The hidden side of keeping employee morale high

How many "Dilbert" comics are around the office, or how people park their cars could indicate overall employee morale. Here, a woman works online in her cubicle at an office in Beijing.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every two weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name -- it's about the hidden side of everything.

Dubner, good to talk to you again.

Stephen Dubner: Great to talk to you, Kai. And I've got a question for you.

Ryssdal: All right, shoot.

Dubner: Are you pretty happy with your job these days?

Ryssdal: Uh, am I pretty happy? Most days, yeah.

Dubner: Tell me this: What about your co-workers? How's their employee morale, would you say?

Ryssdal: It depends on how heavy the beatings are. But no, actually they're doing all right.

Dubner: You know, workplace morale is something -- especially in an economy like this -- is something really worth thinking about. It translates directly into productivity: low morale, bad for the bottom line; good morale is kind of a tide that lifts all boats. Now, here's Michael Johnson, who studies organizational behavior at the University of Washington.

Michael Johnson: A lot of the current research on employee morale and managing people in general in organizations suggests that this may be the only remaining competitive advantage that organizations have. Organizations that do this well, they tend to do really well financially too.

But Kai, let me run an interesting wrinkle past you: In a tough job market like this one, fewer people quit their jobs -- less than two million a month now compared to more than three million before the recession. Which means that more grumpy employees are staying put.

Ryssdal: Right. So they're staying put because they're worried that they can't find another job, right?

Dubner: Exactly.

Ryssdal: How do you measure grumpiness?

Dubner: Well, unfortunately that's the problem: It's hard. A lot of firms do surveys, but personally, in my work --

Ryssdal: Here's the thing: For HR managers everywhere -- we all lie on those surveys.

Dubner: Yeah, exactly. We lie on most surveys. But especially, 'How happy are you? And I'm the person who pays you and I need you to tell me how happy you are.' So sometimes you have to get creative. We actually put this question out to readers on our Freakonomics blog, and we got some good answers. Here's Damon Beaven, he's a software engineer in Lexington, Ky. He used to visit lots of different companies; here's how he sussed out worker morale in those places.

Damon Beaven: I looked for the number of "Dilbert" comics, and that seemed to be inverse proportional to the level of morale. A lot of "Dilbert" comics seemed to be a passive aggressive way of employee complaining.

Ryssdal: This is good. First of all, I love the Dilbert index, but also I love that we're crowdsourcing this segment now. That's awesome.

Dubner: Of course. We've cut down here, I don't know if you knew. All right, try this one: This is from a management consultant named Tim Wadlow. He visited more than 100 manufacturing companies around the world. He came to believe that parking direction is an indicator of employee morale. Here's what Wadlow saw at the companies that had low morale.

Tim Wadlow: A lot of these people seemed very anxious to leave work and often, if they got to work, they would back their cars into their parking spot. And it seemed like the moment they got to work, they were so dreading it that they were planning their escape.

Ryssdal: I like that, that's great. Now, that doesn't apply here at Marketplace world headquarters because our parking lot is mandated nose-in parking only.

Dubner: That's a way to keep morale high -- force people to park that way.

Ryssdal: That's true. You must. OK, this is good antidotal evidence -- the key phrase there being 'antidotal,' my friend.

Dubner: Exactly. What you really want to know is you want to keep your eye on sick days, because calling in sick -- especially when you're not sick -- is kind of the ultimate expression of bad morale.

Ryssdal: Well, yeah, but come on -- HR's going to call everybody who calls in sick and says, 'I need a note from your doctor'? What are we -- 12?

Dubner: Not going to happen, unfortunately. Michael Johnson, the University of Washington professor we heard from earlier, he investigated a pair of auto parts plants that tried out a variety of incentives. Some were carrots, some were sticks. They wanted to cut down on absenteeism. He found that the combination of threat and reward actually worked very well. But he also found an interesting loophole, a little something we call the FMLA, or the Family Medical Leave Act. Are you familiar with that?

Ryssdal: Yeah, it's you get time off to care for a sick, injured whatever family member, yeah.

Dubner: Exactly, the federal law. Now, when the company made it harder to call in sick the old way, some employees found a new way. Here's Michael Johnson.

Johnson: Overall absenteeism dropped about four to four-and-a-half days, but the absenteeism that was related to the FMLA went up about a day or a day-and-a-half over the year. So it seemed to us, they might actually be gaming the system so that they could keep taking days off work and not suffer any punishment for it.

Ryssdal: Right, so it took us a while to get there, but this is the hidden side, right? This is the unintended consequences of all that stuff?

Dubner: That's exactly right. And you know, at the end of the day, isn't it nice to know that whenever you're feeling down and need a little me time, the federal government is there to give you a day off?

Ryssdal: Yeah, right. Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics.com is the website. He's back in a couple of weeks. Talk to you later.

Dubner: Thanks so much, Kai.

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Humor always keeps morale high. We cant take ouselves so seriously because when we take ourselves to serious, there is a tendency create a You Cant Make It Up Moment. In other words, open mouth, insert foot. I cant tell you how many times I have done that.

As a fan of Marketplace I particularly loved your Freakonomics interview on employee morale. Not only was the information entertaining it was factual to a fault.

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• The Work You Do
• The Way You Work
• The Rewards You Receive
• Growth Opportunities Available to You
The simple truth be known the happier you are in the office the happier you are in life!

