This section provides an example of a student project to consult about an employee related problem in an organization. The students followed the steps of the evidence-based HRM decision-making process (chapter 1, figure 2), to advise about effective interventions to deal with the problem. Read the case below and answer the study questions.
One of the students (Tom) had a side job as a team leader at a supermarket. He noticed a problem with the work attitudes of young employees. Supermarkets rely heavily on high school students doing small part-time jobs as cashiers and stocking the shelves. Several years ago, it was still relatively easy to find new young workers and recruitment efforts were minimal. However, this situation has changed in a negative way. Young people do not apply spontaneously anymore and active recruitment has become necessary even for the smallest part-time jobs. It seems that high school students do not need the income of a side job anymore. Those that do come to work at the supermarket do not seem to be very motivated. They report sick very easily as if they have no commitment to the supermarket at all. Consequently, there are often backlogs in the performance of shifts, which often leads to unpaid overtime. The store management asked Tom to find an intervention that would improve the motivation of their youngest employees, such that their presence and their performance at work will improve.
“The first thing I did was organizing a talk with the store manager. We have a good understanding and she took quite some time explaining how things have changed. She recalled a case where a new hire was literally forced by his parents to take the job! Sure, that is a lousy way to feel any motivation for what you are about to do. It seems weird that there is already a generational gap between myself and those sixteen-year-olds. But I also experienced myself all kind of problems because we are short in part-time staff. As a part-time team leader I have to work with this group of employees as well. For example, Sunday shifts pay double and then they show up. But on other days they call in sick and are not cooperative at all in seeking replacement, leaving me with extra work. So solving this issue was for my own best as well! Based on my conversation with the store manager, we agreed to investigate the evidence for interventions to improve the work attitudes and performance of this new generation. This was the starting point of our project on evidence based human resource management.”
Back at the university, Tom discussed with his team about a strategy to collect local and external evidence. They all got enthusiastic to dive into the topic of motivational differences across generations. They divided the tasks of the team as follows: Tom and Jackie would go about collecting more information about case and study questions the issue in the supermarket, and Jasmine and Biruk would look for the available research evidence.
In discussing how to go about to really know the issue, Jackie stressed: “How do we know for sure that this is a generational issue? I would like to go and see how these employees think and behave. I think we have to hear their part of the story as well!” Tom agreed that it would be easy to organize a few talks with young employees of the supermarket. And he added that most of the team leaders were full-timers who had been working at the supermarket for many years. These would also make good informants to know more about the issue. Tom and Jackie called the store manager, explained their plan and agreed that Tom would do some talks with some of the young employees in the store, and that Tom and Jackie would talk together to a senior team leader to get a broad view on the issue. The local evidence for the project would thus exist of the information provided by the store manager, an interview with a senior team leader, and a number of informal talks with young employees. Table 1 shows the questions Tom asked to the young employees.
The questions we asked to the part-time employees were:
What is your age?
Why did you start working at the supermarket? Is this reason still valid?
Are you excited/motivated to come to work? Why?
Do you get motivated during your shift?
What kind of work do you like in the supermarket?
What do you think the management should do to motivate employees?
Jasmine and Biruk took the task to find external evidence in published research evidence. Jasmine recalled: “We were not really sure where to begin, so first we checked what type of literature we were looking for. Before, I did not really know what a meta-analysis was and I truly never heard of a systematic review. But I now get that these are a kind of summaries of the most important research findings. Our teacher advised us to write down search words for our literature search, and to include the type of publication as an additional search term. So we tried to combine terms like ‘age’, ‘adolescence’, ‘teenager’ and ‘generation’ with ‘work performance’, ‘work motivation’ and ‘job attitudes’. And we added the strings ‘meta*’ and ‘systematic review’ or ‘longitudinal’ to the search. You cannot believe the amount of hits we found! As a shortcut, we checked if the titles of our results included our topic. We selected about ten publications that seemed to meet our topic and looked part 1 in the abstract if it was the right type of article. As an extra check for the quality we looked to the number of citations. This way we found a very interesting article about our topic.” The first article that Jasmine found useful was called ‘Generational differences in work values: Leisure and extrinsic values increasing, social and intrinsic values decreasing’ (Twenge et al., 2010). This article describes a research that compares the work values of three cohorts of adolescents (in 1976, 1991, and 2006). It shows that the youngest generation is less likely to put work central in their lives. Moreover, the youngest generation was found to be more motivated by individualistic goals (having a fun job) than by community goals (contributing to the organization). This can be read that younger generations value their leisure time and are more focused to find out ‘what’s in it for me’ when it comes to work than previous generations. This could mean that there is a mismatch between what the supermarket is offering, and what the young employees hope to find in their jobs.
