Worker Empowerment Is Important for Job Quality. It’s Also Good for Business.
By Ryan Galvin Wise
For decades, governments have focused mostly on the quantity of jobs created — not the quality or equity of those jobs. But today, there is a growing movement of government leaders taking steps to help lift wages, improve benefits and working conditions, provide stable schedules, and ensure that workers have a voice, dignity and purpose.
This blog is one of a series highlighting five levers Results for America has identified that state and local government leaders can use to advance job quality and equity. The five levers are: policy, empowerment, HR practices, procurement, and education & enforcement. This blog addresses empowerment. You can also read our introductory blog here.
Erin Young, Employer Coach at the Colorado Workforce Development Council (CWDC), often begins job quality training sessions with two questions: What was your worst job? What was your best day of work? The answers to both questions, she says, almost always revolve around how connected people feel to their team and boss, and to the meaningfulness of their work. Those factors are at the heart of worker satisfaction, as well as bottom-line factors like productivity and retention.
Worker agency, voice, influence and representation all play a major role in how connected workers feel to their workplace; these elements are about the empowerment a worker feels in their job. An empowering job recognizes historical and systemic inequities, offers employees a meaningful seat at the decision-making table and allows them to learn, grow and receive recognition for their work. Yet, a study on “voice gaps” — the difference in the amount of say workers expect and actually have — found large gaps over benefits, compensation, promotion, job security, technological change and protections against harassment.
What can governments and employers do to close that “voice gap”?
Results for America’s Job Quality Playbook highlights a number of tactics and strategies governments can use to empower workers, including employer coaching, supporting employee-led businesses and creating workers councils and boards.
Erin helps employers and local workforce development centers through coaching. She starts her interactions with businesses in the way she recommends they start with employees — by learning about them and listening to them. For Erin, this means researching a community’s culture and what makes it unique before she meets with employers. It also means listening to what businesses are already doing to be good employers and to what they identify as challenge points before diving into Colorado’s Job Quality Framework and Job Quality Checklist for Employers. Erin’s approach allows her to find the data pieces and stories that hit home with businesses or in an industry, and to help them see the value in empowering workers, not just because the state tells them to but because it’s good for recruiting and retaining employees and for business overall.
Erin offers businesses examples of actions they can take to empower workers, including:
- Offering ways for workers to provide feedback, and responding to it. This can include something as simple as a QR code that takes workers to a short Google Form that asks: 1) Do you have a problem or challenge, 2) How do you think it should be solved, and 3) How would you like management to respond. Simply asking for feedback, however, isn’t enough. Erin encourages businesses to respond to it in some way.
- Asking workers what they want rather than making assumptions. For example, what holidays or benefits would workers prefer? How would they like bonuses or profit-sharing distributed? Employers are sometimes surprised by the answers, and while they can’t always accommodate all preferences, the act of asking is important.
- Implementing Open Book Management. Providing employees access to financial records allows them to see and understand costs and profits, and how their work affects business outcomes. Introducing profit sharing creates a direct benefit to employees for increasing profit.
- Establishing mentorship programs. Peer to peer, young to old, longtime employee to new employee — mentorship programs allow workers to share skills and experiences and to create personal connections at work. Erin tells the story of a home health care organization with such high turnover that it was affecting the standard of care. In February they established a mentorship program between longer term and new employees to help new employees feel supported and learn the ropes more quickly, and to hopefully increase employee retention.
When jobs are empowering it’s not just good for workers, it’s also good for business. Businesses with engaged workers have 23% higher profits than those whose workers are dissatisfied. Additionally, when employees are thriving, businesses experience lower absenteeism, turnover and accidents, and they have higher customer loyalty.
Erin asks Colorado businesses, “What do you want your employees to say about [this company] when they go and visit with a friend at the local watering hole?” It’s a reminder that workers’ day-to-day experiences can factor into perceptions of job quality as much as pay, and that improving them can be a key strategy for overcoming workforce challenges, such as recruiting and retaining workers. State and local government leaders looking to advance job quality and equity can encourage private sector companies to empower their workers by showing them that what’s good for workers can also be good for business.
➡️ For fun: Erin likened pitching job quality to employers as selling a novel rather than a textbook. They are more likely to read it if it tells a story they are interested in instead of teaching a lesson. There are plenty of novels about terrible working conditions — The Jungle, Oliver Twist, Grapes of Wrath — but a lot less about quality jobs. What would you title a novel about an empowered workforce? Tell us in the comments!
➡️ Want more information on RFA’s job quality initiatives? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.