises is two-fold:

  • Executives have done (or failed to do) something to employees without realizing the blowback it might create. This is due to a lack of empathy, an imperious attitude towards workers and/or a ‘just don’t care’ attitude on the part of management. 
  • Executives never checked to see if the action they took has triggered an adverse reaction from employees. This is either hubris or a form of executive tone-deafness. These executives might have had a clue that there was trouble afoot if only they spent time with their subordinates and actually talked with (not to) them. (See this article)

Before any firm undertakes one of those annual state of the workforce surveys where responses are supposed to be confidential (note: this is one of the biggest lies that management tells and one that virtually all employees are hip to), they need to review the graphics above. The first graphic categorizes common morale killing, culture deadening and recruiting brand destruction decisions management can make. The second graphic provides an insight into how employees will feel about specific management dictates. So, if your leadership did any of those “when this happens” activities, they definitely should expect people to react negatively. Folks, this is basic psychology and change management. 

Why is this important now?

For many firms, the current wave of employee surveys are the first to occur since the pandemic ended and return to office (RTO) mandates have been issued. The timing is also interesting as the war for talent has gotten worse and people are more willing to change employers than ever before. Tone-deaf leaders won’t just get survey surprises, they’re going to see a flood of people bolting for the doors and no one rushing in to take their places. 

The willingness of people to leave their employer today is, in a word, epic.

 In 2021, PWC reported:

Nearly two-thirds of workers are on the hunt for a new job—and they’re getting them. Nearly nine out of 10 company executives say they are seeing higher-than-normal turnover at the organizations, according to a new survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers.”

In 2022, CareerBuilder noted:

CareerBuilder, a global talent acquisition leader and job marketplace, shared findings from their latest survey revealing the profile of a job search and how many Americans are seeking new or different work right now. The data shows a desire for a career shift among job seekers including seven in 10 employed adults who are currently engaged in a job search, either actively or passively. Of those in search of a new role, one in five are active job seekers and 26% are not fully committed but occasionally browse open roles. Separately, 26% of employed adults are not actively seeking a role but are open should a recruiter approach them and 30% are content with their role and not looking in any capacity.

The survey also revealed specific career traits that employed job seekers are looking for:

  • 62% are seeking a higher salary
  • 51% want a flexible schedule
  • 46% are looking for better benefits
  • 40% would like the ability to work remotely”

And, now in 2023, job board states:

A whopping 96% of workers are looking for a new position in 2023, largely in search of better pay, according to a recent report by jobs site This is phenomenally high,” even compared with the numbers at the height of the “Great Resignation,” said Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster.

Nearly half, or 40%, of job seekers said they need a higher income due to inflation and rising expenses, Monster found. Others said they have no room to grow in their current role or that they are in a toxic workplace.

Employees/jobseekers want a better employer and boss

As sobering as the above is, there’s more to ponder. It seems that employees and jobseekers want to see a more ESG focused employer. 

Esker commissioned a study earlier this year and reported:

The survey reveals that employee expectations for sustainability in the workplace are heightening — and suggests that those companies that don’t deliver on these expectations may undermine their ability to recruit talent, attract investment, or win business as a vendor, partner or supplier.

That same report also had these two critical paragraphs:

Workers are increasingly considering sustainability when deciding which jobs to apply for and which employers to work for. Among all respondents, 58% said they planned to factor a company’s commitment to sustainability in their choice of employers in the future — up from 44% who considered their employer’s sustainability practices before taking their current job. 

This percentage shot up to 71% for workers under 35, including 81% of women under 35. When asked, “What values would you look for in your next employer?” more workers under 35 cited sustainability than other values, such as ethical business practices (67%), social responsibility and community involvement (66%), and diversity, equity and inclusion (64%).

That study by Esker, which was professionally conducted and prepared, is something CHROs, supply chain leaders, recruiters and other top executives should read as it highlights some important demographics and psychographics of different jobseeker groups. Those insights might well change your firm’s messaging regarding its employment and recruiting brands (among other things).  (Here’s a great backgrounder on workflow automation tech firm Esker.)

The Esker study was a surprise to me in that I had not realized how important ESG issues were to jobseekers and employees. While researching a new book I’ve developed for executives regarding ESG, I’ve seen other corroboration that indicates that more people care about these matters than previously thought. And, it looks like this ESG concern is definitely something that impacts younger workers more than older executives.

This would indicate that some executives who don’t see the importance of ESG actions and how that affects recruiting could be erroneously assuming facts about other groups of jobseekers that aren’t true. This is unintentional bias but it reminds us that overlaying our own feelings or beliefs onto others can produce incorrect or adverse results. This is why business leaders have to do their own primary research: get out in traffic and talk to large numbers of diverse workers on a continuous basis to see what matters to them today. Old perceptions will not remain eternally valid. 

My take

There’s no need to wait for an annual employee survey to find out that jobseekers and employees have changed and want a different relationship with their employer. If you are still operating from an old management playbook, prepare to get burned. 

Recruiting and employment brands are fluid. Whatever your firm did before may no longer be relevant or acceptable. Managing a brand requires continuous checking in with employees and jobseekers. And, before making a change unilaterally (e.g., mandating a return to office), smart employers poll workers BEFORE the change to assess the workers’ sentiments. 

If an annual survey is the first time an executive hears/discovers that their workforce isn’t loving things at the company, then this executive is doing a terrible job. Great executives are always conversing with employees. They listen to (not preach at) these team members at lunches and other formal and informal settings dozens of times each month.

A great executive has an open-door policy and, whenever possible, asks team members for feedback in group meetings and numerous one-on-one encounters, too. This activity helps inform an executive as to what can be done to keep people with the company years longer than they otherwise would have stayed. Believe it or not, that is the number one job of a leader: put in place the things that trigger industry-leading retention (but over-the-top compensation is not one of those things). 

I once learned a valuable lesson about being accessible when I was doing a quality assurance review of a software implementation in France. I had only been at the client site about three hours when one of the local managers came to me and said some of the staff were not pleased with me. I was stunned and asked how can this be. I was informed that because I didn’t drink coffee, then they couldn’t interact with me at the cappuccino machine in the break room. And, because I don’t smoke, they couldn’t catch me outside for a cigarette. My response: I walked to the kiosk down the street, bought a sack full of ice cream novelty treats and invited folks outside to have one with me. I’ve done this with Dairy Queen Dilly Bars, too! 

Other executives, not just the CHRO, need to check your firm’s Glassdoor and other rankings on a frequent basis. If the scores are changing, and they will, you need to do some homework to find out why and the earlier you get in front of this, the better. Waiting a year or more to find out that there’s discontent smoldering away is way too late and damages morale even more.

Surprises are great for birthdays but not for engagement scores. Let me know how surprised your firm is/was with its latest scores….


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