Producer question: How can I ensure that my employees are satisfied and willing to stay?

Fogleman’s response: Managers use many measures to gauge business performance. Employee satisfaction, however, is one item that can have a huge impact on the bottom line but is rarely studied.

Researchers at Cornell University began to examine this topic in1998. Although their results represent dairies, you can apply the findings to pork production.

Personal interviews of owners and employees resulted in compensation data and satisfaction information for 292 full-time, non-owner employees.

First off, to ask an employee if he or she is satisfied is not necessarily the best course to take. It can be better examined through four core dimensions: feedback, autonomy, variety and task identity.

So, let’s look at the research. The average total satisfaction for the 292 employees surveyed was 1.79 on a four-point scale, where one is very strong and four is very weak. The overall satisfaction score, however, does not tell the entire story.

Feedback
Perhaps the most interesting finding from the Cornell research was that feedback was the core dimension in which employees were least satisfied – it scored 1.92.

When researchers asked employers what they are good at, the frequent response was: “I give great feedback.” But asked where the employer could improve, employees said: “I wish I could get some feedback.”

Were managers giving employees regular and constructive feedback? Probably. Was it enough? No. Will it ever be enough? Probably not.

It is human nature to crave feedback. And it is the only dimension over which employers have total control. Data shows that feedback satisfaction is not associated with wages or other factors but rather with the amount and quality of communication an employee has with the farm owners or managers.

If you wish to improve employee satisfaction, start by improving feedback provided through formal and informal evaluations. Also provide access to performance statistics like weaning weights or mortality.

Feedback is probably the area most in need of improvement and the easiest to impact.

Variety
With an overall score of 1.88, variety satisfaction was close behind feedback. But variety can be more difficult to improve because it is a function of doing different things as well as using different skills. So merely asking an employee to work a different shift or operate a different piece of equipment may not improve variety satisfaction.

It’s also closely linked with challenge. It is possible that employees lacking variety are not dissatisfied with the number or type of tasks, but rather they are not challenged by these tasks.

Often you can use team-based work to alleviate many management problems and improve variety satisfaction. By training employees to perform a variety of tasks and functions, you will have more scheduling flexibility and provide a more challenging workplace.

Autonomy
Autonomy, or a sense of ownership in one’s job, scored 1.81. It is closely related to culture and management style. Employees who understand their performance objectives and operate independently to achieve those goals are likely to have high autonomy satisfaction.

Certainly, businesses have standard operating procedures for a reason. However, in cases where employees are given some flexibility in how and when tasks are done both the employee and business benefit. The employee will enjoy a higher sense of autonomy satisfaction and the business may profit from an employee using his or her experience or skills to develop a new and better way of doing things.

Task Identity
The surveyed employees were most satisfied with task identity. They could easily see the relevance of their work and ow they play a role in the business’ success or failure. Task Identity responses were not only the most positive (scoring 1.52), but they also had the smallest standard deviation. That tells us the perception was consistent across the employees surveyed. Managers can improve task identity satisfaction by ensuring that each employee understands where he or she fits into the business structure.

So, the take-home point is that employee satisfaction is not as abstract as you might think. By studying your employees’ perception of variety, autonomy, task identity and feedback, you can work to improve their satisfaction levels. Consider these four dimensions when establishing performance objectives, writing job descriptions and making job assignments.

Satisfied employees can be an actual, obtainable, measurable business goal.

Sarah Fogleman is a Kansas State University economist in Chanute, Kan.