Employee Job and Work Satisfaction in Public Sector


Employee job and work satisfaction in the public sector is an area that managers should not ignore. It is imperative to the success of an organization that managers focus on employee attitudes and behavior diligently because a relationship between the two does exist. The concept of job satisfaction has been described and defined by many different theorists. Job satisfaction has been defined as “a multidimensional attitude; it is made up of attitudes towards pay, promotions, coworkers, supervision, the work itself, and so on.” [1] John Locke, who is regarded as one of the most influential political philosophers of all time, defined job satisfaction as the “positive emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one’s job or job experiences.” [2] Notice Locke refers to the employee’s emotional state as a positive one, not a negative one. An employee who associates a negative connotation with his or her job is more than likely dissatisfied with their position. Managers should examine disgruntled employees closely because they are most likely to be absent, tardy, quit more often, and tend to “place less emphasis on customer satisfaction than those whose attitudes are more positive.” [3] High levels of employee turnover, poor work performance, low morale, and decreased productivity are not considered organizational values; therefore, none are wise ingredients for the organizational culture recipe. Employee job satisfaction is so important to agencies that it “has been indentified as the most intensely studied variable in organizational research.” [4] 

Employees, first and foremost, are individuals. Individuals with different hobbies, interests, lives, goals, morals, values, etc. Because of these innate differences they are all seeking different rewards from their jobs, whether tangible or intangible. Regardless of sector, rewards can be organized into two categories: extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic rewards may come in the form of praise or monetary gain. Intrinsic rewards are internal to the employee. Individuals who seek out intrinsic rewards are motivated through accomplishment and satisfaction. A prime example of an internal motivation would be loyalty to an agency, also referred to as organizational commitment. Employees who have high levels of job satisfaction tend to possess high levels of commitment to their organizations. They actually care about the overall well-being, success, reputation, and future of their organization and the service provided to its clientele; therefore, they are less likely to be late, absent, or negligent with job duties.

Literature suggests that “human service organizations are reported to have low levels of satisfaction when compared with other types of organizations;” therefore, “an understanding of the contributing factors within the human services is especially important.” [5] Due to the fact that “job satisfaction and organizational commitment seem to play key roles in the occurrence of both turnover and burnout in the human services,” choosing organizational commitment as the primary focus of this paper was inevitable. [6] First, a discussion thoroughly explaining the meaning of organizational commitment will be provided. Next, the role a manager plays in organizational commitment and how they can and cannot control levels of commitment within an agency will be discussed. Motivating employees and how that links to organizational commitment will be the next topic of discussion. Finally, a comparative analysis of organizational commitment in the public versus the private sector will be provided.

Organizational Commitment

Mowday, Porter, and Steers studied the psychology of organizational commitment defining it as “a strong belief in the organization’s goals and values, a willingness to exert considerable effort on behalf of the organization, and a strong desire to remain a member of the organization.” [7] In addition, the theorists distinguished organizational commitment from job satisfaction by specifying that commitment is “an affective response to beliefs about the organization”, and satisfaction is “a response to the experience of specific job tasks.” [8] Although there has not been a solid consensus concerning the definition of commitment, other scholars defined it “as an employee’s desire to remain with the organization.” [9] “Others defined commitment in terms of identification or the extent to which the employee identifies with the goals and values of the organization.” [10] Other noteworthy definitions of commitment included “loyalty, job involvement, job attachment, job commitment, and moral commitment.” [11] The latter definitions of commitment are only a few of many, but they serve the purpose of laying the groundwork for the general ideas that are the make-up of what organizational commitment entails.

According to the literature, there are many things that help and hinder one’s hopeless devotion to an agency. For example, an employee who possesses feelings of anomie will be one who is less likely to be strongly committed to their job. Studies show that social relationships established within the work group play a fundamental role in affiliation commitment. [12] “Affiliation derives from beliefs that other members of the organization care about the individual and his or her well-being and from a feeling of belonging to a close-knit, cohesive group-a family.” [13] Speaking through personal experience, acceptance from co-workers brings heightened self-confidence, feelings of security, feelings of value, a more pleasant work environment, increases initiative, and increases the chance of self-expression.

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Politics play an undeniable role in organizational commitment, which is one reason why many have wanted to abandon the dichotomy of politics and public administration. Political penetration is a critical factor in affiliation commitment because of its impact on organizational climate and relationships among agency members. [14] Politics are capable of decreasing organizational commitment because “perceptions of political favoritism or unfairness create animosities among members of the organization, making it difficult to establish a cohesive group.” [15] The 2006 Sheriff’s election in Madison County serves a good example in illustrating this concept of political favoritism. A new sheriff was elected into office and chose to demote a vast majority of the former sheriff’s employees. Several employees quit their jobs reluctantly due to the unfairness and the Madison County Sheriff’s Department witnessed the highest employee turnover in years. Individuals who had been loyal employees in the past suddenly found themselves falling victim to political penetration.

