Here at Amazing Workplace, we live and breathe employee feelings. Feelings are the emotional reaction that employees experience in connection with their workplace and their job. Our surveys measure, among other things, the feelings that employees have about going to work for their employer. Employee feelings are driven by their expectations about their jobs when compared to reality. If their expectations compare well to reality, they’ll react with positive feelings. If their expectations compare poorly to reality, they’ll react with negative feelings.
One Cambridge study looked at this expectation and reality equation as a sort of psychological contract, where employees see themselves as exchanging their time, talent, and efforts for an expected return of pay, experiences, and treatment. If the expectation does not meet reality, the contract has been broken and the employee will react with negative feelings.
Put simply though, employees have a good (happy) feeling when a workplace experience meets their expectations, and they have a bad (unhappy) feeling when a workplace experience falls short of their expectations.
Employees have expectations about the different aspects of their workplace experience. These include:
- Support and Resources
- Career Development
- Work-Life Balance
- Coworkers and Leaders (Cambridge calls this "Interpersonal Treatment")
Employees expectations can come from multiple places, and this is where the employer has some control over the psychological contract. An employer can communicate expectations, through written policy, personal communication, and detailed explanations in group meetings. As we'll explain, this is by far the best way. If employers do not take care to set expectations, employees will instead piece them together from other sources such as coworker conversations, social media content, political views, past behavior of the employer, or even whole-cloth based on what the employee judges as right or fair in their own estimation. In other words, the employer can help create the psychological contract by setting reasonable expectations. Or, the employer fails to set expectations and then the psychological contract is created entirely by the employee.
For example, employees have expectations about how much they should be paid. They may set this expectation based on a loose understanding of what others at the company are paid, what others in similar jobs appear to be paid, and what they read online about what their peers think they should be paid. Or instead, they may set this expectation based on thorough communication from their company explaining how pay is determined, exactly what people in similar roles are paid, and how the company views employees contributions. In this example, an employer that fails to communicate how pay is determined risks an employee having an unjustified negative feeling about their pay. The employee may create a psychological contract based on an unreasonable expectation of what they should make. In the employees mind, their negative feeling toward the company is entirely justified because the company has broken the contract – in this case a contract the employer had no control over. Or, the employer can take control over their side of the contract by communicating how pay is determined.
Companies need to set expectations for each area where where employee feelings are important. They can do this by providing clear communication in each area. Let's apply at at a high level to the list of workplace areas from before and create some examples of setting expectations through communication:
- Explain how pay is determined.
- Report how other companies pay similar roles.
- Say how the company values employee contributions.
- Acknowledge separately each employee's value in creating work products and value as an individual.
- Explain how benefits are determined,.
- Detail how benefits were selected to best fit employees needs.
- Quantify the value (in money) that is connected to the benefits.
- Describe the benefits that other companies give to similar roles.
- Support and Resources:
- Explain how support and resources apply to particular roles and types of work.
- Say how employees can access support and benefits.
- Discuss the value of the resources.
- Give employees an avenue to ask for what they need and promote it so they can feel safe about asking when they need something.
- Career Development:
- Explain what the job roles in the company are.
- Detail the exact things an employee can accomplish to achieve new roles or start new types of work.
- Distinguish production-type jobs from management jobs.
- Provide separate paths for employees that want to either stay in production-type jobs or to change to management jobs.
- Work-Life Balance:
- Explain how production goals and objectives are set.
- Set a tone that makes it safe for employees to be open about when they are working and when they are not--remove shame from the equation.
- Tell employees how to ask for help or time off.
- Detail how the company assists employees to juggle competing demands of work and personal life.
- Coworkers and Leaders:
- Explain the culture the company envisions.
- Remove biased language from conversations about culture.
- Make discussions about employee relations about behavior--not identity.
These communications should come in multiple forms and should be repeated. They should be written, provided in group settings, and explained in one-on-one meetings with leaders. This helps to be sure that expectations are clear.
Back to Feelings, with Action
With clear expectations, employees can see for each critical area how their (now clear) expectations meet the reality they experience at work. This allows the employer to control their side of the psychological contract by setting the expectations that employees have. The employer should then be accountable when the expectations do not match the workplace experience. Accountability means that the company will acknowledge when something has not met the agreed and expected experience. Importantly, this means the company will swiftly take action to restore the experience to meet expectations when it falls short. For example, if the company previously stated that it provides equipment needed for a comfortable, healthy experience working at a desk, and employees point out that currently-assigned desk chairs do not have enough height adjustment and lumbar support, then the company should act to replace the chairs and communicate to employees when and how they will get new chairs.
With employees consistently experiencing the workplace they expect, they feel they are engaged in a fair and positive exchange of their time, talents, and effort. This is how expectations, communication, and action translate to good feelings about the workplace.