APA Center for Organizational Excellence: Good Company

Resources for Employers

Good Company Blog

February 2009 Archives

I came across an article recently on organizations that are recognized by Principal Financial Group. These organizations are recognized for the types of benefits they offer to their employees. The article emphasized that the “best companies” are not seeking to cut benefits during the current recession. To this I say: Let’s hear more of that!

All too often, it seems benefits are something that organizations only put in place as a way to competitively attract employees. That makes great sense for them during times of economic prosperity. However, they then yank the benefits away when the financial going gets tough. The argument is that it is better to cut benefits than to downsize.

But…if more organizations actually paid attention to the cost and benefit of employee perks, perhaps they would not put themselves in the position of having to take benefits away. Strategic thinking, when it comes to offering benefits, is just as important as strategic thinking when it comes to corporate performance.

Without a strategy, these companies put themselves into the unenviable position of having to say “sorry” when they take their benefits back—almost as if they are correcting a mistake they made. Yet, most of us don’t miss what we never had. It would seem more practical to make the business case for a benefit before it is offered rather than to make the business case for taking the benefit away when the company needs to save money.

According to a recent story in Workforce Management, training budgets are taking a beating during the current recession. I can’t say that I’m surprised by this, as it always seems that training is the first thing to go.

But why is it that something as important as training always gets the shaft? I would suggest that one of the primary reasons for this knee-jerk reaction is because training programs are so poorly evaluated. Most training is evaluated using reaction data from participants. Did you like the training? Do you think you learned anything?

Seldom is the actual transfer of training to the workplace actually measured. Even less seldom is the business impact on the training measured. And, return on investment with regard to training seems to be a pipe dream!

So, it should come as no surprise that when it comes to budget costs, hard data is likely to hold more sway than opinions. When the company sees a huge training budget and wants to know what the company is getting for those costs, what are they supposed to do with a smile from the human resource director and a comment such as, “Well, employees like it!” I’d cut the budget too!

This scenario happens every time the economy takes a downward slide, though the current recession is worse than normal. Perhaps this time, training departments will learn that smile sheets and superficial feedback isn’t going to save the training budget the next time. Perhaps we need to invest in an actual training evaluation program that provides hard data to withstand hard decisions. 

I worked with a man several years ago who supplied equipment for high school, college, and professional sports teams. He told me he stopped in to visit a team that had won the Super Bowl the year previously.  He approached the head coach to say, “Coach, I notice that when I come here you are doing most of the same blocking and tackling drills that I see at the high schools I visit.  I don’t understand why you aren’t teaching them more complicated things.” 

The coach just smiled, “You don’t understand,” he said, “I have All-Pro linemen in my locker room on Sunday morning throwing up because of the stress they are under.  I need them to drill on the basics so that they will be able to do their best when the game is on the line!”

We are living and working in very stressful times.  According to research compiled by the Princeton Survey Research Associates, three-fourths of employees believe that workers have more stress than a generation ago.  You can read more about job stress at the NIOSH website. That stress is rapidly increasing as the economy continues to decline.  From owners all the way through the organization to front-line workers, there is increased fear, anxiety and rumination in the face of an uncertain economy.  “Will the company be able to get through these hard times?”  “What will happen if we have to lay off workers?”  “Is there something we should be doing that would give us a better outcome in this environment?” The mental energy invested in these fears may make it hard to stay focused or to prioritize tasks, as everything seems to become a crisis. What do the businesses that succeed during stress do that is different than the average company?

It is tempting to look for cost cutting measures in the training budget, but the highest performers in business as well as in athletics understand that, during periods of extreme stress, it is an important time to be intensely reviewing the basics of job responsibilities, developing and reinforcing teamwork, and enhancing communication.  Like the professional athletes at the peak of excellence, it is the time to invest in a clearly defined training budget that emphasizes core skills and the development of the psychological tools to be the best even in stressful times. 

Dr. Matt Grawitch and I recently commented on a blog entry about the criteria for APA's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards and because these issues are raised from time to time, we thought it would be of some value to post the response here, as well. Our communications don't always discuss these aspects of the model and evaluation process, so I hope this will help to shed some light on what goes on behind the scenes of our program. Thanks to David Yamada and his Minding the Workplace blog for raising these important issues and giving us the opportunity to respond. Creating a work environment that is good for employees and the bottom line indeed requires openness to multidisciplinary perspectives and constructive dialogue is always welcome. 

----------------------------------

As the head of APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program and the program’s primary research consultant, we were surprised to see a recent blog posting that appeared on Minding the Workplace about the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Criteria. The author astutely pointed out that practices in these five areas do not necessarily result in a psychologically healthy workplace, and he was most assuredly correct.

However, the author of the blog posting overlooked several key points about both the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Model and APA’s award criteria that deserve further clarification.

First, a psychologically healthy workplace is one that fosters employee health and well-being, while at the same time enhancing organizational performance. Although this is typically done through the implementation of a comprehensive set of programs and policies, the mere presence of these workplace practices does not guarantee the that organization will meet the goal of optimizing employee and organizational outcomes.

Second, the psychologically healthy workplace model emphasizes the role of effective upward and downward communication mechanisms in organizations. This is essential to ensure that programs and policies meet the needs of the employees they are designed to benefit (through upward channels) and are effectively utilized and supported throughout the organization (downward channels). Clearly, employees will not respond “as expected” to programs and policies that are not supported, that are not well communicated, and that do not meet their needs.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the model emphasizes the need for a culture, structure, and context that supports the programs and practices in place. Hence, one size does not fit all. The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Model requires custom-tailoring of programs and policies to address these variables and meet the unique needs of an organization and its workforce.

These three points were not mentioned in the blog posting on Minding the Workplace, but they help to address the key “questions” that the author poses. These were also discussed in more detail in an article that focused specifically on APA’s program.

With regard to the selection of our award winners, the assessment process does not rely solely on company documents and “checklists.” During the application process, organizations complete two written forms reporting on and describing their workplace practices. Applicants are also required to identify specific organizational and employee outcomes that have occurred as a result of their workplace programs and report numerous employee and organizational benefits, usually with concrete, quantifiable data.

After the applicant completes the quantitative and qualitative instruments, a team of psychologists visits the organization, tours the facilities, observes the work environment and meets with employees (management and line staff). Employees also complete an anonymous employee questionnaire. These site visits and employee surveys collect information about the way employees feel about the organization, their physical and psychological well-being, and their perspectives on the different programs and policies in place.

After a rigorous data analysis and a comprehensive evaluation of the qualitative responses, we select our finalists. Finalists complete a disclosure form that asks them to report any recent or pending employment-related lawsuits or complaints and are subject to extensive reviews conducted by our legal and regulatory affairs and public relations staff.

So, while the points made by the Minding the Workplace blog are well taken, a closer inspection of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program reveals that those points are actively addressed by APA in its model, as well as through its systematic evaluation and selection process.