Employee Retention – How to Keep Your Top Talent With the Right Mix of Programs

The top question on the minds of HR Executives is how to keep employees engaged and morale high in these economic times as reported by HR Executive magazine in August 2010. Before then, there were several publications and white papers on the subject of retention of top talent who they expect to jump ship after the recession. Credible research from multiple sources and our experience working with clients indicate no one solution will work for all companies or industries, every company have its mix of programs that would lead to high employee engagement, job satisfaction and retain top performers.

The first part of this article will review some of the inputs required for enhancing employee engagement, job satisfaction and for retaining top talents. The second part of the article will reveal the ten top things to do that would retain your top talents.

In a recent published survey (Workers in the mood to jump ship), Peter Martin reported that, 71 per cent of workers were unhappy with their current jobs and only 29 per cent were happy. The Hay Group also found similar trends with 33 per cent of Australian employees looking to switch jobs, 22 per cent in Europe and 16 percent in the United States.

In a survey of 4,803 employees and 2,778 managers, a third of workers said they would likely look for new jobs in greener pastures as the economy improves. When asked what is motivating them to seek greener pastures, a third indicated that they were dissatisfied with their pay and quarter of them want better work / life balance and 27 per cent are looking for better opportunities to advance their career.

Another recent survey of employers found that replacing an employee would cost between 50 to 150 percent of an employee’s salary.

These findings should obviously sound alarm bells to employers around the world. Companies that fail to take the necessary steps to implement effective engagement, recognition and retention programs during these tough economic times may be in for a mass exodus of their top talents.

Some of the clients of HR Assets Solutions Inc. a Toronto based human resources consulting asked this question as well. How to retain top performers after the recession ends. To address their fears and to provide creditable solution based on their industry specific experience the consulting company asked the question at the forum of “Focus” in April 2010. This generated several comments and solutions from around the world. These concerns were partly supported by evidence from The Conference Board report published in January 2010 that U.S. job satisfaction was at its lowest in two decades. This revelation from the U.S. job satisfaction survey was the first in a series of signs that led to significant downward trend in employee engagement and morale.

The May 2010 edition of the Harvard Business Review feature article “How To Keep Your Top Talent” by Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt, identified six mistakes companies are doing in the management of their high potential employees.

Here are some of the solutions offered for increasing job satisfaction and retaining top talent as summarized from the HR Assets Solutions Inc. “Focus” forum and enquires:

How To Increase Job Satisfaction And Retain Top Talent After The Economy Bounce Back To The New Normal

Compensation stood high on the list of suggestions from industry experts outside the “Focus” forum. When asked what would retain every employee, the first thing every employer should do is to ensure that they are paying employees fairly and to ensure there is internal pay equity and transparency.

Don’t over work or under work employees was another response add to the compensation response. Over working employees could lead to burnouts that may be irreparable for even top performers. When that happens, some employees would be doing only what is required to remain employed or resort to “presenteeism” on the job without being productive.

Although most companies are experiencing the effects of the recession, some HR thought leaders did not hesitate to ask for bonuses for high and average performers if they are adding to the bottom line. This they defended as a powerful motivation and retention tool in a recession when others are cutting back.

Provide promotion opportunities when available to high performers was another suggestion, however a note of caution was sounded not to promote high performers or stars to their level of incompetence. This being said, it means that not all employees require promotion into leadership positions or taking on greater responsibilities in other areas even with increase compensation.

Communicating regularly with employees about career advancement prospects available to them in the company was another important suggestion made. Other forums confirm the importance of regular communication to enhance employee engagement and retention in the long term. Communicating to employees the next steps in their career ladder or career paths was cited as one of the critical strategies for retention. It is therefore not surprising when the HR Executive magazine reported that sixty-three percent of respondents to their August 2010 survey “said that, to boost employee retention over the next year, they plan to increase employee communication. That outpaced the common best practices such as training and development (55 percent)…”.

The design and maintenance of a credible performance appraisal system, which is tied to performance objectives of the company, will create a performance-based culture that attract and retain top performers. This can only happen when a company has great managers to facilitate employee performance. As widely acknowledged, employees usually leave bad managers not the company. Giving meaningful feedback on a regular basis with clear goals and expectations from a credible performance appraisal tool retains top performers in any environment.

Linking pay to performance is a great motivator and good way to retain talents and improve job satisfaction. However, this can only happen if the company has in place a performance management system that is integrated with its talent management and development process.

Providing an “employee total value package” that is comparable to that of the highest players in the industry is another great retention tool. The employee total value package may include competitive salary, bonus, leadership development program, career advancement opportunities (mentioned earlier) and planning tools, flexible work life balance programs, more paid vacation, well designed and implemented employee recognition programs. These are some of the things suggested to keep engagement and morale high and ultimately to retain top talent.

