Top Reasons Why Americans Stay At Their Jobs (And What It Means For The Presidential Campaign)

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What’s the No. 1 reason people continue working for their employer? Is it the pay? The benefits? A lack of better options? Those are obvious answers, especially given today’s unemployment numbers and sluggish economy. But they’re not  the correct ones. The top reasons Americans give for not leaving their current job are  “I enjoy the work I do” and it “fits well with the other areas of  my life.” That’s according to a new survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association, which contains a number of revealing insights into employee motivation that ought to be of interest to corporate managers and governmental policy makers.The APA’s “Workforce Retention Survey” was conducted by Harris Interactive in early August. Some 1,240 full- and part-time workers, age 18 or older, were asked to evaluate nine common reasons for staying with a current employer. Here’s how their answers ranked, as measured by the percentage of participants who said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with a statement:

  • I enjoy the work I do (67%)
  • My job fits well with the other areas of my life (67%)
  • The benefits (60%)
  • The pay (59%)
  •  I feel connected to the organization (56%)
  • My co-workers (51%)
  • My job gives me the opportunity to make a difference (51%)
  • My manager (40%)
  • There aren’t any other job opportunities for me (39%)

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Surveys can only tell you so much, of course. But as much as anything, these top-line results suggest that despite all the media coverage about the U.S. economy, most employed Americans feel confident enough about their work situation to value the fulfillment they get from their job as much as—and sometimes more than— the financial rewards they receive or their prospects for alternative employment. That might be of particular interest to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, given its official’s insistence that what their candidate really wants to talk about is the economy. Voters, especially unemployed voters, certainly worry about job creation and GDP growth, but perhaps not the extent that the Republicans seem to believe.

Mostly, people care about being happy and enjoying their lives, including their work lives. That’s true for experienced workers—those 55 and older—80% of whom rank enjoying their work highest among reasons given (vs. 58% of those 18 to 34). And it’s true for female workers, too. Indeed, the APA survey opens a window into Gov. Romney’s difficulties connecting to women voters, in that female respondents were consistently more likely than men to cite non-financial factors as major reasons for staying on the job. For example, 72% of women cited the work-life fit, vs. 62% of men. Likewise, 59% of women cited a connection to the organization for which they worked, vs. 53% of men.

Men and women, in general, consistently weighed their reasons for sticking around differently, not least when it comes to the other humans. Some 55% of women, for instance, cited their co-workers as a major reason for not taking another job, vs. 48% of men. And nearly half (46%) of all women say their boss is a big reason why they don’t quit, vs. slightly more than the one in three (34%) men who agree with that sentiment.

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Of particular interest to HR types and the Obama campaign is the connection between reasons for not having left a job and the intent to stay. (Employees’ reported intent to stay and reported intent to leave have consistently proven to be strongly correlated to what they actually end up doing.) As you might expect, given the survey’s top-line result, work-life balance and enjoyment have the strongest correlation to tenure expectations. That is, the biggest drivers of employees planning to stay in their jobs the longest were the extent to which they enjoy their work and the degree to which their jobs fits with the rest of their live. But the third-strongest correlation was neither pay nor benefits, but rather connection to the organization. (Also of note: Both the ability to make a difference and an attachment to co-workers figured more heavily in tenure predictions than pay.)

This should be interesting to HR types, and others who worry about employee retention, because it’s clear that one way to keep your best people from jumping overboard is to make them feel more connected to the ship. Compensation is obviously important, but not as much as economists would tell you. Likewise, the Obama campaign might want to expend less energy pounding the drumbeat of diminished middle class buying power (as real as it is). Few people, of course, will tell pollsters that they wouldn’t want more money to spend. But when you ask folks about their economic motivations and concerns from a different angle—which this survey in many ways does—it’s clear that Americans place a very high value on something you don’t hear a lot about in campaign ads: job satisfaction and meaning. No wonder so many of us like working with each other.

6 comments
neworleanskath
neworleanskath

I don't know about this poll's accuracy, but I sure do know a lot of people who work at jobs they hate but are afraid to quit in this economy and also feel very discouraged when they do job hunt.

DanJoliet
DanJoliet

How can this even be a viable survey? 1,240 people were interviewed, and  last I knew there were over 154,000,000 workers.  They would have to increase the number polled by at least a factor of 100 to be statistically accurate.

NicHautamaki
NicHautamaki

Of course people are going to put 'concerns about finding another job' last in the survey; everyone wants to believe they could find a better job tomorrow if they wanted to, but they just don't want to because the job they have is just so darn good.  It's simple rational self deception in order to protect the ego in many cases, which I'm sure the actual study itself notes, even if this article written about it ignores that very strong likelihood.

Another quibble I'd have with the survey is that it seems to ignore the fact that quitting your job before finding another one is a huge financial risk that will cost most people thousands of dollars in lost pay while they search for a new job with no guarantee of being able to find a better one, but at the same time looking for a new job while keeping your old one is a huge time and energy commitment that most people are not willing to invest in unless they truly hate their jobs but truly cannot afford to go a few weeks or, likely, more, without pay.

So given the fact that it is difficult, time consuming, and expensive to quit your job and look for a new one, isn't it only logical that people will keep the job they have unless it's truly atrocious?  But isn't the myth that we could find a great job tomorrow if we had to so comforting?  So given these contradictory truths, we reconcile them with a very rosy outlook on the job that we have.  However most of us can't be rosy about the pay/benefits--these are hard and fast numbers that we can't easily deceive ourselves about, and obviously, like the author notes, almost all of us wish we could be making more because almost all of us are in the 99%.  However job satisfaction or how conveniently it fits into our lives or our relationship with our coworkers are very subjective factors that we can very easily deceive ourselves about; so naturally those are the factors we give when we explain why we keep the job we have, even though we all love to pretend to ourselves that we could find another better job easily if we had to.

Nonaffiliated
Nonaffiliated

"almost all of us wish we could be making more because almost all of us are in the 99%"

Apparently, you're not a representative 99%'er.  Remember, it's the 1% that are greedy.  The 99% are all about personal relationships, caring for one another, and doing personally rewarding work...not making more money.  It seems your attitude, if not your bank account,  is more suited to the 1%.

vstillwell
vstillwell

Where did they give this survey? San Francisco? New York City? Hey, they should give this survey at an Amazon Fullfillment center. That would be a hoot.