What factors determine job satisfaction for waste industry drivers, and what leads them to quit?

In the context of a battered global economy, job satisfaction has been a major casualty. A recent report by The Conference Board revealed that job satisfaction generally is the lowest that it has been in decades. Another study by Dice Salary showed that nearly half of the workers claim that their employers do nothing to motivate them. Just as many employees think their boss is a jerk, and Career Vision found that about 65 percent are searching for new jobs. There are more disheartening statistics, but these should be enough to get an enlightened manager's attention.

Actually, job satisfaction reports signaled a lot of room for improvement long before the economy sank. Unfortunately, some employers made matters worse by using the Great Recession to squeeze their labor costs for short-term gains, which could haunt them later. The problem was then exacerbated when the pressured workforce heard nightly news reports of climbing corporate profits and soaring top-level executive compensation.

But the times are changing, and employees are not as willing to buy into the notion that they should be forever grateful to have a job regardless of circumstances. And why should they? At this point, the survivors are presumably the best of the bunch, and they expect to be treated like it. The good news is that a company can treat them like that while improving its competitive advantage. Profit maximization and job satisfaction are not mutually exclusive concepts. This point will be increasingly important as the economy recovers and new jobs emerge. The best people will be the first to move if this critical issue is ignored.

In 2009, I studied organizational leadership at the University of Oxford in England while completing my doctoral studies in business management at Nova Southeastern University's Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship. The focus of my studies has been high-performance leadership, organizational behavior, change management, job satisfaction and talent retention. My objective is to find practical ways to do things better.

Employees in the solid waste industry have been understudied. Until now, research in the sector has centered on environmental impact and compliance. For instance, one fairly recent European study on waste workers centered on repetitive motion issues.

There had been no research exploring the influence of job satisfaction on commercial, industrial and residential waste drivers. Thus, I decided to conduct the first formal study of the job satisfaction and organizational commitment of these workers.

The purpose of the study was to determine which job satisfaction factors compel drivers in the solid waste industry to quit their jobs. "Intrinsic" factors — such as achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement and growth — were considered. Additionally, "extrinsic" factors like supervision, working conditions, co-workers, pay, policies, status, personal life and job security were evaluated. Furthermore, the concept of "affective commitment," or the degree of loyalty to the employer, was measured to determine its relationship to both job satisfaction as well as the intent to quit.

Renowned behavioral scientist Frederick Herzberg theorized that intrinsic job satisfaction factors served to actually motivate performance. On balance, the extrinsic factors are not motivational, but, if left unattended, they become a source of dissatisfaction, he believed.

The study is intended to help identify meaningful opportunities to better align employee-management strategies with short- and long-range business objectives. In so doing, valuable resources can be deployed more efficiently and targeted for their greatest return on investment. It is also expected that the execution of a sound employee-management plan would result in lower costs and enhanced competitive advantages.

The research involved hundreds of anonymous samples taken from commercial, industrial and residential drivers in publicly listed, privately held and unionized operations. Demographic data such as sex, age, tenure and education were considered. The application of rigorous research protocols in this study distinguishes it from an opinion survey.

The Results

In the interest of time and space, this article will only discuss highlights from the overall sampling. A more detailed examination of the results is available from the author.

The results of the study were consistent with Herzberg's theory that intrinsic factors have a greater influence on job satisfaction than extrinsic factors. The results are the same regardless of company type or job classification.

In the intrinsic or motivational category, the study found that personal authority, recognition and relationships with co-workers have no significant impact on the drivers' intent to seek other employment. However, other intrinsic factors — such as work activities, variety of tasks, the utilization of personal abilities, autonomy in completing assignments, trust in the organization, depth of individual responsibility and feelings of achievement — play a significant role in promoting a driver's desire to stay. Accordingly, intrinsic job satisfaction factors have the greatest influence on the degree of loyalty to the organization.

Extrinsic factors present a source of potential employee dissatisfaction since they represent a set of fundamental expectations that workers believe should accompany basic employment. According to the drivers, the employment relationship suffers the most and the intent to quit is highest when the quality of the supervisory relationship and leadership competence are weak. The reasonableness of company policies and procedural justice systems play a highly significant role in driver turnover, as well. These factors influence whether there is a sense of job security, perception of fair pay and the employee's views on the overall quality of the working conditions. Management's failure to measure up to these expectations increases the likelihood of driver turnover. Unfortunately, these factors' effect on positive job satisfaction is neutral, at best.

The benefits of creating a more positive personal work experience should be obvious. Ignoring this task sacrifices potential gains in competitive advantage and compromises a firm's reputation.

Voluntary attrition is costly on many levels, particularly when it involves the loss of a valued contributor. The results of the study indicate that the retention strategy begins with a sound hiring process. The candidate should have an initial desire to be a part of the organization's mission. Introducing an uncommitted worker to the workplace makes it less likely to achieve maximum performance.

The impact of voluntary attrition includes the loss of intellectual capital and organizational knowledge. When experienced drivers leave a solid waste firm, route knowledge, safety, attention to customer idiosyncrasies, inter-company relationships and communications are interrupted. Any investment in that person's development is lost, and morale suffers. In the worst case, a direct competitor is the beneficiary.

Employers should not be lured into thinking that a weak economy or high unemployment rates carry promises of ready replacements. There is no guarantee that the new hire will perform as well, or better. For that matter, the best candidates may not even want the job, especially if the company has a reputation for bad employee relations.

Extrinsic job satisfaction factors cover a set of fundamental expectations, and employers need to pay attention to them. For example, people expect that company policies will be fair and reasonable. They expect procedural justice and safe working conditions. Competitive pay practices and no disparate administration of the same also are anticipated. Great leadership practices may not be required, but abrasive and incompetent supervision will not be tolerated. If these expectations are met, employees' perceptions of job security may be enhanced. Of course, fulfillment of these expectations only serves to reduce the likelihood of job dissatisfaction and the intent to quit.

Job satisfaction is enriched by intrinsic factors that motivate better performance. The very nature of the work performed by solid waste drivers involves often working alone without close supervision. The research demonstrates that they do not seek special authority or high recognition. However, they do want the chance to responsibly exercise their talents in meaningful assignments. Being furnished with capable tools and equipment suited for the task is critical to that end along with relevant training. This provides a sense of accomplishment, particularly when they have a chance to offer constructive input into matters that affect them. In addition, they want to know that their employer can be trusted to act in a legal and ethical fashion.

With regard to company loyalty, pride in an employer goes a long way. Clearly, people still want to feel like they are a part of a winning team — as well as winners in their own right. In the solid waste management industry, this could mean knowing that the company embraces environmentally friendly, or "green," practices. Satisfying the customer with timely and thorough services also contributes to the feeling. In addition, positive attitudes can be linked to knowing that one is a vital part of maintaining the sanitary conditions in their own community. Management's genuine appreciation for contributions along with respectful two-way communications cannot be understated, either.

The implications of these research findings are not inconsistent with profitable and efficient business practices. Indeed, they are right in line with best practices. Implementing an employee-management program that addresses the above issues is effective, practical and sustainable, but not costly.

Enlightened employers will take advantage of the tough economic times to reconnect with their workforce in order to seize the opportunities that will accompany a recovering economy. If you don't, your competitor will.

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Ken Baylor is the managing partner of Advanced Leadership Solutions LLC in Weston, Fla. He may be contacted at [email protected] or 954-401-0045.

Want to Know More?

Ken Baylor will speak in further detail on this issue at the "Unlocking the Secrets of Job Satisfaction" session at WasteExpo on Monday, May 3. The session, which is part of the Labor and Employment Track, will run from 10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.