MRO Magazine

Take this job and… Don’t ‘shove it’ enhance it.

What is it that compels experienced and trained employees to voluntarily leave their jobs and go looking for other pastures. The fact is that in many of the workplaces discussed in this magazine -- an...

September 1, 2003 | By Morris Berengut

What is it that compels experienced and trained employees to voluntarily leave their jobs and go looking for other pastures. The fact is that in many of the workplaces discussed in this magazine — and the harsh environments and poor working conditions described in this issue in particular — result a high rate of worker turnover.

Workers in glass manufacturing plants, steel mills and heavy fabrication, among many other types of industrial facilities, are subject to high temperatures, noise, contamination and safety hazards. These conditions usually make it extremely challenging for employers to retain workers. But what can be done?

There are many reasons for a worker to leave a company voluntarily — other than retirement, poor health or relocation, that is. Many are related to working conditions the worker feels are unacceptable or intolerable.

These conditions either have to be so poor that sometimes the worker will leave without having a guarantee of employment elsewhere, or will actively seek another position while working and then move when an offer comes along. In both cases the worker generally is convinced that the conditions that drove him away will be better in the new position.


Working conditions include more than just the physical or environmental conditions of the workplace. They include reward systems that will:

attract the right workers

keep them, and

focus them on doing what needs to be done.

These reward systems essentially encourage the worker behaviour that the company desires. In other words, workers will behave in ways for which they are rewarded. And in this case, the behaviour desired must include the worker’s desire to stay and work at the job, rather than leave.

Rewards take two different but related forms — intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic factors are motivations related to inner-directed, goal-oriented behaviour. Extrinsic factors are related to pay, working conditions and supervisory style.

Intrinsic factors: To motivate workers, employers must consider and meet a number of conditions that are called ‘critical psychological states.’ Workers want:

To believe that their work is meaningful, worthwhile and important

To experience a certain amount of responsibility for their own success or failure, and

To know the consequences of their work effort.

The motivation a worker feels is directly tied to the strength or intensity of these states. These states can be improved upon by proper design of the job and addressing core job characteristics. For example, the employer can provide:

1. Skill variety through job rotation: If there are a number of similar jobs that are related to the particular product or service provided, then the employee can rotate the worker through these jobs. Providing appropriate training is a key factor here.

2. Job enlargement: The worker can be given more tasks to do. In an assembly line environment, the task duration tends to be very short and repetitive. Increasing the number of tasks so that the repetitiveness is reduced improves the psychological state of the worker.

3. Job enrichment: Workers can be given more responsibility on the job, by adding, for example, a scheduling or coordination or a quality assurance aspect, or by encouraging meaningful feedback regarding the product or process.

4. Task identity: Workers should be able to relate their work or task to others in the process and be allowed to either perform some of the other tasks or professionally interact with those performing other tasks. This allows them to understand the relationship of their task to the whole process.

5. Autonomy: The worker can be grouped with other, similar workers either by work type or product and be given a greater level of autonomy to determine key aspects of the work or process. For example the group can be given the task of dealing with improvement challenges. The group can be used to solve problems. It is imperative that the group be credited with improvements and benefits as they are developed.

6. Feedback: The workers should see the results of their work in the ‘big picture.’ Wherever possible, feedback from the users of the product or service should be given to the workers involved. Surveys should be designed with these goals in mind. Too often, surveys are designed solely with the intent to identify product or service weaknesses and the results are seen by the worker as punitive.

Extrinsic factors: Extrinsic factors include remuneration, supervisory style and working conditions.

More often than not, employers focus on extrinsic factors when problems with workers arise. It is important that an employer who desires to change employee behaviour understand the impact of different rewards and not just focus on remuneration alone, for example.

As Rhona G. Berengut of York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto states: “Simply paying a worker more money is not going to result in behaviour change. However, redesigning the job so as to address the ‘critical psychological states’ may require a change to the pay scale due to a change in the job content. In this case, it is the job that is changed in order to change worker behaviour and the pay is changed to accommodate this.”

The supervisory style factor is much more a company-specific factor and is not related to other external factors creating the undesired behaviour. However, should a company find itself in the unenviable position of having tried to change all other factors with little result, or should there be a flurry of worker departures in one area or department, it should examine its supervisory structure. Too little or too much supervision or poor supervisors may be negating the other factors to the point that a worker’s behaviour is undesired.

Working environment

The third key extrinsic factor is the working environment. In the case of industries with harsh working conditions, this may be this factor that contributes most to undesired behaviour. It is also the most difficult to change.

Extremes of temperature, dust and noise are inherent in many heavy industries. Efforts at reducing these factors have been made in many companies but there is a practical limit to these changes due to the nature of the processes.

Certainly, modern technology has helped considerably. Automation systems, better worker protection and stricter safety regulations can all be applied to both reduce the number of workers required in the unpleasant work areas and lessen the effects of the environment.

It is important to understand that changing the environmental factors is just part of the picture. It is the combination of all the extrinsic and intrinsic factors that will affect employee behaviour. Understanding how these interact is also important.

Balance of intrinsic and extrinsic factors: The existence of intrinsic factors will move behaviour from a neutral position to a positive position (see graph, pg. 26, Fig. 1). The greater these factors, the greater the movement towards the positive. Lack of extrinsic factors will move behaviour from a neutral position to a negative position. In other words, the best that extrinsic factors can do is keep behaviour neutral, while the best that intrinsic factors can do is theoretically unlimited.

Understanding this relationship between motivational rewards can help an organization balance its efforts at improving worker behaviour, ensuring that no single factor takes precedence.

It is the interaction of all positive motivators that is important, just as it is the interaction of all workers in an organization that is important. Too much emphasis on one over all others does not yield corresponding improvement.

As many companies have found — raising pay levels above those of other companies does not always retain the better workers. However, addressing all aspects of a worker’s motivational factors will likely result in the behaviour and therefore retention desired, even in industry’s most hostile environments.MRO

Morris Berengut, P.Eng., a regular co
ntributor to Machinery & Equpiment MRO, is director of training services and technical advisory group for Physical Planning Technologies Inc., Toronto.


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