Are employees feeling less valued than last year? In the latest Investors in People Job Exodus study, not feeling valued as a member of staff was the third most common reason for wanting to move on, cited by 39% of respondents and up from 35% in 2017. So, what can be done? In this article we look at what being valued means and how employers can make sure staff don’t feel undervalued.
What does it mean to feel valued?
White and Mackenzie-Davey (2003) define feeling valued as a “positive response arising from confirmation of an individual’s possession of qualities on which worth or desirability depends.”
When someone recognises that our personal qualities or something we’ve done has helped the organisation, we feel valued. Someone could recognise our work ethic or positive attitude, for example, or a report we’ve completed that was particularly high-quality.
There’s another side to feeling valued: the absence of certain conditions can make us feel unvalued. This is about the structures, policies and managerial behaviours that define our experience of the workplace. If we don’t feel these are fair and just, we don’t feel valued, especially if others are treated differently.
Why is feeling valued so important?
To be valued is not an abstract concept: as human beings we know what it feels like to feel undervalued and before long it can become intolerable. This is not only true in the workplace, but in relationships, family life, social clubs and more.
A survey from the American Psychological Association found that feeling valued at work was linked to better physical and mental health, as well as higher levels of engagement, satisfaction and motivation: all the things that lead to a healthy and productive relationship between employer and employee.
Corroborating the findings of the Investors in People Job Exodus report, the APA survey also found that half of all employees who reported not feeling valued at work intend to look for a new job in the coming year.
At the heart of work is an exchange: the employer’s money for the employee’s time and skills.
What makes employees feel valued?
At the heart of work is an exchange: the employer’s money for the employee’s time and skills. If we feel unfairly paid for our time and skills, for example that the market rate for our job is higher, then we are likely to feel undervalued. Fair pay is a core part of the psychological contract and once employees think this contract has been broken, trust will deteriorate and disengagement will follow.
Fair working conditions
Along with equal pay, working conditions that are safe, clean, secure and healthy are considered a core part of the psychological contract. If we don’t feel our employer takes the safety of our everyday environment seriously, it’s going to be pretty hard to feel motivated and valued.
Fair treatment in relation to others
Human beings have a strong sense of relational fairness (how we feel treated compared to others). If we perceive others to get special treatment, we find it harder to feel valued because we wonder why we haven’t been included.
There’s evidence that giving individuals bespoke ‘deals’ at work, such as special working hours or rewards, challenges the perception of fairness within teams and can undermine both team and individual dynamics unless managed correctly.
It’s important that HR professionals understand that people are less likely to feel undervalued when they see others getting special treatment if a) they understand that individual’s unique needs and b) if they also get special treatment aligned to their individual needs.
Recognition of discretionary effort
We put in discretionary effort, such as staying late or taking on tasks we aren’t formally responsible for, for different reasons. For some people it’s driven by a desire to positively mould other people’s personal and professional perceptions of them, while for others it’s due to inherent personal qualities, such as a strong work ethic.
Whatever the driver, we all feel valued when discretionary effort is recognised and celebrated as making a difference. If it’s not, it’s hard to feel valued and many employees regress then to doing the minimum, leading to long-term disengagement.
Recognition that is authentic and targeted to the individual
Human beings have a natural desire to be recognised as individuals. Even in team environments, we want to feel valued for our individual contribution to the team’s success. For this reason, recognition at work should focus on how employees as individuals contribute to the success of the organisation, highlighting their choices and strengths and how these make a difference.
This is, of course, why organisations are moving towards peer-to-peer recognition, underlined by a belief that those working closest together will be able to better tease out the real contributions their peers are making to the organisation’s success.
Self-recognition based on stable criteria
Self-recognition is an important part of feeling valued long-term. Formally defined as the ability to recognise yourself as separate to other people and the environment, in a work context it means the ability to recognise our individual qualities and strengths and see how these fuel the success of the organisation and of others. This is a really important skill not just for engagement at work but for quality of life.
We all feel valued when discretionary effort is recognised and celebrated as making a difference.
Asking for and delivering on employee feedback
If we don’t think our opinion is needed or perceived as having merit, we are unlikely to feel valued in the workplace. The age-old organisational problem of employees thinking senior leaders sit in an ivory tower is representative of staff feeling like a cog in a giant machine, their contributions and opinions forgotten about or ignored.
Employee voice – or the sense to which employees are respected and heard – has a massive impact on organisational culture and part of this effect is down to employees feeling valued by their employer. This is no different to being in a relationship: if we don’t feel our partner hears us or acts on our feedback, we do not feel valued or engaged in the relationship.
Five ways HR can help employees feel valued
Encourage self-recognition: not all employees are naturally introspective enough to recognise how their personal qualities contribute to organisational success. Strengths-based coaching from line managers and mentoring can be powerful here
- Develop peer recognition schemes: offering peer recognition platforms or schemes can help make recognition authentic and focused more deeply on individual qualities
- Link all recognition to goals: making employees feel valued must be seen as an organisational initiative rather than solely a wellbeing initiative, if it’s to get long-term traction
- Benchmark salaries: make sure reward packages are benchmarked against the market so that employees don’t feel undervalued. Clear succession planning strategies that show how employees can take on more responsibility and earn more money should also be put into place
- Gather and act on feedback: the importance of this can’t be overstated. People feel valued for different reasons and we need to know what makes our employees feel valued. Setting up strong employee voice channels, building trust and acting on feedback about recognition and working conditions is a core part of being a successful, human-driven employer