Duncan Consulting, Inc. - Growth through Knowledge.
Duncan Consulting, Inc. - Growth through Knowledge.

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Holding on to the Good Ones: Three Best Practices for Improving Retention

By: Johnny Duncan

As the economy improves, employee retention will become a strategic issue for organizations. When the upsurge in hiring finally begins, the balance of power will shift from the employer to the employee and organizations must not ignore this changing dynamic. We will be back at the level of trying to hold on to the good employees while employees will be searching for a company that can add value to their lives. There is no better time than now to set a plan in motion for keeping your most treasured employees.

Although managers and small business owners tend to love-wash employees with the over-used, "Our people are our most precious asset," rarely is this seen during the employment experience. Most businesses still operate in the mode of hiring on hope and firing on fault leading to high and expensive turnover. Keeping the people, and especially your high performers, that promote the good and the goodwill of your business does not have to be a daunting task.

For the past 30 years or so, the HR profession has been trying to realize the benefits of empowerment, recognition, people development, teamwork, performance management, and new leadership styles. All of these concepts are beneficial and are needed to help organizations retain good employees. However, the one initiative that provides concrete, measureable results is employee engagement.

Employee engagement is not a complicated concept. There are a variety of definitions for employee engagement and all can be boiled down to: an employee enjoying and believing in what they do and feeling value for doing it.

An article on employee engagement would not be complete without quoting a statistic. I’ve never completely understood why HR professionals love statistics. It’s as if we are skeptical of a tool or initiative until proven with layers of research data, revealing percentages based on a pool of respondents from every known geographical region. So, for the right-brain thinkers amongst us: the Corporate Executive Board surveyed 50,000 employees in 59 organizations worldwide and found that employees with lower engagement are four times more likely to leave their jobs than those who are highly engaged. The Board found that moving from low to high engagement can result in a 21 percent increase in performance.

I’m glad we got that out of the way. If more proof is needed that employee engagement is effective and profitable for both the employee and business, search online for studies on employee engagement.

We’ve found that encouraging (as opposed to implementing) employee engagement is best achieved by focusing on three key areas:
  1. Start at the Top

    The first place that we focus on for determining the level of employee engagement is at the top. As you know, most people do not leave their jobs; they leave their bosses. It only takes a few meetings with a client to learn that the reason for so many highly engaged employees is because there is a leader who is setting clear goals, coaching for success, empowering others, providing honest feedback, encouraging discussion, and making team members feel valued.

    An engaged employee is engaged because they care. They care about their performance outcomes, about the people they work with and for, and about the company. There is a direct correlation between the degree of employee caring and the care shown to the employee by his or her leader. Employees care because they feel someone is caring for them.

    We help leaders understand that their role is not to take charge of all the decisions, but to be more like cheerleaders. Not every leader has learned the importance of giving recognition for a job well done or giving people the room and encouragement to grow. We encourage leaders to do these things while still being tough when necessary, and holding people accountable for their performance.

    We had a client that allowed us to sit in on various meetings with employees to observe the interaction. There were some issues during the meetings (leaders dominating conversations, lack of input from employees, etc.) that were later addressed, but the most revealing information came after the meetings. Apparently, a favorite employee had a reputation of not doing his fair share of the work and some employees voiced their concern to us.

    The favoritism clearly sent a message to the rest of the team that slacking is okay if the leader likes you. When the leader is not holding everyone equally accountable, it is disengaging. Thankfully, the necessary changes were made. Their leadership now understands that engagement is higher when leaders set clear goals and they hold people accountable.

    When a leader is engaged, their teams tend to be engaged as well. Without mincing words, the problem is that some people in leadership positions should not be there. All too often, we see a business promote individuals who have neither the innate leadership abilities nor the desire to learn the required skills. The good news is that a leader can learn new behaviors and studies have shown that if the leader improves, employees become more engaged in their work.

  2. Get Them Coming In

    The process of employee engagement begins the instant a new employee accepts a position. In fact, it can and should begin during the hiring process at the interviewing stage. Representing a positive and realistic experience from the start engages the employee. Continuing throughout the orientation and into the performance stage of the employee's work experience ensures that retention of the employee grows greater in time.

    Engagement begins with employees’ clear understanding of what they should be doing on the job. While some business leaders may be good at communicating to prospects and clients, their internal communications style suffers. A breakdown in communication is typically what we find in businesses where employees are not engaged. In these cases, we help the organization’s leaders implement a communication channel. This means that each employee needs a solid job description and a clear set of performance expectations before starting the job.

    Using good measures of motivational fit and job fit during the employee hiring process can ensure that organizations are selecting the kind of people who find meaning in their work. While gathering information for an employee handbook for the Coalition for the Homeless, we were pleasingly surprised by the engagement of the employees revealed by the rewarding qualities of their work and the alignment between their personal beliefs and the goals of the organization in spite of lower pay or stressful working conditions.

    In other industries, the value of employees’ work may be less apparent, and it is more difficult to develop a sense of purpose or see the impact of one’s efforts. This is where a good leader recognizes the opportunity for creating value for the employee. Adapting the job process, explaining the impact of the job in the grand picture, or encouraging the employee to develop other skills is just some ways of encouraging engagement.

  3. Nurture Them Along the Way

    The reasons for leaving a job are many, but some studies found that many employees leave their jobs for better growth and development opportunities offered by other organizations. Most employees like to keep their jobs fresh by learning new methods of doing a job and building new skills. A company can keep employees engaged by creating a culture of learning and creating development plans for employees.

    Organizations can build a team of engaged employees by first choosing employees who take personal pleasure in the work they do and then, by giving employees the ability to make important decisions about their work. Employees feel empowered when a task appears to have a specific goal or purpose that is of value to the individual.

    Unfortunately, many leaders, the insecure ones, withhold information about the company, clenching it closely to their chest like some top secret document. The smart leaders share openly the direction of the company, the monthly and year-end goals, and the business strategy for achieving those goals. These leaders can also foster engagement when employees have the perception that their actions are self-determined rather than directed by others. Engaging leaders trust their employees and give them the opportunity to make decisions without micromanaging or taking over tasks when the going gets tough.

    We were called in to determine why work processes were not completed in a timely manner at a publishing clearing house. After a couple of days of analyzing the various positions of the business, it was noticeable that the work being performed was not that of the employees, but of the managers. The employees were simply robots, extensions of the manager’s hovering over each employee conducting the entire process. We suggested to the owner that the managers and the owner take a retreat, go fishing, do anything, but go away! Our point was made that the management of this firm needed to be more hands-off and instill trust into their team. The employees could now breathe, think for themselves, and finally get engaged in their work and performance improved remarkably.

    Companies are latching on to this employee engagement challenge. They can make it work if they make sure that leaders understand it, hire people who are a good fit, and continue to foster an environment that cultivates employee engagement.

  4. Johnny Duncan is President of Duncan Consulting, Inc., a human resources consulting service. Contact him with people challenges and small business questions at Johnny@DuncanConsult.com or by calling 407-739-0718