Retention Continues to a Critical Issue

August 8, 2010

Q: How do we retain top employees when sales are down, budgets are strained and the necessity to survive looms large over us?

A: Money is a convenient and overused excuse for turnover. It is rare that money alone causes the typical employee to leave. Most employees would willingly take a little less money than they could make somewhere else if they find other things they value more in their work environment—challenge, developmental opportunities, friendships with peers and supervisors, flexibility, appreciation and other real benefits.

Even in cases where employees are happy with the job, knowing that they are paid significantly below market can cause hard feelings and lead to turnover. Money is a natural and fundamental concern. As such, it often deserves serious, albeit painful, consideration and action by even the most cash-strapped organization.

Before you spend a penny on additional salary, benefits or other programs, it is important to find out specifically what is broken in your relationship with employees. If you don’t do this, you risk fixing the wrong things and wasting precious money, time, effort and good will.

Here are a few data-gathering techniques that have worked well for me over the years:
Exit interviews:

Find out what leads your employees to read want ads or accept a call from a recruiter in the first place. There are a number of good questions you can use to get the information you need. One of my favorites is “Tell me about the three things you’d change tomorrow if you owned the company.”

Another is “What things, if changed, would have prevented you from considering another job?” An active and patient listener will glean a lot of good information from these questions.

Focus groups and surveys:
There are a number of decent employee-opinion survey products commercially available. Learning to do a focus group is easily within the grasp of most HR professionals.

Even so, I prefer using objective, experienced third parties to do this kind of work. Employees often feel that outsiders will keep their input more confidential and are less likely to have their feelings hurt by the results of focus groups than will company personnel. Focus groups and surveys done by outside personnel tend to get more forthright answers than those done by in-house personnel.

Retention interviews:
Identify the employees you really, really need to keep. Sit down with them and discuss the company, their personal satisfaction, ideas to make their job even better than it is, and related topics. Showing your interest is often rewarded with additional commitment and longevity.
One word of caution for all of these techniques: Don’t use them if you aren’t willing to listen to what people think. More important, if you are not willing to consider making changes, you are well advised not to ask. The “sugar high” of raised expectations quickly diminishes into all-time lows of employee morale if people think you aren’t listening.

You will find that the answers to turnover are not as elusive as you may think. They are, in reality, fairly basic. The suggestions you harvest from employees will help you design the practical solutions you need and can afford.

George F. Mancuso
George F. Mancuso, CPC