One of the impressive findings of the J.D. Power and Associates new-home builder customer satisfaction survey released a few weeks ago is the substantial jump in satisfaction scores when compared to 2002's results (see "Happier Home Buyers"). Some question whether the increases may be more a function of studying to pass the test -- a question we explore further in this issue (see "Power Play"). But the fact remains, the satisfaction scores builders are earning these days are significantly better than a few years ago. That's a well-earned tribute to a lot of effort by many builders.

But there is another "customer" builders need to do a better job satisfying -- the rank-and-file managers and employees who work for them.

A new study commissioned by Big Builder magazine suggests that while a vast majority of home building company managers say they are satisfied with where they work, there remains a significant and potentially corrosive undercurrent of workplace discontent (see "Ties That Bind"). That discontent emerges along three fault lines.

The first involves the lack of empowerment and participation many perceive within their companies. Only four out of 10 big builder employees and managers surveyed felt "my employer keeps me informed about the matters that impact me." The problem goes deeper than insufficient communication. The companies where employees are satisfied include those where "people within my organization communicate comfortably, regardless of position or title." That doesn't happen for nearly half the employees we surveyed.

A second fault line occurs where senior executives don't walk the talk. Employees report high degrees of satisfaction when their leaders are direct, honest, inclusive, and hold themselves accountable for what they promise. Fortunately, three out of four employees feel that sense of integrity where they work. But when they don't, it can have a disproportionately negative impact on their work -- and where they work.

The third fault line lies buried with employees' fears about how well they're doing their jobs. Many employees feel insecure about their job performance. What they want is certain: punctual performance reviews conducted according to known criteria and compensation commensurate with the work performed. Nearly half of the employees we surveyed said they don't fully and clearly understand all the factors used to measure their performance; and less than half said their last performance review was conducted in a timely way, as promised.

Those fault lines seem to intersect most often among mid-size companies -- building between 100 and 2,000 homes a year. That may portend of troubles ahead for big builders who assume future talent will come from the regional builders they hope to acquire, but may inherit a disenfranchised workforce instead.

Clearly, if home builders devoted as much energy and resources to satisfying their employees as they do trying to improve customer satisfaction, their companies would be better able to attract and retain the type of talent today's complicated market conditions demand.

Some may argue that addressing a company's culture is a different task than refining a customer satisfaction punch list. But both involve shaping behaviors, and that starts at the top.

The difference is, the skills needed to create great workplaces may not come as naturally to top managers as their skills in building and selling communities. How many engineering-minded or sales-driven executives have discovered their strengths at the office often come up short in managing their own family affairs?

Katherine Lambert There are many builders who've set great examples leading well-run, employee-focused companies in this industry. But there remain many companies that would be well-served by taking a fresh assessment of the employee satisfaction fault lines that may lie hidden beneath the surface at their firms. At very least they should start measuring employee satisfaction with the same zeal to improve as they apply to satisfying their customers.

It's too bad accounting practices can capture the abstract notion of good will on a corporate balance sheet, yet fail to measure the true asset value a company leases in the way of employee knowledge, experience, and spirit. If builders could see that value more clearly for what it is, or could be, they'd be pouring a lot more resources into developing it than many appear to be doing today.

Wyatt Kash