Employee Morale Killers & How to Cure Them
We have likely all had jobs where morale plummeted at times. At the hotel where I worked as a teen, we called them “Friday”—the day when the owner would come in after a bad game of golf and throw chairs across the room, and when the banquet director instructed us to lie to his pistol-packing wife (who also worked with us) as he “met” with the housekeepers in one of the rooms. Most of the time, though, low morale has more subtle causes.
First of all, any environment without honesty cannot maintain high morale. Managers who say different things to different employees, who say different things to superiors than to reports, or who manipulate or omit facts instead of dealing openly and honestly with a conflict instill a basic distrust in employees. When people start talking to superiors or other employees, they will discover the discrepancies and assume that everything else is possibly a lie. Unfortunately, no quick fix exists for an honesty problem. If it stems from a misunderstanding, quick communication to clear up the misperception can control the damage. If, however, a manager relies on manipulation of the facts, morale will always be tenuous.
Second, gossip and rumors in the workplace (or anywhere, actually) are poison. Managers who stand back and let others gossip, or worse, who laugh and participate, destroy morale and put the organization at risk. At worst, the gossip is untrue and damaging—the basis for an open-and-shut lawsuit involving numbers with commas. Gossip and rumors can destroy careers, marriages, and lives and goes hand-in-hand with bullying in the workplace. Too often, we compound the problem by laying responsibility on the person being bullied in our rush to maintain a superficial happiness and peace. Besides leaving the organization open to charges of a hostile work environment, this approach seldom works. People who gossip will find a new target—it’s how they live. True experts at manipulation will disguise gossip as concern for the person, concern for employee morale, or even a safety issue. Spreading gossip should be as unacceptable in the workplace as carrying a knife into work. Gossiping is a performance issue, not a personality quirk, a way to bond, or an acceptable expression of insecurity. To squelch gossiping, never reward the gossiper by punishing the victim, never allow gossiping in your presence, and address it in writing as a performance problem, making it clear that continued issues will result in separation of employment.
Sometimes morale problems wear name badges. These unhappy people have morale problems everywhere—at home, at school, in the car, at the beach, at the bar, and at work. Although they often seem shocked that they have low morale about work and blame management and other employees, they clearly have never had good morale and might need some sort of emergency therapy if they accidentally enjoyed a job. Somehow these morale problems are closely linked to a lack of self-awareness, so they repeatedly blame others, bad luck, and favoritism. Negative people with an aggressive personality or emotional outbursts sometimes get mistaken for leaders and get promoted, where they can take down the entire team when the newness bliss wears off and the negativity re-emerges. Not hiring these people would be the best approach—if they gripe about their previous manager during an interview they will probably hate you, too. If, however, you are already stuck with one or more morale dragger, addressing their actions (negative things they say, acts of passive-aggression, or undermining others) through the performance improvement process will usually result in them moving on to make other people miserable for a while.
Moving on to a more complex problem, poor listening hurts morale, especially when we inadvertently discourage employees from communicating with us. We all like people who listen, and the manager should offer a safe ear. If an employee comes to us with work-related concerns, we should listen and not punish the employee for giving constructive feedback, for voicing a complaint through the proper channel, or for pointing out problems to management. Morale does not improve because people are afraid to point out a real problem; it just plummets more quietly. To create a safe communication environment, we need to follow through on the open-door policy that most workplaces claim to have. When someone comes in to discuss concerns (not gossip), listen closely and un-defensively, and affirm the employee for bringing concerns to the correct person rather than complaining to others or gossiping.
Finally, a lack of support creates insecurity and low morale. We have probably all been thrown under the bus by a fellow employee or a manager. I complained about a rude restaurant employee last week. “Yeah… sorry he’s a jerk.” Besides the lack of privacy for the poor jerk, all the other employees now know exactly how much they will be supported during a customer issue. Although I may look trustworthy and rational (I was wearing my sensible librarian shoes), I could have been a nut just trying to score a free beignet. I had no witnesses and he had not given his side, yet the manager took everything I said and hanged him. Managers should keep in mind that even rude employees deserve privacy, and that sometimes customers lie. Similarly, managers need to consistently support employees in front of other employees, superiors, and reports. Supporting an idea in private and then being struck mute when the idea is challenged creates an unsupportive and emotionally unsafe environment. Part of a manager’s job is sometimes to defend and always to support ideas that improve the organization, no matter how initially unpopular.
In conclusion, honesty, intolerance for gossip, freedom from negative people, good listening, and consistent support will help boost employee morale. With a reduced number of employees taking care of more and more patrons and technology, none of us can afford to ignore the controllable parts of employee morale.
Ann Clapp is Manager of Collection Development Programs, Ingram Content Group .firstname.lastname@example.org