Retaining desirable workers in a less-than-desirable workplace: perspectives of line staff and jail administrators.

Author:Stinchcomb, Jeanne B.
 
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Working behind bars in often outdated facilities with inadequate resources and involuntary clients ranging from murder suspects to alcoholics, drug addicts and the undomiciled mentally ill is not a job to which everyone would aspire. As a result, it is not surprising to find that a considerable amount of workplace-related research in corrections has explored both job satisfaction and employee retention concerns (Dennis. 1998: Dowd. 2007; Gibbons and de B. Katzenbach, 2006; Kimball and Nick. 2006: Lambert, 2001; Lambert, Hogan and Barton, 2002; Mitchell et al., 2000; Price. Kiekbusch and Thesis, 2007; McCampbell. Stinchcomb and Leip, 2009; Slate, Vogel and Johnson, 2001). Much of the existing literature on these topics, however, is either somewhat anecdotal or uniquely applicable to state or federal prisons, with relatively little emerging from empirical research on local jails. Moreover, among the limited jail-based studies that have focused on such issues, virtually none are nationwide in scope; and it is almost equally rare for research subjects to include both line officers and administrators.

This study represents an effort to address such shortcomings by analyzing results from a national jail survey encompassing both administrative and operational staff. Providing insights into workplace-related features that can help to promote employee retention in America's jails, it addresses a population as well as a topic that have both been cited as "critically understudied" (Lambert and Paoline, 2010). Beyond expanding jail-based empirical research, however, this study also embraces the more pragmatic objective of providing correctional administrators with data-based Insights into features of the workplace that are potentially influential in terms of employee retention. From the dual perspectives of both line staff and facility administrators, results reveal how closely administrative perceptions of key retention factors are aligned with what employees themselves rate as important to keeping them on the job--providing empirical justifications for strategic retention initiatives. Armed with such evidence-based insights, jail administrators are in a better position to determine whether they are maximizing their agency's capacity for retaining qualified employees, and thereby, reducing costly turnover.

Literature Review

In light of the substantial unemployment rates that have characterized the labor market in recent years, correctional managers may be tempted to dismiss turnover among line staff as being of little significant concern. Yet lack of attention to worker attrition prompted by currently high unemployment rates may well be a short-lived luxury (Stinchcomb and Leip, 2010a), as the inevitable cycle of economic recovery can eventually be expected to erode the current supply of job seekers. With or without a steady stream of applicants waiting to fill vacant positions, however, to some administrators, attrition is simply viewed as the ongoing, uncontrollable consequence of a generally unattractive workplace--the inherent "cost of doing business" in corrections.

Job satisfaction and thoughts about quitting. A significant, amount of literature has emerged on job satisfaction within corrections, along with its relationship to thoughts about leaving the field. Keeping in mind that most of this research is prison-based, the job satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) of correctional officers has been linked with everything from the pressures of working with inmates to perceptions of managerial fairness, respect for leadership, relationships with supervisors, decision-making processes, interpersonal communications and even physical attributes of the workplace (Castle, 2008; Garland, McCarty and Zhao, 2009: Griffin, 2001; Lambert. Hogan and Barton, 2002; Slate and Vogel, 1997; Taxman and Gordon, 2009).

Moreover, the impact of job satisfaction has often been included in corrections-related research as an independent variable contributing to everything from thoughts about quitting (Byrd, Cochran, Silverman and Blount. 2000: Lambert and Hogan, 2009; Lambert and Paoline, 2010) to burnout (Garland, McCarty and Zhao, 2009: Whitehead and Lindquist, 1986) and work-induced stress (Castle and Martin, 2006; Dowden and Tellier. 2004; Grossi, Keil and Vito, 1996). While it is apparent that various aspects of the work environment appear to be influential factors in terms of maintaining job satisfaction and employee retention, the potential effect of "bread-and-butter" issues surrounding salary and benefits cannot be dismissed. On that topic, however, relatively few studies have been conducted, and results have been inconclusive. While no relationship between Job satisfaction and compensation has been reported by some researchers (Camp and Steiger, 1995; Hepburn and Knepper, 1993), salary-related perceptions have also been found to be positively associated with job satisfaction (Lambert, 2004).

