Contributed Column

Personnel Points

by Dave Mount, Westaff

How do we make them happy?

A friend of mine is the executive director of an iconic Vermont performing arts center. We talk often about human resource issues and I asked him what he would like to see in my articles. He did not hesitate a minute when he said, “How do we make our employees happy?” Later that day, he sent me a quote from John Lennon, the gist of which is if we try to make everyone happy, nobody will be happy. It sounded a bit like the Beatles song “Stuck in the Middle.”

I visited a Burlington area bagel shop on a recent Sunday morning with my wife. We sat and had a bagel and she pointed out that there were about eight employees and every one of them was smiling. It was a happy place to work. They might have been thinking about someplace they’d rather be but they were baking bagels and making sandwiches and were smiling all the while.

Clearly, the owner of the bagel shop (who was in the middle of things, baking) had found the key to succeeding in this area, and he was smiling, too.

One way to find out what our employees want is to ask them. Their answers may not fit into your business model, and therefore may not be possible, but listening carefully to employees might bring out some things that are actually possible with some modifications. If their suggestions do not fit into your business, take a minute and explain why they do not fit so your employees know that you have not ignored their request.

Another way to find out what employees want is to put yourself in their shoes. Age differences and other circumstances may make this a bit awkward, but generally speaking, what is good for some employees may be good for a whole group of employees.

The age difference between managers and employees can be a key problem. Each generation of Americans generally has its own needs and desires. What my generation wants from work is vastly different from what my own kids want. So I would say to my friend that he may be in a very serious conundrum. What makes a 50-year-old happy in work may be really disliked by a 25-year-old.

So: How do we solve the problem?

• Everyone wants respect. No matter the generation, if we treat our employees with respect, they will do the same in return.

• Show your appreciation. Say thank you to your employees a lot.

• Employees want benefits, but this is really where the rubber hits the road on this topic. Different generations have different needs or wants regarding benefits. The result of the sign-ups for the Affordable Care Act insurance has shown that younger people do not care if they have health insurance (if they have to pay a high price for it).

• Finally, there is fair pay. This is another minefield in 2014. There are strikes in some cities where people are looking for $15 an hour. Others want a “livable wage,” but that is a moving target at best. I agree that everyone who works should be able to live on the wages they earn. People who work hard should be able to live in comfort on what they earn, but the amount is undefined and nebulous.

Some of this area has come to the fore with the last session of the Vermont Legislature. The Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill on flexible hours. Employees have a right to request flexible hours, including working from home. An employer may not retaliate against an employee who makes such a request. The employer can still say no but the employee can make the request twice a year without fear of reprisals. •

Dave Mount is the founder of Westaff in Burlington.

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