Ask SCORE: How do I improve employee satisfaction in a bad economy?

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 28, 2012 

Question: My business seems a little dark lately. The crummy economy and lack of growth have us all in the dumps. What can I do to get our mojo back?

Answer: You're right to be concerned. Workplace malaise is widespread, and it's a serious problem. There are ways to get back on track. Basically, everybody needs to lighten up a little bit. Let's talk about this.

First off, we need to be clear about the problem. A grim workplace is not much fun, and also not very productive. Employees are unmotivated. Absenteeism may be higher than it should. Employees are unhappy and will leave if they get a better opportunity.

What's worse, your customers and clients can sense this. You need to fix this right away. And it won't be solved by bringing in a rental clown for an afternoon or having a one-day employee retreat at a local resort.

In contrast, businesses with high employee satisfaction enjoy higher productivity, less absenteeism and better customer retention. They also are more creative - an important ability in the competitive business world.

Let's look at how one company, Southwest Airlines, does this nearly perfectly. Southwest is America's largest domestic airline. Last year was its 40th anniversary, and it's been profitable every year after the first - in an industry that has been battered by intense competition, had numerous airline failures, went through contentious federal deregulation in 1978 and took a hit after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Through all of that, Southwest has never laid off an employee.

It's appropriate for small businesses to draw some lessons from Southwest. Even though they're huge now (sales last year, $16 billion), they think of themselves as "a big, small business." And of course, they started small, with an idea from two guys in San Antonio. Very unlike most American corporations, there are only four layers of management between a front-line supervisor and the CEO.

A major factor in Southwest's success is its corporate culture. Employees are encouraged to think outside the box. Their flight attendants sing and tell jokes when making announcements. Their CEO once settled a minor lawsuit using a hilarious public arm-wrestling contest (he won).

The human resource function at Southwest is called the People Department. Recruiting is heavily based on finding employees who can think on their feet. They recruit people who enjoy and are comfortable with fun and interaction, like teachers, actors and salespeople.

Here are some examples of questions from their job interview:

- One time my sense of humor helped me out was ...

- My personal motto is ...

- An example of my top performance is ...

They hire based on personality, energy, humor, team spirit and attitude. The less important concern is with direct experience and job skills, because they know those are all things that a smart person can readily learn.

The key issue: Is the job candidate a good fit with the company's wacky culture? When they're hiring, it's common for Southwest to get hundreds of applications for each job announcement. Clearly, they can be pretty picky.

The company continuously tries out new business strategies that other airlines won't, or maybe haven't thought of. For example, Southwest pioneered "ticketless travel" and the idea of not assigning seats.

As other airlines imposed fees for checked baggage, Southwest ran an advertising campaign of "We love your bags." That was based on feedback from employees who heard many comments from passengers who hated paying to check bags on other airlines.

The ad pointed out that each passenger can check two bags for free. It had a second major impact. Remember that Southwest is a "Lean business principles" company. They continuously work to reduce waste and inefficiency. One of their tenets is: "The plane doesn't make any money sitting on the ground." The other airlines have to deal with passengers trying to drag in enormous carry-on bags. Meanwhile, the Southwest plane loads quickly and is back in the air.

Workplace humor has some ground rules.

- If it makes fun of anyone, make sure it's you.

- Avoid political commentary unless it's clearly light satire.

- Stay away from the absolute workplace taboos, like race and gender.

- Keep it current. Old funny isn't funny.

If you need a starter, there are websites that are good sources of appropriate business jokes. Try funniestcleanjokes.com, jokesplace.com and ajokeaday.com.

Also check out these two helpful books: "The Levity Effect: Why it Pays to Lighten Up" and "301 Ways to Have Fun at Work."

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald's Sunday Business section by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE. Submit questions for this column to Business Editor Dave Gallagher at dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. To learn more about other small-business matters, contact the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization, visit SCORE.org.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service