Essentially, the message of much of the literature on this topic is that those who are not obtaining appropriate levels of satisfaction from their employment--either as a result of unsatisfactory conditions in the workplace or inadequate levels of compensation--are more vulnerable than others: or are more likely to quit. In an effort to more specifically identify potential reasons for their departure, some agencies administer employee exit surveys in order to learn what is needed to retain their best employees. Perhaps an even more creative practice, some of the more progressive organizations now also conduct retention surveys. These serve to determine not why some people leave, but rather, why others are inclined to stay (Stinchcomb, McCampbell and Leip, 2009). In that respect, the research reported here could essentially be considered a national jail retention study, reflecting the insights of both line staff and jail administrators in terms of what they think is important for keeping good employees on the job.

Foundations in motivational research. Since job satisfaction reflects the extent to which an employee's needs are being met, it stands to reason that what motivates (or distresses) someone at work is also likely to have a commensurate impact on that person's degree of satisfaction. In fact, one review of the literature describes job satisfaction as a multidimensional concept reflecting both positive and negative motivators in one's work environment (Barnes, Shelley, Logsdon and Sutherland, 2003). Thus, it is not surprising to find that the organizational variables which have been so productively explored in relation to job satisfaction are anchored in long-standing empirical foundations of workforce-related motivational research.

Bureaucratic and scientific management theories. In that context, Weber's 1947 bureaucratic model--with its hierarchical distribution of power, emphasis on rationality and standardized operating procedures--paved the way for early research on this topic during the scientific management era, focused on maximizing efficiency through clearly-defined tasks and the extrinsic reward of compensation based on productivity (Weber, 1947). According to this viewpoint, both workers and organizations mutually profit from a highly-structured environment where employees are paid according to their output (Taylor, 1947). Based on the theory that most people are economically motivated, the Taylorism theory elevated the status of extrinsic incentives such as compensation and benefits.

Yet given America's long-standing legacy of liberty, self-determination and autonomy, critics of the stifling principles of bureaucracy and scientific management began to question the legitimacy of repressive control, suggesting that it not only threatened inherent democratic values, but also could result in worker alienation (Kohn, 1976; Mouzelis, 1968). Related criticism extended to denouncing the spread of bureaucracy as threatening "all genuine human relationships (Smith, 1969)." Ultimately, the organizational result of this backlash emerged in the form of advocating a more participatory, decentralized approach to management, with greater emphasis on the motivational power of human relations.

Human relations theory. Beginning with the ground-breaking Hawthorne studies (Mayo, 1946) and the subsequent research of such pioneers as Azgyris (1962). Herzberg (1966), Likert (1967), MacGregor (1978) and Maslow (1986), such intrinsic variables as human needs and workplace interactions emerged as key factors influencing productivity and satisfaction on the job, undermining the validity of earlier theories focused exclusively on the motivational value of money. With recognition that work is of intrinsic value as well as a means of economic support, the emphasis of managerial literature shifted in the direction of human relations, advocating greater employee involvement, participation and recognition through a variety of more personalized, decentralized organizational approaches ultimately ranging from quality management (Deming, 1986) to searching for excellence (Peters and Waterman, 1982), leading with the heart (Kouzes and Posner, 1999) and similar initiatives.

Among these human relations-oriented approaches to management, perhaps the most central to this study is Herzberg's (1966) "dual factor" theory. According to Herzberg, two groups of organizational variables exert an influence on workers--i.e., "hygiene factors" and "motivators." Those labeled hygiene factors include all of the extrinsic incentives that management uses to retain and motivate workers, such as salaries, fringe benefits, status, security and similar economic perks. According to Herzberg, however, the most that such extrinsic variables can be expected to accomplish is to prevent workers from becoming too dissatisfied. In other words, the variables may prevent attrition or performance regression, but they are not likely to stimulate employee growth or development. To...

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