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Colborn’s Corner: Building staff satisfaction

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Quentin ColbornQuentin Colborn examines the topic of staff satisfaction and considers routes to building improvements that last.


‘Turning Europe Orange’ was not a political initiative designed to coincide with the debate on the Lisbon Treaty, but a project within EasyJet designed to create a European airline, rather than one that is seen as being solely UK-based. One of the outcomes of the project has been a significant increase in staff satisfaction from 69% in 2005 to 82% in 2007.

Traditional measures of staff satisfaction involve a survey process that should give a fair representation of how staff feel about their employer. However one problem is that people have amazingly fickle memories. What happens the day before a survey will probably have as big an influence as the six months beforehand.

“One of the biggest influences on staff satisfaction is not the employer itself, but the employee’s immediate manager.”

Also, one of the biggest influences on staff satisfaction is not the employer itself, but the employee’s immediate manager. Research suggests that up to 80% of leavers are actually leaving their manager, rather than the organisation. In a similar way, line managers have a huge influence on staff satisfaction – for good or bad.

But how do customers see staff satisfaction? It would be interesting to see some results of customer research that asked a question along the lines of ‘how happy do you think the person who served you is in their job?’

I came up with this idea having spent a number of years flying in the UK (before the days of EasyJet) where I felt that on both the airlines I travelled on the staff said and did the right things, but in one case it was simply an act – they didn’t mean it. If asked, I would have given clear feedback about my perception of how happy they were in their job.

Aligned with the business

EasyJet’s approach to improving staff satisfaction flowed from the strategic, and doubtless customer-related, desire to be identified more as local, rather than pan-European, airline. The fact that this led to an increase in staff satisfaction may well be linked to the fact that staff felt more aligned with the business, not seeing it as UK led. Perhaps this tells us something about the perception of decision making and the supposition that people like to feel they are not being managed by a far-off group.

In my work on staff satisfaction, some of the main drivers of satisfaction have been how people feel treated by their manager and how much they feel listened to – by both their manager and the organisation.

“If you want to increase satisfaction having measured it once, a relatively sure-fire way of doing so is to make sure that comments from staff are taken on board.”

Indeed if you want to increase satisfaction having measured it once, a relatively sure-fire way of doing so is to make sure that comments from staff are taken on board. But the curious thing is that action on feedback does not necessarily have to be taken for satisfaction to be enhanced.

An example of this came a few years ago, when I was involved in conducting a survey, and one of the issues that came to the fore was why a particular site didn’t have any canteen facilities. The reason was pretty clear – it was not big enough for a canteen to be viable.

However, the enlightened approach taken enabled a small group of staff being given the authority to investigate the matter and what they found was that a canteen just wouldn’t be viable. Yet the key thing was that staff had seen this for themselves and while they didn’t like the outcome, they could understand it. Result – their satisfaction actually increased event though they didn’t get their canteen.

So what steps can organisations take to improve satisfaction? There isn’t a simple formulaic approach, but I would suggest the following steps are worth exploring:

  • Set up clear mechanisms to let staff know what’s going on in the organisation

  • Establish routes by which staff can give feedback on issues that are important to them

  • Be prepared to explain the rationale for decisions – when staff understand what’s happening they are much more likely to buy into things

  • Carry through what you say – if you promise things, deliver them. If for some reason you can’t carry out a commitment, take the initiative and explain why rather than being on the back foot.

I acknowledge these ideas are not rocket science, however by getting some of these basics right, sound improvements in staff satisfaction should be achievable.

What are your top tips for improving staff satisfaction? Does staff satisfaction matter? What do you think the link is between staff and customer satisfaction? Have you ever had to make a business case for actions to improve staff satisfaction?


Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who works with organisations on strategic and operational HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected]

One Response

  1. David Macleod’s book is worth a read
    David Macleod’s book – “The Extra Mile” is worth reading to explore this topic further. It has both a readable summary of the academic history, and some good tips on “what to do to-morrow” to improve. (It’s a shame that the originators of this stuff back in the 80’s, Rank Xerox in the States, didn’t continue with their work over time. We’d have some great data from that if they had done. I wonder if Centrica/British Gas did the measurement, over time, of their engineer’s satisfaction and unit profitability. Does anyone know?) If you take the “service-profit chain” theory to be valid, then David’s concept of a “reservoir of goodwill” is a good one. What are you doing as a management team to cause the reservoir to lose goodwill, and what are you doing to top it up?

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