HR Pros – Top Ten Things Employees Want from Work

A few years ago I researched what employees really want.  It was preparation for a workplace branding article.  If you don’t have the time or resources to survey your own employees you can use general list to guide company employee relations activities.  If  you are considering a culture improvement project you will want to survey employees for their specific values and thoughts.

Top Ten Things Employees Want

While not every employee working today wants the following things, the list describes what fairly engaged employees are looking for at work.  What poor-performing employees want would be a different list.  Owners should pay attention to what top performers want as this is the group for which you want your workplace to be the most hospitable.

Employees are looking for the following, general characteristics in a workplace:

1. Interesting work content

Employees should know their own job responsibilities but you can also add annual goals that will change a bit each year.  Consider adding an “annual goals” accountability to all job descriptions. Can you make what they do every day more interesting? Ideas might include Lunch & Learn sessions on new developments in materials and building methods; guest speakers from your large suppliers with expertise that might be of use to your group, etc.

2. Advancement opportunities

Advancement doesn’t have to be jumping up to the next level of management.  It can be a “lead” position responsible for helping to orient new staff or might have one or two new trainees reporting to them.  It could also mean learning a new area through cross-training. Finally, It’s important to pay attention to guiding current employees who have the skills and capacity for the next level of management so that they are ready when opportunities arise.

3. Fair compensation

This means fair, not lavish and not a pittance. Employees in large companies are likely to understand how the company sets their employee compensation standard (market average, above average, etc.).  But for small and medium-size companies employees just want to know that they are paid a fair wage.  This generally means that higher performers are paid more than marginal performers and similar employees in the same job are paid similar salaries. It also means that more complex and difficult positions are paid more than simpler ones. Internal equity is important and nothing rattles employees than the idea that the company is hiring people in at higher rates than long service employees. If employees are working without a salary increase for two years but senior management gets raises or are wasting company money, employees will quickly take notice.

4. Opportunities for enriched assignments

This can seem difficult in lean staffing times but cross-training; mentoring; and opportunities to work on company-wide improvement projects can offer employees opportunities to learn new things, meet new co-workers and overall feel like they are growing.  Good employees want the company to succeed and will pitch in when needed.  Just make sure you are watching the duration of additional assignments and that individual workloads don’t stay too high for too long. Check in with employees to make sure the enrichment activities you offer are seen as enriched by employees who participate in them.

5. Strong leadership

If you are a leader who worries whether unpopular decisions make the company less appealing to strong performing employees, the answer is no.  Employees understand that if you try to please individual employees the quality of poor decisions is limited only by the stupid things their co-workers ask for.  Smart employees understand that their wants and wishes must be limited in favor of long-term company survival. Employees actually like it better when your articulate a set of quality and decision-making principles and then stick to them.  The best thing to counter an unpopular decision is to explain the process and factors that went into the decision and how it supports sustained company success.

6. Opportunities to be heard by management

Employees want occasional access to upper management and attention to their concerns.  This doesn’t mean the owner has to go to lunch with employees every day.  It means that when an employee offers a great suggestion the owner should stop by, make eye contact and say how much their contribution was both important and appreciated. There are 1000 different ideas of how to do this.  If you want ideas – Google “employee recognition and reward.” It also means when you see that signs that someone is unhappy, make the time to hear them out. Middle managers worry about asking because they feel they have to do something to solve the issue seen by the employee as “the problem.” Employees mostly want to be heard, even if you explain that it may take time to solve that issue or if you explain that the issue is challenging and without an easy fix but then engage them in a discussion of what pieces might be fixed or improved. If you do something to improve things based upon an employee’s feedback, give them public recognition.

7. High, consistent work standards

The better the employee (attitude and performance) the more they appreciate high performance standards.  Every employee should have a copy of his/her current job description that lists the jobs accountability and end results expected for that position. In addition, supervisors should discuss progress throughout the year not just at annual performance reviews. Put your money where your mouth is – employees want to know that if one of their peers isn’t maintaining the standards, you will do something. Over time you can cultivate the idea that those who meet the standard do well and those who do not may leave eventually or will stay at their level and not advance.

8. An employer with integrity & purpose

When a negative story is made public or if a company’s practices are thought of as callous toward employees or the community, employees take notice.  In general, employees want to work for an employer who places emphasis on honesty and integrity.  High potential employees look for companies who make social responsibility a priority. Standards are changing for company purpose which includes community and societal benefit verses exploiting employees for profit or shareholders. It’s not enough to have written values or standards, the company must use these values in support of employee wellbeing; moving away from insensitive practices and emphasizing those which further employee wellbeing; encouraging employees who personify the values and counseling those who do not. When employees see the company operating with honesty and purpose, they will brag about it. When they see their employer doing sleazy things, they tell their family and friends about that as well.

9. An employer known for quality service/products

Here we are talking about quality again.  This time, the issue is product and service quality and customer/client satisfaction. Good employees take great pride in working for a company that pays attention to the quality of what they offer or produce. Engaged customers fit nicely with engaged employees. In fact, studies have shown that employees treat customers the way you treat them.  Have front-line employees participate in setting quality standards and make sure they understand exactly how you define “quality.” Quality doesn’t have to be perfect but you should be measuring it and working to get the trend going in the right direction — up!

10. Freedom to make decisions affecting their work unit

Employees like to have a small piece of the company’s activities as their own, where they can make decisions and affect positive results.  This doesn’t mean you have to push company decision-making to the lowest point possible but it does mean to be mindful of this in job design.  If you can articulate company goals AND provide information about how company values might guide decision-making then let employees make decisions and take sensible risks.  When they foul up, don’t shame and blame but explain where their process went wrong and send them out to try again, encouraged by your great supervisory intervention!


(c) Copyright 2016 Benoit Consulting, LLC  – Updated February 2019

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