Employment and Jobs

Breaking the Cycle: How Good Jobs Transform Companies

December 6, 2023  • Frances Almodovar

Companies across industries are struggling to find and keep workers, because too many offer low-paying, stressful jobs that provide little chance for growth and success. On May 10, the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program hosted a book talk with author Zeynep Ton, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and president and co-founder of the Good Jobs Institute. Ton visited the Institute’s Washington DC office to share insights from her new book, “The Case for Good Jobs: How Great Companies Bring Dignity, Pay, and Meaning to Everyone’s Work,” in conversation with Institute Vice President and EOP Executive Director Maureen Conway.

Throughout the conversation, Ton interweaved findings from “The Case for Good Jobs” with those of her previous book, “The Good Jobs Strategy.” She began by highlighting contrasting approaches to running a company. One approach is to see employees as a cost to be minimized, which leads to what Ton called “a vicious cycle of high turnover and reduced productivity.” The second approach is to see employees as human beings who can drive profit, customer satisfaction, and growth. This approach is an investment in people and operational choices that serve to advance good jobs strategies.

Ton conveyed how, after the publication of her first book, many company executives reached out to describe how they’ve implemented the good job strategies. Others confessed they were stuck in the vicious cycle and didn’t know how to become unstuck. These interactions prompted Ton to co-found the nonprofit Good Jobs Institute to explore the “what” of good job strategies and develop a” how” that companies could adopt to create better jobs.

“A good jobs strategy is a system,” Ton admitted, “and making system changes is not easy.” She presented key operational strategies that help companies like Costco, Trader Joe’s, and QuikTrip prosper. By creating good jobs and investing in their employees, they generate excellent outcomes for their customers. They use specific operational design choices to make employee investment worthwhile, by increasing the productivity and contributions of their workers.

“These decisions change people’s lives; these numbers are human beings or natural resources.” – Zeynep Ton

The conversation shifted to highlight the importance of human perspectives in job design systems. Humans ought to reside at the center of the system that companies want to create, and an over-reliance on metrics could lead to cutting ethical corners, Ton warned. Leaders must remember they have the agency to make the right decisions because executives play a crucial role in creating a good jobs system. External influences sway operational decisions, but these influences lack the appropriate perspectives to offer the correct solutions. Investors, for example, make decisions based primarily on sales and company outcomes. The demands they impose on companies may offer solutions that are counterproductive to the goal of job quality and introduce a greater degree of distrust from workers.

Ton explained that leaders often have a different value system and mental model than the average consumer and worker. In their minds, it’s unacceptable to operate with high turnover, nor is it good that their employees are not making enough to make ends meet. Yet, they insist on focusing on their customers, instead of their employees, to create value for their investors. In a state of reduced productivity, it often becomes apparent to executive leaders that they need an empowered, capable workforce to deliver to their customers in a way that consistently meets their standard of satisfaction.

“Most people, almost all people, go to work to be able to do a good job.” – Zeynep Ton

Next, Ton examined what happens when companies decenter their employees and operate with high turnover. Drawing on the concept of “corporate disabilities,” she noted how many companies are hindered in their ability to hire the right people and train them well. Managers are set up to fight fires constantly. They are not given the time to hire people directly or to enforce the good hiring practices that may be present. Ton stated, “If you don’t hire the right people or train them well, your employees are, by design, not capable.” Here, the company unwittingly plants the seed for a distrust loop, where leaders assume that employers are incapable of doing their jobs, so they implement systems that workers need to work against in order to complete their job. Workers are set up to perform poorly and are left to question if their leaders know what they’re doing.

Ton closed with a set of “do’s” to consider when implementing good job strategies, starting with pay. Nothing else matters if employees aren’t paid enough to have agency in their lives. It’s how employees get out of the vicious cycle of poverty, and it’s how companies get out of the vicious cycle of mediocrity. Still, it is only one component of a good jobs system, along with good benefits, stable scheduling, professional development opportunities, and participatory management practices. To make a difference, leaders must consider the needs of both customers and employees and include employees in their decisions.

There is no doubt that to implement good job strategies leaders require courage. However, only a little courage is needed because, as Ton presents in her book, there is, in fact, a strong case for good jobs.

The Case for Good Jobs: How Great Companies Bring Dignity, Pay, and Meaning to Everyone’s Work is available for purchase now. Check out the clips below for additional highlights from the conversation.