What usually persuades us to accept a job offer? The paycheck and the benefit package, for starters. What, however, makes one want to stay at a certain company?
It goes beyond cold, hard cash and, say, a gym-membership reimbursement. Worker satisfaction upticks when employees feel like they contribute in a way that makes them more than cogs in a machine.
Often it comes down to a moment of recognition. When Alex Seiler, senior director and HR global business partner at WeWork, was in a previous job, the company had just lost its director of diversity. Since Seiler had told his supervisors that he had worked in personal-inclusion initiatives in the past, a couple of months later he was offered the open position. “I thought that was one conversation—and that nobody was listening,” he told the audience at the From Day One conference in Brooklyn last week on a panel called “What Really Matters in Employee Satisfaction. “So I felt super heard and appreciated.”
For Toby Hervey, the co-founder and CEO of Bravely, which connects employees with professional coaches, the “feeling heard” moment happened when he was 23. Hervey was mainly doing clerical work, and tirelessly nudged higher-ups to hand him the presentation decks that he needed to format for an offsite meeting. After the presentation was over, the president emailed him, thanking him for the work he did, and handed him a bonus. The money was a welcome surprise, but not the main point. “People were paying attention to to the work I was doing,” Hervey said.
Moderated by journalist Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, the panel on “What Really Matters in Employee Satisfaction” included Martha Delehanty, senior vice president of HR for Verizon; Christopher Rotolo, vice president of global talent management and organization for PepsiCo; and Alyssa Schaefer, chief marketing officer for Laurel Road, a student-loan refinancing platform. Among the main takeaways: recognition is crucial, but so is constructive feedback, which needs to be done frankly yet thoughtfully.
Lose the Sandwich
When you use the “sandwich technique” for negative feedback, meaning starting with something nice, then saying something critical, only to conclude with a pleasantry, people get confused. “We trained our managers and leaders not to do the sandwich,” said Rotolo. “What happens is, your mind is waiting for the shoe to drop.” In fact, as Delehanty put it, “nothing that comes after the ‘but’ is good. Best thing is just to get to it.” Added Seiler: “You can be honest and direct but still compassionate. It doesn’t mean you have to lose your sense of humanity.”
Find Fairness in the Facts
“The real problem,” said Hervey, “is how to say the hard things.” Calling out people in a healthy way requires a careful strategy. Ideally, you provide context explaining where you’re coming from; you can make it more observational, focusing on things you witness instead of feelings. Managers can practice the conversation with some role-playing and imagining likely scenarios. “People are challenged with the how: What are the literal words that are going to come out of my mouth?”
Stop Thinking Vertically
Why should feedback be confined to a top-to-bottom scheme? “Feedback comes from anyone who works with you,” said Seiler, who recalls once making a rushed hire, which his co-workers were not happy with. “I recognize that peer-to-peer feedback is very difficult, but it’s something that people need to get better at doing.” Schaefer said teams can benefit from the natural tendency to name informal leaders among peers. When it comes to feedback, “People tend to go to them and trust them,” she said. “Giving peer-to-peer feedback can be uncomfortable, but when there’s an informal leader in the team, sometimes it can work even better,” she said.
Use Slack Wisely
Just to clarify, Slack in this context refers to the workplace-friendly collaboration tool, not the act of avoiding work. Slack has enabled a dynamic based on rapid response, as well as a level of conversation we didn’t have before: Would you have dared reply to your boss with an emoji? Tread carefully, though. “There is a big risk, with tech, that something will be misinterpreted and assumed,” said Schaefer. “Assuming positive intent is really important.” What’s more, be concise. Slack is great for its immediacy, but, the panelists concurred, people have started expressing themselves on the platform as if they were writing novels. “Don’t share sensitive info through Slack,” Seiler warns.
Make “The Middle” Feel Heard
A disproportionate amount of management attention goes to the stars at the top of the rating scale and the poor performers at the bottom. People in the middle tend to get overlooked, especially if managers are consistently relying on electronic communications or drive-by recognitions. “There’s the big middle where actually all the work gets done,” said Delehanty. “You have to be willing, though, to have folks from the big middle shine.” Added Hervey: “Equalize access. Then you can help them advance when they really want to, especially when you think of the bias that goes into selection processes. There’s a lot of overlooked talent because they might not talk or socialize like you.”
In a session following the panel talk, Willie Jackson, a diversity, equity and inclusion facilitator for ReadySet, led an ally-skills workshop to help position people of color and their allies to foster critical conversations and healthy workplaces.
Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn