The latest Conference Board survey suggests U.S. job satisfaction is at its lowest point in two decades.  Based on the survey, only 45 percent of employees are satisfied with their jobs – down from 61% in 1987. The negative findings cut across all ages and income brackets, and the trend is consistent through  periods of both economic boom and bust. Perhaps the most worrisome finding is that younger workers – notably those under 25 – are the least satisfied.

This survey raises three questions for me. Is this a surprise to anyone? What are the implications for business productivity? And perhaps more importantly, why is this a persistent trend? Let me tackle the third point here.

There are numerous theories on the inexorable erosion of worker satisfaction in corporate America, including: the dissolution of the implicit “compact” between workers and companies through layoffs and cutbacks; lack of executive transparency; widely uneven salaries and perks; and, lack of support/training for beleaguered managers. Ultimately, I would argue, it all comes down to the basics of any relationship: trust and respect.

Despite sustained effort – and presumably some good intentions – many companies still fail to treat their workers with the fundamental behaviors required for a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship. And this goes beyond the obvious proxies for respect – such as pay (which for many is stagnant or down), benefits (being eroded) and development opportunities (more illusion  than reality for many).  For those of us in the communication business, we see constant evidence of this implicit (or sometimes explicit) lack of respect. Many leaders still hesitate to trust their employees with critical information – often using the argument it’s too complex or sensitive – or allow them to access the internet. Few executives seem truly committed to listening to their workers, and seriously considering their questions, comments and  suggestions. In fact, many corporate strategies or plans appear to be hatched and delivered with virtually no input from workers…who are of course the ones who will have to execute the programs. And incredibly, despite mountains of evidence on the importance of managers to employee satisfaction, many leaders still balk at investing resources or time to help their managers communicate with their teams. As a result many corporate programs aimed at employees – ranging from cultural or value campaigns to strategic overhauls – ring hollow and often die on the vine.

I suspect some executives will argue these negative findings are par for the course in a down economy, or that a gap between leaders and workers is an inevitable part of business. I would suggest they go back to the drawing board and start with a genuine commitment to understanding their workers and seeing them as partners. Otherwise, employee satisfaction, commitment and productivity will continue to be elusive.