Acute talent shortages are seriously impacting many businesses. In this column we’ve already addressed the top of the talent bucket: recruiting. However, it does no good to keep pouring new employees into your talent bucket if there’s a hole in the bottom through which people are leaking out.
We’re talking of course about employee retention. There are five serious mistakes that I see organizations and leaders make when it comes to keeping their people. Let’s address three of the most deep-rooted and misguided beliefs we have about employee retention and discuss some strategies for keeping your best people.
Friendly warning: Much of what follows goes against both the conventional wisdom and common HR practices. So buckle up.
Mistake 1: Treating people the same
Let’s say there are 100 employees at a company, all at various levels in the organization. In the last six months, 14 of them have resigned for jobs elsewhere and there are rumors that others might also be looking around.
The company’s HR person loves key performance indicators (KPIs) and is sounding alarms: “If this trend continues, our annualized turnover rate will be over 25%! We’re already struggling to find people in this market, not to mention the institutional knowledge we’re losing! And the added costs! Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”
I’m just gonna say it. In every organization, some individuals and some jobs are more important than others. High performers matter more than low performers, and there are hard-to-replace jobs and easy-to-replace jobs. Does that turnover KPI tell us how many of the departures were high performers in critical jobs? It does not.
Create a three-by-three matrix with “performer” on the left vertical axis (low-medium-high) and “job replacement difficulty” on the bottom horizontal (low-medium-high). The resulting nine-box table is a nifty retention priority map that tells you where to put your attention, namely, the four boxes in the upper right that don’t have the word “low” associated with them.
Mistake 2: Believing your company-wide initiatives actually retain employees
You’ve undertaken multiple improvement initiatives, so why are people still leaving? It’s because the reasons people quit are unique to each individual.
There’s only one retention technique that works. Want to know why people stay or leave? Ask them! It costs nothing, and the companies where this is a way of life don’t have turnover problems. And their secret weapon is requiring managers to engage regularly with each employee one-on-one.
The good news is it’s not rocket surgery, but it is a radical concept that makes some leaders uncomfortable. So what questions do you actually ask?
- Do you know any employees who have left?
- Do you know why they left?
- What are the 2-3 things you think other people like least about working here?
- What’s your take on the reasons people are leaving?
You can also ask similarly worded questions about why people stay. The key is that these are scheduled conversations, for 20 minutes minimum, held at least quarterly (monthly is way better). Do this regularly with those employees who are top and medium priorities on your matrix from above. Take notes. Compare notes with other managers. Fix what needs fixin’.
Every leader in the organization must commit to this approach, from the CEO on down. Some leaders fear that asking these questions makes people think about quitting. That’s like not going to the doctor because you might get bad news. We can bury our heads in the sand and hope our employees don’t quit, or we can take their temperature and start working on ways to retain them.
Mistake 3: Writing off leavers
When a valued employee leaves, sometimes we feel betrayed or even angry. We’ve invested in her over the years but now that she’s given notice, we’re pissed. So we cut all ties. Finito. Done with you. Forever.
This feels good emotionally in the moment, but it’s short-sighted. Truth is, high-performing ex-employees make great re-hires. They also can become great referral sources for both business and talent, or can even go on to become future clients. Better to help them to leave on good terms so they remember how much they liked working for and with you.
There are three easy ways to do this: Throw a party, touch base and share updates.
First, throwing a farewell party leaves your departing employee feeling emotionally connected to his co-workers and cements the bond to your company.
Second, touching base by phone or email 30 to 60 days after he’s left to see how things are going keeps that emotional connection going. Put it on the calendar.
Finally, periodic updates about new products, openings, and the like keeps channels open. Ex-employees are perfect for talent and business referrals because they already know your business and what it takes to be successful there.
Employee retention happens in the trenches of your workplace, not in management team meetings. If you truly commit to correcting the mistakes you’re making with these simple strategies, I predict you’ll see a difference in 30 days, maybe even less. You don’t need to pay your people more money – try paying them more attention.
Kurt Greene is president and owner of Arrow G Consulting, LLC, a Knoxville-based leadership advisory firm that companies turn to when their people and team processes (like talent retention strategy) are no longer keeping up with where they’re trying to go. He’s also a Chair for Vistage Worldwide, Inc., serving as a coach and confidant to CEOs and senior executives who are members of one of his four private peer advisory groups in East Tennessee. You can reach him at kurt.greene@arrowGconsulting.com.