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Employee Retention in Age of Choice

Will they stay or will they go?

By Janie Warner, SHRM-SCP
National HR Practice Leader

The seasoned HR manager/director/executive will tell you: “If you want to know what your employees are thinking, just ask them.” Traditionally we have done this through two methods: the anonymous “employee engagement survey” or the “exit interview”. Although both can provide some useful information, they can be problematic. The anonymous nature of the engagement survey means we cannot directly address what may be some very serious or alarming issues. And the exit interview means we haven’t bothered to ask about working conditions until an employee is an ex-employee. Neither provide the information that is needed in a timely manner. That is not to suggest that both should be eliminated, but rather there needs to be a third piece of the puzzle.

Today's economy

Everyone has seen the statistics: historically low unemployment numbers and growing economic numbers that signal that production and services are rising as well. When unemployment is low, your best employees are being poached by other companies—whether you see it or not. To be sure, the old HR adage rings true: “Good employees always have choices.”

In this reality, retention becomes a priority. Beyond the pain of finding new employees in an economy where just about everyone who wants to work has a job, there is a significant economic impact in losing a well-trained employee. The costs of hiring a new employee and the lost productivity until the new hire is fully functioning in their role are significant.

Being pro-active to prevent the employees you want to keep from leaving your organization is now more important than ever before. What is an HR professional to do?

Compensation and benefits

Of course it goes without saying that in this economic boom, companies must prioritize not just comparable pay but truly competitive pay. This includes benefits as well. Reviewing all your benefit programs is important every year, but even more important when you want to be sure you are offering the same or better than your industry competition. Making sure your compensation strategies are aligned with the market is imperative to ensure you won’t lose your star employees because your competition decides to up the ante and pay better.

Every employee believes they should be paid more—it’s just part of the human condition. But those “extras”—i.e. benefits and perquisites can be tricky to predict the value to your staff. Do you offer pet insurance? Dry cleaning services? On-site daycares or concierge services? You could add all of those. But if your employees do not find them valuable, you may just be wasting corporate resources.

Asking the right questions

So how do you know what is important to your employees? Simple answer—ask them.

As mentioned above, companies have been attempting to garner information either anonymously or after an employee has become disenchanted with their employer and decides to leave. Employers should not just consider how they ask, but when they ask by asking the people who choose to continue to work for them.

The "Stay" Interview

Although not a new idea, the stay interview hasn’t garnered nearly the attention exit interviews have. While some employers may believe if you ask employees who aren’t leaving what they like and dislike about the company they may stir up discontent, others have found the exercise of telling employees their opinions matter has its own rewards.

A best-kept secret—employees LOVE to share their opinions. As we saw during the 1980s and the “continuous quality improvement” movement, the people closest to the processes often have the greatest insight into what works and what doesn’t. The same applies here. Employees who spend their days working within the corporate systems are in the best positions to tell you what works, what doesn’t, and how these systems are perceived by themselves and others. Creating an atmosphere where they are asked serious, thoughtful questions and given the opportunity to discuss their answers and observations with a member of the management and/or executive staff is ideal.

The questions should be carefully considered—and asked consistently each time the interviews are held. Some good questions to ask include:

  • When you wake up in the morning, what makes you excited to come to work?
  • What do you think gets in the way of you reaching your full potential at work?
  • When was the last time you felt that management really listened to you or your co-workers?
  • What are some things that our company does well that makes you want to stay?
  • What are some things our company does not do so well? Are these things bad enough to make you want to leave?
  • If you could make a Christmas list of wishes to make your work experience better, what would the top three things be?
  • What do you do personally to make our workplace better?

The interviews should be held either one-on-one or even in a group setting. If done in small groups, be sure not to have too many people as the meetings can get out of hand. Three to five people would be ideal.

Following up

One of the main criticisms of engagement surveys is the length of time between completing the surveys and getting feedback. Often, there is no feedback at all and employees are left to believe they wasted their time completing the questionnaires because executive management never reports back on any of the findings.

With stay interviews, it’s important to set the expectations up front. Announce the start of the stay interview program and what it will look like. Assure the employees that if they agree to the interview, their input will be carefully considered and will be discussed as part of the corporate strategic planning process. Be realistic, however, and let them know some suggestions and recommendations may not be feasible, but they will be given appropriate feedback once those decisions are made.

Finally, be sure to conduct these meetings often and on-going. Make it a regular part of your employee interactions. Invite employees with varying lengths of tenure – and compare and contrast how employees view various work situations based on the amount of time they have been employed.

Will you be surprised by some for the answers? Yes, certainly. Will you hear things you already know but haven’t addressed? Yes, you will. Can you increase your employee retention by seeking the input of those people who choose each day to show up, do their work well, go home and come back the next day? You bet! Isn’t it better to know what might cause someone to leave rather than hearing why they are leaving as they walk out the door? Of course.

It’s a simple concept. Isn’t it worth a try?

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