As others have stated here, I too have a problem with the frequently smug and self-satisfied tone of marketplace. I tolerate it in the belief that it accompanies occasionally valuable information. However, FMLA is a topic I know something about, as I am a state investigator who has investigated many complaints regarding denial of medical leave, or retaliation against employees who invoke the right to that leave. Contrary to your guests cavalier insinuation, FMLA is not a loophole to be gamed - employees taking FMLA leave are not entitled to any pay, and employers have ample recourse to ensure that the leave is taken for legitimate reasons. One employer fired an employee when he was unable to report to work on time the morning after his mother died (the legal protection ended on the day she died). I have seen far more employers punish employees who genuinely needed leave for serious health conditions than employees attempting to scam an extra unpaid day off.

FMLA protections are limited, and only apply to employees and employers who meet specific criteria. FMLA provides a safety valve against a covered employer’s unfettered ability to jetison employees with serious health conditions and creating an ever-growing pool of the unemployed (and consequently uninsured).

If this segment was a typical example of how your show plays fast-and-loose with the substantive details underlying its stories, I wonder how often I have been misled where my personal knowledge was lacking in a given topic. You have lost some trust here.

I, too, was very upset by the comments about FMLA. I think is an accounting matter. Now when people need to take time off of work for family issues, there is another, more true, name for their absence.

I, too, was very upset by the comments about FMLA. I think it's an accounting matter. Now when people need to take time off of work for family issues, they have another, more true, option besides "sick time".

Just in the interest of clarification since comments are accusing the hosts of being misinformed, FMLA does not *require* medical cerification. Employers can request under the law as part of their FMLA policy, but it is not a requirement of the law. FMLA considers a serious medical condition to be an absence of more than 3 days, so employees can and do abuse FMLA for short-term absences during which the employee can be back to work before the paperwork can even begin. That said, FMLA is a very important law for employees who are truly suffering serious medical condition, or that of a family member. But the fact is that it is abused, just as sick time is abused. Though I've never found it to be an indicator of poor morale. Even the most pampered employees abuse sick time when they burn through vacation. PTO works much better in that regard. However, the Dilbert index is VERY telling. Love that.

While I listen to your show on a fairly regular basis during preparation of the family evening meal, I sometimes find the smug style a little grating. But last night, you seriously overstepped the line and though I have never written a comment to any show before, I feel compelled to write about this one. While dicussing the morale of the average American worker, FMLA was brought up an "interesting loophole" for employees who "when feeling down and need a little me time" are relying on the "Federal Government....to give you a day off" and "not suffering any punishment for it" . As in any system, there is bound to be some abuse. But I write as someone who has a chronic condition (and I'm sure I am not the only one out there) that requires absences from work. I very much appreciate the fact that I can maintain a job, while addressing my health problems. This "loophole" requires an exam and letter from my doctor every six months to be maintained. I was actually approached by our HR department to initiate enrollment in the Intermittant FMLA Program. Since I would on average miss five days of work per year because of my condition, resulting in disiplinary action by my employer, I am now able to keep my job, my home and my family. My employer, a hospital, seems to think that being a valued employee is worth the "price" of this "loophole" and that if you have a chronic condition, e.g. epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, migraines, cancer to name but a few, you are not just thrown out on the trash heap because your have a chronic condition. Shame on you for your pitch on this topic as "gaming the system". When you or a loved one need FMLA, which I hope you never do, perhaps you will eat some of these uninformed, snarky comments. And where was the balance in these intererviews? You need to cut the 'smug' and get real or I'll be listening to something else during family meal prep!

I find the remarks about sick days policies extremely offensive. If Marketplace was produced by my home station WBEZ I would have reconsidered my regular contributions. After all some of my hard earned dollars were made while being sick. Is going to work sick good for productivity? And for morale? I know that morale matters to business community because of the productivity and the bottom line, not the employees well being, but even from this point of view a well-rested and healthy employee is more productive.

In what world do you live? There are so few sick days at most workplaces there is practically nothing to abuse. You ask yourself - should I take a day off for a bad cold and risk not having sick days left for something more serious in the future. Most likely you would go to work and more people would catch your cold.

Another subject - US is famous for the shortest vacation time in civilized world. Not taking even short vacation in full - sign of good or bad morale?

Here's another explanation for Johnson's findings: those who could keep their sick days within the company's limits did, and those who couldn't - because they had cancer or were needed to care for a very ill family member - took FMLA leave, which (1) is unpaid; (2) can only be used for serious illnesses or to care for new children; and (3) requires a doctor's note. And the company saves money by not paying for sick days for these dire circumstances: what a morale booster. My clients as a legal aid attorney included a women whose employer refused to give her 8 days off for chemotherapy and a man who was fired for missing a few days of work to care for his dying son. Slackers taking a mental health day? I think not, yet your comments perpetuate this stereotype.

One use for FMLA is to be with a sick or dying relative. After my company merged the sick leave allowance with vacation, I needed time to be with my terminally ill parent. The FMLA allowed me to keep my job while I did my family duty. The approval process is extensive and requires a doctor's confirmation. I still was harrassed by both management and coworkers over taking the time. Your story's implication that the FMLA is gamed is insulting. I expect this abuse from Fox news, but not Marketplace.


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