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The office grump, who gripes about wages, could be doing his employers a favor

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The office grump may be doing the whole company a favor.

When disgruntled employees have a chance to gripe about pay and conditions, they skip work and leave for other jobs at lower rates, according to new research. As garment workers absorbed news that a minimum wage increase was less than expected, the study — distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research — found the quit rate was 20% lower for employees who participated in a randomly-assigned worker satisfaction survey.

‘The act of communicating dissatisfaction regarding the employment relationship is in itself valuable, at least in the short term.’

—‘Expectations, Wage Hikes, and Worker Voice: Evidence from a field experiment’

“The act of communicating dissatisfaction regarding the employment relationship is in itself valuable, at least in the short term,” wrote researchers from the University of Michigan, Boston College and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Survey participants also showed up for work more often, they noted.

The research focused on a 2016 minimum-wage increase by the government. The wage increase was about three times smaller than what workers anticipated. After the increase, researchers surveyed a test group about their satisfaction with their job, their bosses and their work environment.

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On a five-point scale, workers gave less than a 3 to wage satisfaction, but gave around a 4 to workplace conditions. The quit rates were noticeably lower for the workers who were most disappointed in the low wage hike, according to the study distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

While many aggrieved workers are advocating for fair treatment, there can be some contexts where constant complaining about small, day to day issues can just be a drag.

In the U.S. where employees arguably have more choices in a strong economy, managers might do well to read the study. There have been several protests and strikes this month — even as strikes have become increasingly infrequent in past years.

Last week, hundreds of McDonald’s MCD, -0.56%  workers walked off the job during breakfast and morning hours at chains in more than 10 cities to push for a $15 hour minimum wage and improved work conditions.

A McDonald’s spokeswoman told MarketWatch average pay at corporate-owned restaurants starts at $10 and wages at franchisee-owned restaurants is “likely similar. Separately, McDonald’s recognizes the rights under the law of individual employees to choose to join — or choose not to join — labor organizations.”

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Earlier this month, Uber UBER, -1.35%  and Lyft LYFT, -0.37% drivers — considered independent contractors by the company — went on strike to protest worker conditions and pay. The strike, which lasted between several hours and a day depending on location, happened days ahead of Uber’s IPO. Both companies told MarketWatch they treat their drivers fairly and listen to their concerns.

Unemployment rates are at the lowest point in the U.S. since 1969, so American workers might feel like they have options that don’t include sticking around.

But the latest study might have its limits when applied to the U.S. labor force. Many U.S. companies already have their workers fill out anonymous surveys on satisfaction. Likewise, not all worker complaints are the same. While many aggrieved workers are advocating for fair treatment, there can be some contexts where constant complaining about small, day to day issues can just be a drag.

Finally, merely relying on surveys to hear out workers might not be the best management strategy right now. Unemployment rates are at the lowest point since 1969, so workers might feel like they have options that don’t include sticking around.

Robert Sutton, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, said the latest findings fit with other research that’s long established the benefits when company management hears out workers and treats workers well.

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A 1990 study compared theft rates at two plants going through pay cuts — one with a brief explanation of the pay cut and the other with a detailed explanation. There were higher employee theft rates among employees who received a detailed explanation.

Sutton said treating workers with genuine respect went a long way. And even if worker respect wasn’t a management priority for some companies, this tight job market might force them to fake it all the same. “The harder it is to hire the people you want,” the more companies and leaders will show they care — “even if they don’t,” he said.

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