What Is a Hygiene Factor?

by Ruth Mayhew - Updated June 07, 2018
Deciding your future

Curious about what motivates workers, clinical psychologist Frederick Herzberg embarked upon research to find out what employees want from their jobs. His research, coined the two-factor motivation-hygiene theory, focused on what motivates employees. Its basis is human behavior and fulfillment of basic human needs. Herzberg's motivation-hygiene theory sheds light on how intrinsic satisfaction – not just money – is what compels employees to perform at optimal levels in the workplace.

What Is a Hygiene Factor?

Herzberg's 1959 two-factor motivation-hygiene research identified several factors that motivate and demotivate employees. He called the demotivators hygiene factors because these are common factors in any work environment, but if they are not present, or if the hygiene factors are in any way managed or implemented improperly, they cause employees to be demotivated and disillusioned with their jobs.

List of Hygiene Factors

The hygiene factors that Herzberg identified during his research are:

  • Wages, or generally referred to today as compensation and benefits.
  • Workplace policies, such as company rules, procedures and processes.
  • Working conditions, including physical and psychological workplace safety.
  • Interpersonal relationships with co-workers, team members, peers and colleagues.
  • Supervision, referring to the manager-employee relationship or the relationship between leadership and staff.

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Where It All Begins: Maslow's Theory

Herzberg used his psychology training as the foundation to provide management consulting for private-sector and public-sector employees. But it wasn't until an employee asked Herzberg what motivates workers that he considered Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Maslow's hierarchy theory places human needs on a pyramid, beginning with human physiological needs such as food, sleep and physical health as fundamental to survival. These fundamental needs are the easiest to achieve, according to Maslow's theory. Progressing upwards, humans also need safety – as in shelter and the avoidance of danger, and a sense of belonging – as in affection and love from others. Self-esteem and confidence from others are second from the highest on the pyramid. Self-actualization is at the top of the pyramid, and according to Maslow, is the most difficult to attain.

Fundamental to Herzberg's research is aligning Maslow's hierarchy of needs to work life. The physiological needs are met by earning a wage – the pay that employees receive goes toward fulfilling the physiological needs of food and water. These are needs that are required for humans to exist, and thus critical before you can even think about achieving the next stage in the pyramid: safety and well-being. Safety and well-being also are fulfilled by being engaged in regular work. The ability to provide shelter for the employee and her family are critical, yet they are secondary needs, according to Maslow's hierarchy theory.

Many employees have a sense of belonging just because they spend eight hours a day with team members or a group of people with whom they share a common mission under one organizational structure. If they feel they are engaged in meaningful work, the sense of belonging may be even stronger. Employees feel accepted and appreciated when this human need is met through the stability of working with colleagues who, for the most part, enjoy their daily interactions.

Self-esteem is second from the top of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, and the second most difficult to achieve. But here is where recognition comes into play – employee self-esteem improves when they receive recognition for their work. Recognition isn't a reward; it's not a monetary gift based on employee performance. Recognition is a pat on the back for a job well done or a public "thank you" in the presence of their peers. In addition to the employee's self-esteem, other employees respect the recognized employee and value the employee's contributions to the team and the organization.

Self-actualization – the most difficult to achieve – is realizing one's goals or engaging in something that prepares the employee for the next stage in her career. For example, an employee who takes on a new responsibility is doing so to either prove she's capable of higher-level work. Or she is interested in professional development, a result of on-the-job learning or exposure to additional duties and tasks.

Herzberg's Hygiene Factors

Herzberg draws a unique parallel between motivators and hygiene factors. He combines them to create his two-factor, motivation-hygiene theory. In his research, Herzberg interviewed employees to determine what they felt were satisfiers and dissatisfiers in the workplace. Herzberg determined that satisfiers are workplace motivators, and dissatisfiers are hygiene factors. Interestingly, according to Herzberg, the hygiene factors that lead to dissatisfaction among employees are constants in the workplace: wages and workplace policies; working conditions; relationships with co-workers; supervisor-employee relationships; and overall supervision or being in a subordinate position.

The satisfiers are motivating factors that are present in many working environments and employment circumstances. According to Herzberg, the satisfiers are job duties, responsibilities and tasks, growth and opportunity for advancement and achievement and recognition by peers and supervisors. What's evident from this list of satisfiers is that money or tangible rewards are not among the satisfiers.

Herzberg's findings pretty much confirm the theory that employees don't leave their jobs because of low pay or lack of monetary rewards, the subject of human resources guru Leigh Branham's book, "The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave." Branham's survey of nearly 20,000 employees revealed that employees look for jobs elsewhere because they don't feel like their work is valued, they don't trust leadership and supervisors don't provide the kind of support they need to be successful.

