Improving Job Quality

New Job Quality Toolkit looks to create “good jobs” but needs to do more on worker empowerment

Earlier this month, the Commerce Department launched its Job Quality Toolkit to help companies create and retain a high-quality workforce. The Toolkit is part of the Biden Administration’s joint Commerce-Labor Departments’ Good Jobs Initiative.

Although worker wages are at the forefront of the Initiative, much of the Toolkit focuses on improving the employee experience as key to a better workforce. As the report states, “Pay and benefits matter, and so do a multitude of other factors like workplace safety and health, a voice, scheduling predictability, skills building, and advancement.” The Toolkit identifies 8 drivers of job quality:

  • Recruitment & Hiring: Actively recruit a diverse pool of applicants. Implement skills-based hiring that only requires the education, credentials, and experience needed to do the job. Be intentional about onboarding and retaining workers.
  • Benefits: Seek workers’ input on needed and desired benefits, such as paid leave, health insurance, and a retirement plan. Provide them and encourage their use.
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Accessibility (DEIA): Make equal opportunity a core value and practiced norm. Foster systems where all workers feel respected and empowered in the workplace. Identify and remove systemic barriers to DEIA.
  • Empowerment & Representation: Ensure that workers have a meaningful voice, without fear of retaliation. Enable workers to contribute to decisions about their work, how it is performed, and organizational direction.
  • Job Security & Working Conditions: Ensure a safe, healthy, and accessible workplace and offer job security. Minimize temporary or contractor labor solutions, using such workers mainly to adjust for short-term needs. Assess and schedule hours that are adequate and predictable.
  • Organizational Culture: Demonstrate through explicit behaviors and norms of leadership that all workers belong, are valued, and contribute meaningfully to the organization. Assess workers’ engagement and feelings of respect.
  • Pay: Provide an equitable living wage to all workers and ensure fair compensation practices.
  • Skills & Career Advancement: Provide opportunities and tools for workers’ self-realization and advancement in their current jobs, within the organization, and outside it.

The benefits of this approach are multifaceted. According to the report, “Identifying and improving the drivers most valued by workers can significantly increase their satisfaction and engagement, resulting in increased enthusiasm for their work, lower absenteeism, lower turnover, higher retention, better team performance, increased productivity, improved products and services for customers, higher customer satisfaction, and increased revenues.”

Thus, the Job Quality Toolkit is part of the call for companies to adopt a “high road” strategy (see Administration’s background paper). Such a strategy views workers as key assets to be nurtured as opposed to the view that sees workers an expense to be minimized. (For an example of a company taking the “low road,” see my old posting on Circuit City.)

I have long argued that in order to prosper in the intangible economy, companies need to adopt a “high road” strategy and become high performance work organizations. (See “Time to Get Serious About Workplace Change” in Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 1997 and this subsequent Washington Post story.)

This Toolkit is a step in that direction. But I am concerned that the Good Jobs Initiative and the Job Quality Toolkit leave out a key element of a high-road strategy: organizational structure and competency.

The strategy needs to go beyond the “happy workers are productive workers” to embrace organizational empowerment. Note that worker engagement and empowerment are not the same thing. Empowered employees are more engaged (and satisfied) but actions that increase satisfaction (such as pay and benefits) and/or increase engagement (such as listening sessions) do not necessarily empower workers. Empowerment means creating systems that utilize all the skills and knowledge of the workers. It means giving workers greater control and responsibility.

The Tool Kit does address worker empowerment and representation, but stops short. But it appears to still be embedded in a framework of top-down management. For example, the Tool Kit recommends:

“Develop regular, repeatable processes for communicating, conversing, actively listening, and providing feedback on worker inputs.”

“Create systems that receive and implement worker input on process improvements and innovation. Inform workers how their input was used.”

My concern is that these activities would not rise above a “suggestion box” approach.  What is needed are work systems that taps into workers knowledge and enables them to participate directly in the decision-making process..

Unfortunately, some companies seem to be going in the opposite directions. A recent article in the New York Times, “The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score” documents how workers are increasingly being monitored to reach certain productivity goals. These productivity goals are often times exceeding narrow, for example counting keystrokes or measuring only time actively spent interacting with the computer. In one example, “social workers were marked idle for lack of keyboard activity while counseling patients in drug treatment facilities.”

In these cases, workers clearly have had little input into, and control over, what defines productivity in their jobs.

The Quality Jobs Toolkit and the Good Jobs Initiative needs to address this trend. But only have limited tools. As the NY Times article points out, the use of such “performance management” software tools continues to grow. One way may be to highlight the negative case and positive cases of the use of the technology: how to do it right versus doing it wrong.

In end, the task is one of changing minds. The top-down command-and-control model of management is firmly engrained in the U.S. economy. The debate over Theory X (top-down control) versus Theory Y (worker engagement) is many decades old, as are descriptions of high-performance work organizations. It seems to me that the best w can do is continue to point out a simple truth: workers matter.

[a side note on the measurement of intangibles: company purchases of “performance management” software and consulting services are counted as a positive investment in intangibles – even though they may have negative impacts]

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