Subscribe To Us

Follow Us on Facebook

HR Handled Right

Purchase Dr Joni Johnston's eBook "HR Handled Right: Dealing with Dress Code Nightmares without Getting Sued" for only


I could have been the poster child for job strain. At the ripe age of 24, having just completed my doctorate in clinical psychology, I accepted a position with a chronically understaffed and overpaperworked nonprofit agency. Within six months, I was questioning my career decision. After two years, I started my own business and regained my sanity.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the characteristics of my first job were a model for the worst-case scenario in the most popular model of job strain. According to the framework proposed by Karasek in 1990, the two characteristics most predictive of job strain are the joint effects of job demands and range of decision-making freedom available to the worker, particularly in an environment in which social support is lacking. A key aspect of this model is the interactive relationship between job demands and job control, i.e., the risk of psychological strain and physical illness increases in a demanding job only when these demands occur in interaction with low job control. In short, ‘high job demands” + low control + low support” results in the greatest degree of job strain.

Fifteen years of corporate consulting later, I still believe Karasek’s job strain model lays a good theoretical foundation for corporate intervention. However, applying it practically is much more complex. Having worked with a wide variety of industries, I find that sources of work pressure, and the “cure,” vary widely across occupations.

Health care workers, for example, often feel the greatest strain from organizational role pressures such as managing staff and, with the increased demands of managing budgets alongside patients, a conflict between one’s personal beliefs and those of the organization. Telecommunications engineers, on the other hand, often succumb to work overload and the conflicting demands of home and work. To understand the work-strain relationship fully, we must incorporate a number of variables specific to a particular occupation and workplace.

The Bottom Line Issue

The economic costs of job strain in general (absenteeism, lost productivity) are difficult to estimate but could be as high as $100 billion dollars a year. Sales force turnover costs have been reported in excess of $50,000 per salesperson leaving the organization (Darmont, 1990; Pitt and Ramaseshan, 1995). A first step in developing effective job strain interventions, we must shift gears and view job strain prevention as a hiring and retention issue rather than a worker’s comp or wellness concern. Management has traditionally viewed job strain as a touchy -feely thing and therefore some aren’t too keen to spend time and money on it. And, understandably, many human resource professionals are reluctant to draw attention to job stress for fear of increasing the number of stress-related claims.

Given that sales is the engine driving the revenue machine, it is particularly crucial to understand the specific causes and symptoms of job strain among sales professionals, and how human resources can play a critical role in moderating the potential burnout of their sales force. This article will look at the symptoms of sales strain and the steps human resource professionals can take to prevent it before a salesperson is hired.

Five Symptoms of Sales Burnout

Sales forces have traditionally have been plagued with poor morale and burnout, as well as extremely high rates of turnover. Many firms report losing more than half their sales force in a given year. Despite the fact that some salespeople cannot handle the strain and ultimately leave the organization or perhaps the profession, others seem to thrive in this high-pressure environment. Why do some salespeople fall victim to the angst of rejection while others seem to flourish?

My friend, Mike Bosworth, author of Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets, tells me that salespeople burn out for one reason and one reason only — they lose confidence in their ability to make their numbers. Why they lose their confidence can be due to a number of things — mismanagement, a changing market, unrealistic expectations — but the cause is the same. And they “cure” it by leaving. Unlike some professions, most sales people don’t work 70 hours a week or neglect to take care of themselves. Instead, the early symptoms of burnout often appears in a cynical attitude and pressured behavior, such as:

  • Money becomes more important than the customer does. Salespeople know that if they care more about the commission than about helping their client make a wise decision, they’ll lose the sale. Putting money before people marks the beginning of burnout and usually the eventual decline of gross sales and commissions.
  • They misrepresent the product. People experiencing burnout sometimes resort to telling “white lies” out of their stress of losing a sale. They fall back on these techniques out of frustration, because they have not kept their professional selling skills sharp!
  • They rush the sales process. They quit taking the time to establish rapport or thoroughly answer objections. Salespeople experiencing burnout view selling as a three-step process, Step 1. “Get the commission!” Step 2. “Get the commission!” Step 3. “Get the commission!”
  • They resist new learning. They’ve heard it all before. Yet the fact is, they have forgotten their basic sales skills or are refusing to practice them.
  • They make excuses for their underperformance. Salespeople facing burnout often feel their product is defective and overpriced. They may feel that their company doesn’t advertise enough or management isn’t “in tune” with the market or the economy is awful.
  • They may blame these factors and more for their declining sales.
  • They refuse to acknowledge or take any responsibility for their own shortcomings. Not only do they not possess a negative attitude, they encourage others to discuss the shortcomings of the sales manager, the product or other salespeople.