Why Hygiene Factors Matter to Business

It doesn't take a research study to know that sustaining a business is every company's goal. On the other hand, research is often the only way to reveal what motivates employees (satisfiers)and conversely what demotivates them (dissatisfiers). Herzberg's research goal was to identify the hygiene factors that demotivate employees because of the profound effect it has on the company's bottom line. While the demotivating hygiene factors are necessary for a company to survive, if the manifestation of these hygiene factors is off-center, it can eventually cause the business to have to shut its doors.

Herzberg's hygiene factors are wages and workplace policies, working conditions, relationships with co-workers, supervisor-employee relationships and being in a subordinate position. When hygiene factors are off-center, it means they aren't correctly implemented, not consistently applied, misaligned with the company goals or not right for the type of business or industry.

For example, although wages are a necessary hygiene factor, many things can go wrong without a fair compensation and benefits package. There are many other reasons why employees look for jobs elsewhere, but money is among the least likely reasons why employees leave, according to Leigh Branham's research. However, staffing firm Robert Half surveyed finance professionals – chief financial officers and staff –and learned that salary and benefits accounted for the reason why 38 percent of CFOs and 28 percent of staff would quit their jobs. But turnover isn't the only thing companies should be worried about where the hygiene factor is concerned. It's a crucial factor for business because poor wages or a noncompetitive compensation and benefits package can create low morale among the workforce. Also detrimental to your business, is getting a reputation for paying low wages and not compensating workers fairly.

Other hygiene factors, such as workplace policies and working conditions, can also adversely affect a business if they work against employees. When your HR department implements policies that benefit only company leadership, or if your working conditions are unsafe, you should expect overall job satisfaction to plummet. On the other hand, if your workplace policies are well-thought-out and clearly communicated to employees and leadership, your entire workforce will appreciate and abide by the rules. Workplace policies must be applied in a nondiscriminatory manner without regard to position, status or non-job-related factors like gender, ethnicity, race or religion.

The remaining hygiene factors in Herzberg's research – relationships with co-workers, supervisor-employee relationships and overall supervision or leadership – are all necessary elements in the workplace. They, too, are essential for business because, according to Branham's research, poor leadership is one of the primary reasons why employees look for opportunities elsewhere. Ineffective relationships in the workplace can cause employees to become disengaged and demotivated.

Companies that value their employees won't have these problems since they focus on team-building and team development to nurture cohesive and collaborative working relationships. Placing a high value on employees is how companies turn around the Herzberg hygiene factors and make them work for the company instead of allowing these factors to cause workplace malaise.

How to Keep Employees Satisfied

Herzberg's research is a sort of playbook for employers. Based on the motivators that he identifies, keeping employees satisfied should be simple for employers. The satisfiers are job duties, responsibilities and tasks, growth and opportunity for advancement and achievement and recognition by peers and supervisors. To be motivated, employees' job duties, responsibilities and tasks should be matched to their skills, qualifications and interests. This process starts with the recruitment and selection process and should continue throughout the employment relationship.

Jobs and their requirements are bound to change over time. Having accurate job descriptions is important, but simply updating the job description isn't enough. A job analysis is essential, and getting feedback from employees about their day-to-day responsibilities and tasks is critical for maintaining accurate job descriptions. One of the ways this satisfier can be motivating for employees is to explore job rotations. Job rotation exposes employees to other jobs and functions within the company. It also gives them opportunities to acquire new skills and learn about other areas in the company that interest them.

While a good match of skills, qualifications, interests, employee responsibilities and tasks is a motivator, so is growth and opportunity. Providing employees with the opportunity to learn and grow in their field conveys an important message. It says that you value the employee's contributions and that you're interested and invested in their success. Victor Lipman, a contributor for Forbes, says in his January 2014 article, "The potential for growth is a huge motivational difference-maker." And it's not just promotions and raises that Lipman says are motivators. He also includes, "financial growth, career growth, professional growth and personal growth."

A well-rounded approach to providing growth opportunities can create an engaged and satisfied workforce. In this context, professional growth and personal growth can be opportunities that are not directly related to the employee's current job. When you give employees a chance to learn a new skill or to lead a project because they demonstrate the technical skills or leadership capabilities you need, that's both professional and personal growth. It's also recognition when you select an employee based on her skills and aptitude, and recognition is one of the motivators that Herzberg identifies.

Recognizing employees for their contributions is a tremendous motivating force. Employee recognition and employee reward are two very different concepts – it's the latter that involves money, such as a bonus or gift to show your appreciation. Recognition, however, can include anything from a casual "thank you for a job well done," to commending the employee for her work during an all-staff meeting. Recognizing employee achievements, particularly when co-workers are present, is an ideal way to motivate employees. This can motivate all employees, not just the employee you recognize. Employees who witness their employer publicly (or privately) praising a co-worker's accomplishments not only are proud of the co-worker, but they typically will think highly of the company for recognizing employees.

About the Author

Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

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