Worker satisfaction has slipped in US, survey indicates

American workers are less satisfied with their companies now than at any time in the past eight years, new data show. And employee unhappiness may grow, experts say, as companies scale back the size of pay increases they plan to give this year.

While all types of workers have grown less pleased with their employers, the level of satisfaction varies both with the type of company and the kind of work an individual does.

''Middle managers are the most satisfied with companies as a place to work, followed by professionals, clericals, and then by hourly workers, who are the least satisfied,'' says Joseph Parente, project director at the Hay Group, a compensation consulting firm.

Only 78 percent of middle managers are satisfied with their company as a place to work, vs. 90 percent eight years ago, according to data from a Hay survey of 1,200 companies and 250,000 employees which was completed earlier this year. During the same period, professional worker satisfaction slipped from 74 percent to 60 percent, clerical worker happiness declined from 69 to 52 percent, and hourly-worker satisfaction dipped from 58 percent to 47 percent.

The Hay findings echo results of a study conducted late last year by the Opinion Research Corporation, which found workers giving their employers the lowest satisfaction ratings since 1950.

''Typically managers are very satisfied with everything about their company, while other (workers) are not,'' says Patricia Reed, an ORC research associate. ''Hourly workers are usually the most dissatisfied. We found that not only is that gap (between managers and hourly workers) closing, sometimes it is reversed.''

The happiest people are those who work at rapidly growing enterprises. For example, only 45 percent of the professional workers at low-growth companies are satisfied with their companies. But in high-growth operations almost three-quarters of the professional workers are satisfied, the Hay data show.

Growth companies offer ''lots of excitement, lots of challenging work to be done,'' explains Ronald C. Pilenzo, president of the American Society for Personnel Administration, a trade group that represents personnel executives. ''Any organization that is rapidly growing has lots of opportunity to hire and promote.''

Experts offer a variety of explanations for the slipping satisfaction levels elsewhere. A major cause is the effects of the recession, including layoffs and salary reductions or freezes.

''This recession is unique, in that even top management people have been affected,'' Mr. Pilenzo says. Many companies have also failed to heed the employee's need to help make decisions affecting his job, he adds.

Then too, workers' expectations have grown. Companies ''have to deal with a much more sophisticated employee,'' says Michael Conover, a principal at Sibson & Co., another compensation consulting firm. ''People have been sensitized to the workplace and are better informed than they were 10 years ago.'' That is, they expect to get more out of work than a paycheck.

The outlook for raises this year may add to worker unhappiness. A new study by Hewitt Associates found that roughly one-third of the 710 companies surveyed have reduced their salary budget estimates since last fall. As a result, salaried workers will now receive an average 6.1 percent raise, vs. 6.7 percent forecast earlier.

The lowered estimates hit all salaried employee groups. Executive raises were expected to average 6.8 percent but now are slated to average 6.2 percent. Managers on the average will now get 6.1 percent increases, vs. 6.7 percent projected last fall. And clerical employees should average increases of 5.9 percent, down from earlier estimates of 6.6 percent.

The outlook for lower raises ''is very definitely going to cause employee relations or communications problems for companies which don't have good systems in effect to explain'' what's behind the smaller boosts, Mr. Conover says.

There are a number of reasons for reduction in raises, the Hewitt report says. Some companies tie pay to inflation, so with the inflation rate under control, raises can be lower. Lower union wage settlements also put less pressure on companies to boost white-collar pay.

Some companies are still affected by the recession. Thus, pressure remains to control salary costs. Finally, many of them track salary plans with the marketplace. With overall salary increases coming down, companies can give smaller raises and justify this on the basis of the market, the Hewitt study notes.

The forecast of lower raises for 1983 comes on the heels of less than robust increases in '82. The average salary for white-collar jobs in medium and large companies increased less in the year ended in March than in the previous two years, according to the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For the 24 occupations in the latest survey, increases ranged from 4.2 to 9.7 percent, with the median at 7.1 percent. All but two of the occupations racked up increases below those pocketed in 1981 and '82.

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