Having a “welcoming culture” or the “right culture” where employees are recognized for their contributions and supported to succeed through mentoring and coaching is one of the sure ways of retaining key employees. Recently a top employee who left a reputable company told us that her incompetent manager and the “culture of fear” and uncertainty around frequent company restructuring made her leave for a more welcoming environment. Building strong teams with shared purpose and viable goals helps with retention especially when employees see the workplace as their “second home”.

Opportunities for work-life balance are another requirement that attract employees of all generations. The high levels of stress of the modern workplace where employees informally work around the clock especially in knowledge-based economics have made work life balance an important requirement for knowledge workers.

Employees don’t just want to be doing their part to generate profits they are better engaged when they are involved in the decision-making process and are shown how they contribute to the big picture. This connection builds strong commitment to the short and long-term goals of the organization and logically leads to employee retention.

A well-designed and implemented leadership development pipeline that is transparent with tools for employees to manage their career through mentoring from senior leaders and managers is what most employees in the course of our practice told us they want to see. Paying particular attention to the needs of high performers and future leaders through a credible succession planning process is another sure way for a company to retain top performers for future leadership roles.

Rewards and recognition for exceptional performance using a well-designed program as describe in my article “How to Design Rewards and Recognition Programs That Improve Employee Engagement and Retain Talent”, published in September 2010. These types of programs attract and retain top performers.

Finally empowering top performers by expanding on their scope of responsibilities with care and allowing those who can be trusted to make decision is a job satisfier.

Employee Engagement Is A Key Ingredient For Retention – How To Drive Up Employee Engagement

There are different definitions for the term “employee engagement”. There are at least three general perspectives on employee engagement. Some even attempt to equate it to job satisfaction. Others see engagement as motivation and still others refer to it as the level of commitment to an organization. However, without the productivity component these definitions do not appear to describe the concept.

A review of the literature on engagement suggests that it is associated with job satisfaction and commitment to the organization. Employee engagement results are linked closely to four major outcomes: “(1) improved employee mental health; (2) increased retention; (3) lowered absenteeism; and (4) improved performance” (Canadian HR Reporter & WarrenShepell, 2006).

Gerard Seijts and Dan Crim (2006) in their article published in the Ivey Business Journal as “What engages employees the most or, The Ten C’s of employee engagement” provided an in-depth description:

An engaged employee is a person who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, his or her work…. Engaged employees care about the future of the company and are willing to invest the discretionary effort – exceeding duty’s call to see that the organization succeeds…. [T]here is widespread agreement among academics and practitioners that engaged employees are those who are emotionally connected to the organization and cognitively vigilant.

Recent survey findings from the Gallup, a leading research firm indicates that highly engaged organizations have 2.6 times the earning per share growth rate of their lower performing competitors in the same industry. These findings among others provide a strong business case for driving up employee engagement index and to retaining top performers.

This leads to the premise, how then do we increase engagement in the short and long term. There are several things an organization can do to increase employee engagement. A good place to start is to try measuring engagement and benchmark scores against close peers.

In 2006, Canadian HR Reporter (published by Carswell) and WarrenShepell (now Shepell-fgi) published a major case study titled “How Much and How Important?” that identified nine dimensions that affect engagement positively and indicated ways to improve employee engagement. The nine dimensions they identified are clarity and feedback, connection to the big picture, empowerment, fair compensation, employee career development, health attachments, meaningful work, pleasant work environment and reasonable work demands. These nine dimensions are similar in many respects to the suggestions offered by the “HR Forum” contributors to HR Assets Solutions Inc.

A review of these findings suggests that to increase employee engagement, satisfaction and retention, organizations must do the following:

  • Provide employees with the opportunity to grow and develop in the organization
  • Give employees meaningful feedback regularly based on credible performance appraisal system administered by qualified managers.
  • Empower employees through rewards and recognition that is perceived as fair and equitable
  • Provide employees with information on how their jobs fit in with short and long term goals

Ten Top Ways To Retain Top Talent

After series of research and through successful application, HR Assets Solutions Inc. has been implementing these practices with clients:

  1. Provide career advancement opportunities through integration of performance management, talent management and succession planning tools
  2. Build a welcoming work environment that is stimulating, challenging, respectful and stress free to ensure your top talents or star hires operate in an environment where they are supported to succeed
  3. Promote internal mobility for top performers, and assign roles based on aspirations and ability
  4. Provide consistent recognition of performance in different forms using a well designed reward and recognition program linked to organizational objectives
  5. Communicate regularly about employee programs, policies, opportunities for growth and job security
  6. Provide differentiated but equitable and fair compensation and benefits
  7. Help employees with career advancement through training, coaching and mentoring
  8. Implement a well designed flexible work arrangements (and include telecommuting for knowledge workers) based on organizational needs
  9. Provide non-financial incentives (perks)
  10. Demonstrate to employees that their organization is financially stable with growth potential
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