Other things that have shown to affect organizational commitment are education, tenure, and position. [16] It is believed that individuals with higher levels of education may be more likely to “express lower levels of affiliation commitment because of their greater focus on career and organizational issues rather than on social relations in the workplace.” [17] But, as tenure increases, so do “feelings of cohesiveness and affiliation.” [18] On the other hand, one who holds a higher position is probably more focused on the overall health of the organization as opposed to seeking social satisfaction from the organization, which is an attitude that would certainly decrease levels of commitment. [19] Using different case scenarios to demonstrate how organizational commitment can be affected is a useful tool because it permits one to see how attitudes and behavior are correlated to job satisfaction.


Managers in both the public and private sector are up against several obstacles when trying to either sustain government performance and accountability or enhance it. Effective, participative leadership definitely affects job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Managers are often viewed as the backbone of an agency. Ones who have been chosen to lead, motivate, and guide subordinates into the right directions. Employees often look upon their managers as figureheads of the organization and a symbol of what they stand for. The person who has the responsibility of coming up with innovative ideas, such as strategic planning, to improve the agency, keep employee morale high, and successfully carry out the mission of the agency. “Supervision that models commitment to the purposes of the organization and displays ethical, caring, and trustworthy attitudes builds confidence among employees that the organization is a worthy enterprise.” [20] 

Management among public sector professionals has been somewhat overlooked by researchers because most tend to focus on examining the private sector professionals. Literature suggests that public sector professionals “reportedly owe a compelling loyalty to their professional associations that define admission criteria, establish training requirements, set performance standards, and discipline their members.” [21] “Professionals also reportedly enjoy the task variety, task significance, professional identity, and job autonomy that characterize their work environment.” [22] Noting that these individuals are usually educated and draw attractive salaries is worthy because they are well-compensated for their hard work and dedication, which is a contributing factor to their commitment. [23] Professional managers are capable of delegating job responsibilities that are not ambiguous. They provide the correct amount of information to do a particular job task. And all of these managerial qualities are important because “researchers have established that role ambiguity, or the lack of information necessary to do a particular job, and role conflict, or the incompatibility of different demands made on a position, both affect job satisfaction.” [24] 

When analyzing the managerial role in organizational commitment and job satisfaction, examining the effects of managerial level is highly relevant. It is relevant because the decision-making processes can vary greatly between top-level managers and middle-level managers. Management decisions directly affect employees. Theorists, Kinsley and Reed, studied “whether the managerial level determines the nature of decisional processes.” [25] What they discovered was that “top managers have a wider scope of interests in respect to their organizations, as well as a longer time span of responsibility and a higher level of authority in decision-making processes than middle managers.” [26] Several studies have shown there is a positive relationship between power-related variables and one’s loyalty and commitment to an agency because top-level managers take on more responsibilities. [27] Top-level managers gravitate towards being intrinsically motivated and their motivation factors are higher than those of middle managers; therefore, one can wisely speculate top-level managers would be more committed to their agency when compared to lower level managers. [28] In other words, there are several strategies smart managers can pursue to improve job satisfaction and commitment; although, job satisfaction may be relatively difficult to measure improvement is not totally out of a manager’s control. When employees believe in their managers and believe they are cared about and are valued, they will be more likely to stay with the organization. Furthermore, employees will be more likely to put forth the extra effort for their agency when the role of supervision is superior and supportive.

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As I mentioned earlier, there are generally two categories of motivational dimensions: extrinsic and intrinsic factors. Researchers have proven there are effects of intrinsic and extrinsic factors on organizational commitment and such studies have been invaluable to managers in both sectors.

The first study on motivation I would like to discuss is Phillip E. Crewson’s summary of the relationship between motivational factors and commitment. Crewson’s findings are very logical. “Crewson based his framework of the motivation-organizational commitment relationship on Knoke and Wright-Isak’s predisposition/opportunity model.” [29] Knoke and Wright-Isak proposed the following:

Whether a member decides to commit himself or herself to the group depends upon the

relationship between the individual’s motivational predisposition and the type of

organizational incentive system. That is, individual predispositions must match the

organizational opportunity structure before action is initiated. The absence of either

element will result in no forthcoming commitment from individuals. [30] 

Basically, Knoke and Wright-Isak’s model portrays the idea that employees have certain expectations from their agencies and if those expectations are not fulfilled in return for their hard work there will be no strong commitments from employees. This concept is, basically, expectancy theory.

Expectancy theory is the idea that output will produce outcome. It is an individual’s perception of reality. For example, an extrinsically driven employee may be motivated to work extra hard to meet a deadline if they are aware of obtaining a generous monetary incentive to do so. Expectancy theory applies to the intrinsically motivated individual, as well. For example, a lawyer may be in the middle of a case and be determined to not quit because he or she must win. It is a contest of dominance. When an individual’s skills are called, one has a moment of triumph which makes a person feel good. Expectancy theory assumes a positive association between the level of intrinsic and extrinsic expectancy and organizational outcome and organizational commitment. [31] 

Speaking in terms of motivating employees, I mentioned earlier that it has proven to be quite the challenge for many managers. One reason for this may be attributed to the employee’s overall level of life satisfaction. Research indicates that job satisfaction “is at best moderately associated with life satisfaction.” [32] Obviously, if an individual’s marriage is struggling or their health is in dire straits they are more than likely going to experience low levels of motivation to do well in their jobs. Their personal problems may take precedence over their job. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is highly relevant to the discussion of life satisfaction, as well as job motivation and organizational commitment. Maslow’s model explains that human beings have five levels of needs: Physiological, Safety, Love, Esteem, and Self-Actualization. Individuals must pass through each level to be able to reach the next one. For example, a homeless person will be incapable of being a productive employee because he or she will be more preoccupied with acquiring shelter. It is safe to speculate that a homeless person’s level of life satisfaction is very low, which is something that will be out of a manager’s control.

