Value employees, keep your talent

Features - Formulas for Success

The tough economy has taken its toll on staff. Now, with a rebound on the horizon, stretched employees may get restless. Here’s how to re-energize workers, build trust and keep turnover low as the turnaround hits.

March 14, 2011
Jean L. Seawright

As a result of the worst economic crisis in recent history, workers across the country have, undoubtedly, been shaken. When layoffs, pay and benefit reductions, salary freezes and restructuring first began to occur, employees everywhere seemed to understand the magnitude of the crisis and were happy to just have a job.

Indeed, the phrase “job security” took on an entirely new meaning for many – both the employed and the unemployed alike.

Unfortunately, these newfound feelings of job appreciation have now given way to feelings of burn-out, recession fatigue and self-preservation. This has led to declining levels of motivation, pride and trust in many workplaces.

For this reason, employees are beginning to take a close, hard look at their work life, and they’re asking themselves if they really want to stay with their current employer.

Although you may be blameless in the economic crisis and you may have made wise moves to maintain the health of your business, your employees may still want to jump ship. Why? Because it’s human nature for people to want to disassociate themselves with bad memories.

Unfortunately, if you found it necessary to deploy traditional belt-tightening labor practices to cope with your business challenges, your company may be that bad memory.

Several recent surveys conducted by reputable firms suggest that anywhere between 40 to 60 percent of Americans plan to look for a job once the economy rebounds. The younger generations – the Gen Xers and Yers – are reportedly the most likely to abscond.

How do you know if your employees are among the percentage wanting to bolt? Well, the risk increases if one or more of these actions occurred at your company during the recession:

  • Leaders failed to communicate what was going on strategically
  • Employees have had to work double-time to make up for a slimmer workforce
  • Wages were cut and cannot be or are not restored
  • Permanent organizational changes were made, limiting employees’ future growth potential
  • Employees perceive that they were treated poorly
  • Employees lost trust in the organization as a result of how it handled cost cuts
  • Employees are stressed out about money


So what can you do now to re-engage your employees and to minimize the temptation for talented employees to find a new job as conditions improve?

The answer lies in first understanding what factors make work gratifying today. A recent nationwide Society for Human Resource Management job satisfaction survey listed among top factors the following very important aspects of job satisfaction:

  • Job security
  • Benefits
  • Compensation/pay
  • Opportunities to use skills and abilities
  • Relationship with immediate supervisor
  • Management recognition of employee job performance
  • Communication between employees and senior management

Two things stand out on this list:
First, job security rules. Of course, it’s not surprising that during an economic downturn employees selected job security as a very important aspect of job satisfaction. This is actually good news for small businesses since the perception among workers (and, frankly, the reality) is that mass layoffs occur more readily at large companies.

Secondly, three of the job satisfaction factors are directly related to management. This tells us that in the current climate, leaders play a vital role in the job satisfaction of employees.

Indeed, to your employees, the boss is the company, and the ability of your leadership team to encourage the development of your people through trusting relationships will impact retention. No doubt about it, as the market improves it will become even more important for managers and leaders to hone performance development skills and to enhance trust.

As the economy rebounds, the most important ingredient in retention will be the strength of your leadership team. Now is the time to assess the interpersonal skills of your management team and to make necessary adjusments. Employees want and need leaders who can connect with them emotionally; leaders who are highly visible, who care about the well being of others, who encourage the development of talent in the organization and, most importantly, who are trustworthy.

According to a research study conducted by Linda Stroh, a professor at Loyola University Chicago Graduate School of Business, a trustworthy person:

  • Is likely to respond in a healthy way when things don’t go right
  • Admits and learns from his or her mistakes
  • Is aware of how his or her behavior affects others
  • Admits when he or she doesn’t know something
  • Tells me when I do something wrong
  • Helps me be a better person
  • Sticks by others during tough times
  • Speaks the same of everyone whether in their presence or not

I would add one more trait: Keeps commitments. This includes the small ones. For example, if you promise an employee that you will call him or her back before the end of the day, do it.

Failure to keep even the smallest of commitments can erode trust.

Bottom line: Retaining talent in the future is going to depend in large part on the skills and abilities of your leadership team today.

You must ensure that your management team can build relationships with your people on more than just money.

As the economy rebounds, regardless of your industry or the size of your company, the best formula for successfully retaining talent combines trustworthy leaders with a motivating work environment and a culture that recognizes and engages employees.

Jean Seawright is President of Seawright & Associates, a human resource management consulting firm in Winter Park, Fla. 3 or

The following tips will help you retain critical talent now and well into the economic recovery:

1. Look for Small Victories and Celebrate Them.
As a leader, you set the tone for the organization. No doubt, you have had to make tough and difficult decisions and this has worn on you. Remember, fair or not, your employees are taking their cues from you. If you are optimistic and excited about the future, they will be too. Attitudes are contagious, especially when they emanate from the top. Each week, make it a point to find some positive news, signs, successes, opportunities, or happenings that affect your business or industry and share them. Whether it’s the anniversary of your founder or a new product, service, customer or trend, communicate and celebrate the news.

2. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.
Leaders who take the time to regularly communicate with employees make them feel connected to the organization. Do your leaders regularly acknowledge employees’ good performance? Do they communicate the company’s vision and explain how employees’ jobs fit in with the overall mission and purpose? Do they know how to talk, listen, write and establish rapport with others? Do your leaders know how to express appreciation for a job well done? Face-to-face interaction — the human connection — is a key driver of motivation. Make certain you have managers who know how to effectively communicate and who over-communicate with workers.

3. Provide a Road Map to Success.
Clearly define the path to professional growth and development. Initiate all new hires immediately by means of a unique, interesting and state-of-the-art orientation program. Create employee programs for internal certifications or promotions. Implement a process for providing regular feedback (annual performance evaluations, for example) that is specific and job-related. The most important question in an employee’s mind is “How am I doing?” Make certain your managers are answering this question for their employees.

4. Bring Back Training and Education.
Employees see continuing education as a way to boost their skills, abilities and personal value. Especially to the younger generations, professional development tells employees you’re committed to improving their game. If you had to cut developmental programs, bring them back as soon as possible. And when you do, think in terms of educating employees — that is, giving them knowledge for a lifetime — versus training them, which typically amounts to teaching them skills for a narrow function. You train dogs  but you educate people. Keep employees involved in industry trends and changes. The more immersed they are in the business, the more likely they are to commit.

5. Consider Small But Meaningful Rewards.
The smallest of gestures can go a long way towards gaining long-term loyalty from your employees. Consider simple but thoughtful ideas such as sending birthday cards or remembering employment anniversaries and other significant events in their lives. You can also implement lower cost ideas to keep people motivated; programs such as a morning coffee/doughnut/bagel day where the entire management team greets employees and serves coffee; a once-a-month drawing for “Dinner for Two on ABC Company” with gift certificates for dinner at a nice local restaurant; a quarterly themed pot-luck lunch or barbecue at work; or adopting a company mascot dog for the office (don’t laugh — it’s a big hit in many workplaces. English Bulldogs are currently the most popular breeds.). Have some fun and get creative. One of our clients recently set a company goal and announced that the management team would wash all employees’ cars if the goal was met. The employees met the goal and all executives spent two days washing and cleaning employees’ cars. The employees loved it and the company is still talking about what a boost it was to morale. Here’s the point: Money alone rarely keeps employees deeply committed to an organization. Look for opportunities to promote fellowship among your workers.

6. Evaluate and (If Possible/Necessary) Adjust Pay.
Pay is perceived as being fair when it is competitive with the local market and industry practices. When was the last time you measured your pay and benefits against market rates and trends? Obtain industry surveys or conduct a local market survey to ensure your rates are competitive in the market. If you’ve had to reduce or freeze pay, reinstate or increase it as soon as possible. Even if it’s only by a fraction, this gesture will go a long way.

7. Fine-Tune Fringe Benefits.
Time is the new currency. Ensure your fringe benefits provide a competitive amount of paid time off. Forty percent of employers now offer paid time off (PTO) policies in lieu of traditional vacation and sick policies. PTO policies combine sick and vacation time together, giving employees more flexibility with their time off and helping employers minimize unscheduled absences. The average number of PTO days across industry lines and company sizes is 19. Holiday policies remain separate from PTO in most companies. The average number of paid holidays across industry lines and company size is nine. (If your company is smaller, offering fewer PTO days and holidays is not uncommon.)

8. Get Rid of Any Jerks.
Good employees leave bad bosses, not good companies. You can create the greatest company in the world but, today, if one of your employees ends up working for a jerk, that employee will be more likely to leave when the opportunity arises. Managers who can’t respect or properly interact with their direct reports should be shown the door. In addition, if you, as a leader, fail to deal swiftly and surely with a misbehaving manager, your credibility is at stake with employees. Don’t allow misdirected compassion or avoidance of conflict to impact talent retention.

9. Have Career Conversations.
Engage your employees in meaningful and pro-active conversations about their career goals and aspirations. Find out what they would like to learn and how they would like to grow in the position. These conversations will not only lead to greater productivity, but could provide you with valuable insight into what will ultimately result in talented but unmotivated employees becoming motivated and committed for the long haul.

10. Conduct an Employee Opinion Survey.
Remember, you can’t manage what you don’t know, so ask your employees how they feel about working for your company.

Some of the best ideas and biggest concerns are trapped in the hearts and minds of employees. Employee opinion surveys provide an opportunity for employees to confidentially communicate their ideas and concerns to management. A good survey can identify departmental problems related to morale, the culture, ethics, potential union threats, overall job satisfaction, leadership, trust, quality, confidence in the company, safety and more.

There are many ways to conduct a survey; however, the most valuable surveys are conducted confidentially and are designed to address specific business needs. Using a professional third-party can enhance the credibility of the results, too. Before conducting a survey, be sure you have the full support of the management team, and never conduct a survey without a commitment to addressing the results.