After two weeks, Tom and Jackie had finished the interviews and the team sat together to discuss the findings. After briefing each other about their progress, it stroke out that although most of the young employees said they started working to earn some extra money, the actual reason why they did not really like their jobs was in the way they were treated by the team leaders. Jackie read out the following excerpt from one interview:
“I work here for a year now, filling the shelfs of the same part of the supermarket all the time. After a while, the job gets quite boring. It would be better if there were some fun in working with peers. However, since I work in a different shift every week that does not really help. There are new part-timers all the time. Moreover, our supervisor is really bullying everyone around. You never hear a compliment, the only thing he does is yelling that we should hurry up. I will definitely leave as soon as a find a nicer side-job!”
The interviews seemed to indicate that the work values to have ‘fun’ were indeed important to this group of workers. Biruk remembered that this is a kind of intrinsic reward, as was told in one lecture, one that could evoke social exchange. Other than the tangible rewards in terms of financial rewards, intangible rewards are the enjoyment you find in doing the job itself. He suggested to find some more external research evidence on intangible rewards.
First, he found one meta-analysis from Cerasoli et al. (2014) that convincingly stated that intrinsic rewards are as important as extrinsic rewards. Actually, the findings showed that it is almost impossible for any individual to perform poorly, if they find personal satisfaction or enjoyment from a task! Therefore, while young employees may value their income a lot, they are more likely to perform well if they also find some enjoyment in what they are doing. case and study questions Biruk’s contribution led the group to question what management could do to make the jobs of part-timers more ‘fun’ to do. He found one big meta-analysis on all characteristics of jobs (such as the task itself, the social context and the relationship with supervisors) that influence how much fun employees experience at work: ‘Integrating motivational, social, and contextual work design features: A meta-analytic summary and theoretical extension of the work design literature’ (Humphrey et al., 2007). This article helped the group to understand which job characteristics could bring more fun in the jobs of part-time supermarket employees.
Finally, the group sat together to make up their minds about the information they collected. The implicit assumption that that the youngest generation is not committed to the interests of the supermarket, could be explained with research evidence on a shift in work values towards ‘what’s in it for me’ in younger generations (Twenge et al., 2010). However, what makes work fun is less dependent on these generational differences. Just like older workers, younger part-timers like to have some challenge and autonomy in their jobs, they like a nice team of colleagues and a supervisor who is supportive to them (Cerasoli et al., 2014; Humphrey et al., 2007). This finding was in contrast with the opinion of the senior supervisor who was interviewed by Jackie and Tom. In his opinion, “this new generation cannot be motivated for this kind of jobs anymore. Therefore you have to be very strict with them about their salaries. For example, I refuse to pay overtime if they are just too lazy to finish their tasks within their shifts”.
The team wrapped up their findings in a presentation, and advised to the store manager:
“We advise the management to focus on the quality of work of the part-time employees. Although money is of course critical, we did not find this to be the problem of attracting or motivating employees. We found that motivation of the younger generation of employees will grow by improving the work environment. In particular, supervisors should give positive feedback, and not just negative. Instead of ‘ ’punishing’ ’ employees for not reaching their goals by making them work unpaid overtime, you could try to motivate them to reach the goals by making them feel more responsible. This could be done by discussing work process improvements with them and by putting them in charge themselves. This increases their motivation at work, which will result in a better output during work hours, less overtime and fewer complaints about unpaid overtime. We predict that the improvement in the work environment will lead to a better motivation. We expect that these improvements will also lead to easier recruitment because of a more positive image of the job through word of mouth.”
Can you think of a ‘quick fix’ that the manager could have decided on if she had not asked Tom to do his project on evidence based human resource management?
How do you judge the quality of the local evidence collected by Tom and his team? Did Tom and Jackie ask the right questions to the employees (validity)? Is it likely that their findings would be repeated if another sample of employees were interviewed (reliability)? How do you judge the quality of the sample of informants (generalizability)? Which other organizational data could provide insight in the assumption that the performance and work attitudes of young part-time employees are a problem for the supermarket?
Look up the articles that Tom and his team used. How do you judge the quality of their external evidence? Which of the three articles is a single research? How do you judge the quality of this research for Tom’s project? Look into conditions for validity, reliability and generalizability of external evidence.
What are the implications of the team’s findings for the direct supervisors of the part-time young employees?
What could store management do implement the suggestions?
Check which ethical guidelines for research exist in your organization or university. How do you evaluate the treatment of informants in the organization in the supermarket case? What could you do to protect your informants (‘do no harm’)?