Negative stereotypes about salespeople abound. In reality, though, the dishonest, pushy, manipulative salesperson isn’t a typical salesperson –s/he is a burned-out salesperson. And the key to prevention begins in the hiring process. In our hiring and interviewing skills training, we consistently find that the information provided job candidates is just as critical in predicting job success as the interview questions asked.

Hiring the Superstars

According to the American Management Association, the number one reason sales people fail is they have the wrong business processes supporting them. Job strain among sales professionals begins before the person is hired — with an ineffective or misinformed organizational socialization process. If an organizational process is not clearly articulated, it becomes impossible for the new hire to accurately acquire the organizational values, job skills, attitudes and behaviors necessary to perform their tasks within the organization. As numerous researchers have discovered (Grant and Bush, 1996; Wanous; 1992; Johnston et. Al) this has a direct impact on job commitment and a propensity to leave the organization.

Failure to develop a successful recruiting process leads to lost business, the possibility of damaged customer relations, and additional time and money spent on the recruiting and training process (Schwepker, 1999; see Richardson, 1999 for a more complete review of sales force turnover studies) Human resource professionals are often given the mission to hire sales professionals, yet senior management has rarely thought through, much less communicated, the processes by which the sales person will be measured, managed or developed. Without involvement of senior management in developing clearly articulated job expectations, human resources are at a disadvantage during the hiring process. And, of course, the human resources professional feels the backlash when the sales person leaves or is not performing.

Senior staff in finance and production needs to be involved in the definition and documentation of the company’s revenue engine. Not only will this alleviate unnecessary job stress for recruiters, communicating this process clearly to prospective job candidates will greatly increase organizational commitment once the person is hired. Certainly, there are specific actions that will enhance the accuracy of the job preview. The opportunity to ride with a sales person for a day. Multiple interviews with sales reps. Internships for college students. Providing helpful literature during the search process, making sure the people in the firm who talk to job candidates are well informed, and making sure the candidate has a good idea about the pay.

Getting a Reality Check

However, as we all know, quantity of information doesn’t necessarily equate to quality. One of the best reality checks for how effective your job preview is can be determined by a brief interview with the candidate following these events.

After your job candidate has had a chance to meet with several sales reps, meet with him or her once more and assess the following:

  • How much does s/he expect to spend a week on business expenses that are not covered by the organization?
  • What do you think the average annual income, after business expenses, is of people in this position at this firm?
  • What are the good and the bad points of the position you are considering?
  • What percentage of all people do you think remain at this position for at least a year?
  • How many different people do you think a typical sales rep in this company has to contact in order to be granted a face-to-face interview when a sale is attempted?
  • How many sales do you think the typical person in the position you are interviewing for makes in the first year?
  • How much money do you expect to make during the first year?
  • How many face-to-face presentations do you think have to be made to make one sale?

Clear and candid expectations can, in some situations, be a pleasant surprise. I have commonly found that beginning salespeople often overestimate the number of nights per week they have to work as well as the business expenses they would have to pay out of their own pockets. Obviously, recruiters must be careful that recruits have clear expectations in the positive direction as well. Of course, some characteristics of a job may be worse than expected. While tempting to omit, coming clean at the beginning can save a lot of time and money in the long run.

Consult With the Experts

How do you assess what job preview activities are working and which need to be improved? The list of activities to increase (e.g., opportunities for more ride days, more time with managers at the office) might vary, depending upon the specific job, and the activities that were actually engaged in during the hiring process. If you aren’t sure what things you should be doing differently, consult the experts — your current sales reps. Ask them what specific things would have helped them during the job search and job preview process. Implement these suggestions during future hiring situations.

In summary, preventing the death of a salesperson’s career starts at the beginning and at the top. Whenever possible, human resources should involve senior management staff in the recruiting process by tasking them with clearly defining their own expectations, objectives, and development plan for the new hires. Involving finance and production in the definition and documentation of their sales force may help prevent some of the conflict and tension that often arises between sales professionals and the people who support and manage them.

Comments are closed.