Organizational Commitment in the Public v. the Private Sector

Researchers have generally focused on investigating organizational commitment in the private sector rather than the public sector. [33] There are “contradictory results regarding the differences in the effects of motivation factors on organizational commitment between the public and private sector.” [34] Researchers have “found that public organizations are likely to have a lower level of expectancy-extrinsic factors and a higher level of expectancy-intrinsic factors than private organizations.” [35] Other comparative studies illustrate that “there is a greater significance for monetary incentives in private organizations than public organizations.” [36] It makes sense that public sector employees are more intrinsically motivated than those in the private sector. The goal of public sector agencies is to provide good services at an affordable cost while increasing public value and public good. The goal of the private sector is to make money. The missions of the public and private sectors vary greatly; therefore, both sectors will attract different employees with different expectations. In addition, “lower organizational commitment levels were found in government managers than were found in private firm executives.” [37] 

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One logical explanation for why there are mixed results regarding organizational commitment in the public versus the private sector is that the “definition of public versus private is itself troublesome and vague.” [38] “The terms “public” and “private” have been used in a variety of ways.” [39] “As more government services have been privatized and as more services are offered by both sectors the distinction has become even more blurred.” [40] Privatization has been controversial because the concept generated from the idea that the public sector is incompetent and that the private sector is more equipped for delivering high-quality services. Those of the public sector have been scrutinized, criticized, and labeled incompetent throughout history. They are looked upon negatively by the general public. As a result, “many public sector employees believe they are making sacrifices to continue working in the public sector.” [41] Public employees have endured an environment characterized by retrenchment, an increasing anti-public-employee political rhetoric, low levels of recognition for public employees’ contributions, widespread criticism, and low morale.” [42] The fact that researchers believe “people enter the public sector seeking different rewards from their jobs than do people entering private sector jobs” is a sensible hypothesis. [43] 

Some scholars found “no significant differences in job attitudes of public and private employees” suggesting “that no relationship existed between employee attitudes and occupational level within both sectors.” [44] But, as I mentioned earlier, the blurred distinction between public and private organizations has caused research to be problematic. [45] 

I would like to illustrate the concept of how sector may influence organizational commitment with a recent experience I have had while working with a non-profit agency. Family Counseling Services (FCS) is a non-profit organization located in Lexington, KY who is dedicated to providing affordable and responsive counseling and guidance to help those in a lower income bracket cope with life’s problems and, hopefully, alleviate human suffering by improving the quality of their day-to-day relationships. FCS is understaffed, their technology is dilapidated, their building is falling apart and is in desperate need of repair, and they are having trouble meeting payroll for their current staff. FCS is an organization that is destitute for funding. They typically charge a fee of, at least, $15 per patient, but if a patient is incapable of paying that amount then their therapists will treat them for 100% free of charge. FCS’s cup runs over with success stories from the public of how their counseling sessions have saved people’s lives, especially adolescents. FCS should be the supreme role model for organizational commitment because their therapists often times work for free in order to help those in need. Their executive director, who takes great pride in this agency, is currently working for free due to her loyalty, commitment, and belief in FCS. She spends a great deal of her time writing grants in attempt to develop more partnerships with foundations in hopes of acquiring funding so FCS will not be coerced into closing their doors. FCS’s executive director is definitely intrinsically motivated.


The main objective of this paper was to conduct research and explore the most important aspect of job satisfaction, which I have found to be organizational commitment. There is a positive correlation between levels of satisfaction and commitment within the workplace. After researching organizational commitment and comparing works of many scholars and theorists, I would define the variable organizational commitment as the level of strength of an individual’s identification, involvement, inspiration, and desire to remain associated with the organization. In addition, an employee who has a high level of organizational commitment is someone who has a sense of investment in an organization, one who wants to succeed, they have a higher work ethic; therefore, a higher commitment to what an organization wants them to do. The literature clearly demonstrates mixed reviews of commitment within the public and private sectors, but I confidently hypothesize that public sector employees are more likely to be intrinsically motivated than those of the private sector. I focused on the three things that I found to be the most important elements of job satisfaction and organizational commitment: Managerial Roles, Motivation, and Public versus Private Sector Employees. A good area for future research would be to supplement the existing research regarding job satisfaction and organizational commitment in the public sector based on the fact that there is a transparent disagreement among scholars when compared to the private sector.

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