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Why employers dont really want happy workers


<b>Richard Donkin explains why we need to confront our assumptions about what really stirs us to work</b>

What is a successful life? The question has been niggling me for some time now since I heard that it was the title of an essay by Luc Ferry, Frances education minister.

Ferrys question has launched a debate in the French media in which a string of worthies have been airing their views. But this is far too important a question to be confined to France alone. It goes to the heart of why we do what we do and forces us to consider some uncomfortable truths about ourselves.

I asked my wife how she would define a successful life. Its one where an individual has found contentment and happiness, she replied. This seemed a perfectly reasonable response but it started an argument. How do you square contentment with ambition, I asked? Suffice it to say that we nearly came to blows.

Transferred to the workplace Ferrys question challenges employers to examine their attitudes to employees and what they want from them. We used to think we knew what it was that workers were seeking. By common consent it was job satisfaction.

But in todays productivity-focused workplace we dont hear too much about unfashionable job satisfaction any more. Ask yourself what the people who run things want to see in their subordinates contentment or ambition?

If you dont know the answer to this one, consider how you would react at a job interview if you were asked about your ambition. Would you expect to get the job if you were to say that your ambition was to be content and happy? I dont think so.

I believe that most employers do not want satisfied employees. Its probably true also that many of us do not want it of ourselves. Contentment or satisfaction can lead to stasis and stagnation. If we are agreed about this it follows that the happy workforce must be a myth.

Performance management - the modern way - demands goals, targets and self-development. Every one of us is under pressure to achieve. At law firm Clifford Chance, achievement for its junior lawyers in the US equated to the number of hours billed for their time. These figures, as the lawyers themselves pointed out, were barely achievable without padding the practice of billing for more time than is actually worked.

This is an eternal issue for those who charge by the hour. Some time ago I carried out a project for a firm of HR consultants. The overall fee was agreed at the outset, and I then received a timetable for billable hours. This did not alter my approach to the job it would take as long as it would take. My aim was to do the work to the best of my abilities in the shortest possible time.

Unfortunately we have an employment market that still equates quality of work with time spent. It may be that Clifford Chance has the best lawyers in the business, and if so they should be able to charge large fees without resorting to padding. But they know that potential clients look at the hourly rates they charge in addition to the quality of service.

The days of hourly billing must come to an end and suppliers must begin to work on agreed fees. This is not easy when the work input is not clear. But surely HR professionals, who have done so much to introduce flexible working systems, can come up with something better.

Even the employment that has to be based on hours worked - in manufacturing, for example - is often poorly designed. French manufacturers are way ahead of the British in securing annualised hours agreements, which is one reason why they can maintain higher productivity with a 35-hour week. They focus on organising the necessary work. In the UK we still tend to concentrate on time spent at work, so much of which, we must acknowledge, is time wasted.

If a successful life is to be defined in part by what Rudyard Kipling described as filling the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run, the HR profession needs to undertake some hard thinking about what employees want and what is wanted from employment. Match the two effectively and, as Kipling suggested, Yours is the Earth and everything thats in it.

Richard Donkin is employment columnist at the Financial Times