Lucy Kellaway: Numbers don’t stack up on the happy/grumpy ratio

Lucy Kellaway: Numbers don’t stack up on the happy/grumpy ratio Wells Fargo claims last year there were eight times as many Pollyannas as miserable sods

Lucy Kellaway

Happy employees, it is claimed, are more likely to do the right thing than unhappy ones

Happy employees, it is claimed, are more likely to do the right thing than unhappy ones

 

At Wells Fargo, managers have dreamt up a new ratio to track alongside such banking stalwarts as provision coverage and capital adequacy. It is called the happy:grumpy ratio, and measures how many cheery staff the bank employs for every curmudgeon.

The point of this exercise, executives told the Wall Street Journal last week, was that happy employees are more likely to do the right thing than unhappy ones.

Financial regulators, who have recently been exercising themselves about the nasty culture of banks, will no doubt be impressed. And they will be even more so when they see how this ratio is moving at the San Francisco bank. Only five years ago happy bankers (measured by their own assessment) outnumbered the grumpy ones by 3.8 to 1; by last year there were eight times as many Pollyannas at Wells Fargo as there were miserable sods.

When I first read about the happy: grumpy ratio, I thought it sounded so good it should become compulsory in the industry. Making banks produce such a number would force them to become less cut-throat places to work. And compared to most banking statistics, which are so complicated even clever people can’t fathom them, this one is simple enough that any idiot can grasp it in a second.

Yet the longer I think about the ratio, the less I find I understand it – and the less I like it.

Too good to be true Even its premise is dubious. Are workers who claim to be happy really less likely to do bad things? There are no numbers to prove it; neither is there any obvious reason it should be so. If what makes bankers happy is taking risks and making money, they will be even happier when they are up to no good – provided it results in lots of money falling into their laps.

 

Furthermore, if you are the sort of person who thinks it fine to diddle your bank out of billions of dollars, you are not going to worry about giving misleading answers on a staff satisfaction survey.

As for the numbers themselves, they look too good to be true. I don’t believe for a moment that the happy outnumber the grumpy by eight to one among Wells Fargo’s 260,000 people, nor is it likely that a ratio could double in such a short time.

According to a Gallup survey of 25 million workers there are twice as many unhappy as happy ones in the world. I am lucky to work in one of the happiest places in Britain: Financial Times journalists are generally treated well, management is light and (reasonably) benign and people are mostly doing something they love. But the ratio of happy to grumpy? Looking around at my colleagues I’d put it at 4:1 at best.

More fundamentally, there is little point in asking employees whether they are happy or not. The answer surely depends on who is asking, on what mood the subject is in, on their temperament and on what they consider “happy” to mean. To aggregate 260,000 unreliable answers and then treat the result as data on a par with tier one capital is really quite frightening.

Underlying it all is something even more basic. Should employers even aim to make their staff happy? I’m with Freud on this one. He said it wasn’t possible to make people happy; the best that could be hoped for was normal unhappiness.

Unhappy medium This should be the goal at work too. Banks, and all other employers, should try to become places where employees are not abnormally unhappy.

To see how well they are doing, there are two statistics they should monitor, both of which are objective and impossible to game. The first is staff turnover. If people are more than normally unhappy, they tend to leave. So if your staff turnover is greater than that of your competitors, you know at once you have a problem.

The second measure is the ratio of what the bank’s hotshots get paid to what the security guard gets. We know that perceived unfairness and inequality both make people unhappy; so when this gap gets wider the culture worsens.

There is a third measure that is less objective and harder to measure, but may be even more important than the other two. It is to monitor how many friends people have at work. All the general happiness data show a powerful correlation between the number of close friends and happiness; the same surely holds in the office – at least, it holds in mine. The main reason I am never abnormally unhappy at work is because I have three true friends among my colleagues.

If Wells Fargo produced such a statistic, I doubt if it would tell the regulator whether a scandal was round the corner. But it would tell us something profound about its bankers’ happiness or lack of it, and it would give prospective employees an excellent idea as to whether they would like to work there or not.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015)

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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