Employee Retention: Clichés to Work By

Dave E. Redekopp & J. Barrie Day

©Life-Role Development Group, 2000

Our current state of low unemployment is leading many employers to focus on employee retention. It is a seller’s labour market at the moment, and employees know it. This is especially true within high demand sectors such as computing, telecommunications and other high-tech industries. Knee-jerk reactions to employee losses such as the implementation of reward systems, bonus systems and elaborate perquisite plans are understandable. However, employers who wish to retain employees in a sustainable way need a different cliché by which to operate than "pay them and they will come." This brief article provides different clichés by which to view the employee retention issue.


Begin as You Mean to Go On

Businesses need to consider why they are in business when approaching retention issues. Organizations that wish to be around in a few years need to look at retention in a different manner than those working simply for increased quarterly share prices. This article is addressed to those who seek some measure of sustainability.

There is a danger in establishing retention practices that cannot be sustained within moderate or tough times. Bonus systems, rewards and perqs may keep some employees around right now (although this is arguable), but employers need to consider the sustainability of such initiatives. What will happen to employee motivation and morale when these systems need to be removed because conditions are less lucrative? We have seen the effects on employees of down-sizing and efforts to "do more with less" when the going gets rough. Employees who have been accustomed to elaborate bonus, reward and training schemes quickly become de-motivated. The employees may stay with the organization, thereby solving the retention problem, but now the organization has to deal with enormous motivation and productivity issues when they have no money to do so. "Begin as you mean to go on" refers to the need to establish practices that will work in both good and bad times.


Prior to launching any initiative or enhancing a current initiative:


You Can Lead a Horse to Water, but You Can’t Make it Drink

When a horse is thirsty, it will drink-no extra rewards or motivators are needed to get it to do so. However, when a horse is not motivated to drink, most efforts to get it to do so are futile or short-lived. Similarly, when employees want to work (and the vast, vast majority do), they will do so given some basic conditions.1 When employees are allowed to do work that is meaningful, that promotes their growth, that gives them responsibility, and that produces valuable outcomes, they will work. External rewards are unnecessary and may even be damaging. External rewards distract workers from the reasons they intrinsically wanted to work in the first place-to contribute, to grow, to have value. Employers who wish to retain employees will do far better to help employees create ways to grow, create and meaningfully contribute than they will to erect quick-fix bonus or reward systems.


If you are a manager, take the time to get to know the individual motivations of each employee. If you are an owner, make sure your managers get to know their employees, and give them tools to do so. Simple coaching conversations and career conversations can go a very long way in helping both managers and employees understand what, specifically, the employee is motivated by. Often it is not difficult for the manager to accommodate these needs.


There is More than One Way to Skin a Cat

Each employee is unique. Although organizational systems need to be fair and equitable, employees should not be treated exactly the same. Each employee is motivated differently. The immediate manager’s role is to help each employee clarify these motivations and find ways to help employees fulfil these motivations on the worksite. This does not mean having managers run around trying to cater to every employee’s whim. It means helping employees find meaning and satisfaction in the core of their work. By helping employees find "flair" in their work, all the "grunt" work that needs to be done will be done more effectively. Some organizations have gone as far as hiring career coaches who regularly work with employees to ensure their work remains satisfying, creative and productive. Although costly initially, this approach has been shown to reduce turnover rates substantially and more than pay back the costs of the coaches.


Learn to have career conversations with employees. Kris Magnusson’s "5P" model is a simple and effective example. The manager and employee discuss:

This model helps employees gradually sculpt their roles to increasingly better fit their core motivations.


A Stitch in Time Saves Nine

Many retention problems can be resolved by taking the time to select employees well in the first place. Although this is exceedingly difficult at the moment for some high-tech industries, sustainability demands that employees are selected for the right reasons. Most selection processes focus on competence to the exclusion of reviewing passion or motivation. Organizations that carefully assess the alignment between potential recruits’ passions and the ability to fulfil these passions within the workplace find that (a) they can train to fill the competence gaps quickly and efficiently because they have highly motivated learners and (b) they can focus their energies on the work that needs to be done rather than on ways to get employees interested in the work. Retention problems are much less of an issue for organizations that have accounted for passion in recruitment.


When bringing new people into your unit or organization, take the time to identify the values (e.g., safety), beliefs (e.g., the customer is always right) and interests (e.g., organizing things) associated with the role. Use behavioural questions to check whether candidates match up attitudinally. For example, if you want somebody who is passionate about being orderly and organized, include interview questions such as "Do you have a workshop at home? If so, tell me where your #2 Phillips screwdriver is" or "Where is your 1998 income tax return?" or "If I was to walk into your kitchen right now, where would I find cinnamon (or some other common spice)?"


If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem

Many organizations do not recognize that they actively create retention problems by not involving employees in organizational direction-setting. Some do so with the best of intentions-they want to let employees focus on their work and not be overburdened by thoughts of the organization’s future. By not making employees part of the direction-setting process, however, organizations risk losing employees who no longer feel that they are an active part of the organization. Employees who feel no ownership of the organization will quickly and easily move to another organization offering more favourable conditions. Employees who "own" (even if only conceptually) the organization or a team within the organization are much more committed than those who simply do what they are told.



A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush

Managers busy with day-to-day work often forget the value of the employees right in front of them. Under pressure, they stop noticing that both they and their employees are ordinary people with unique quirks, foibles and needs. Showing appreciation for employees in genuine ways is one of the most effective and least utilized retention strategy. Employees try to do their best (employees who drive to work thinking "How can I screw up everybody’s day?" are exceedingly rare!), they have lives outside of work, they have good times and bad times and they have their own pressures. Appreciating employees for who they are (not just how they perform), their life concerns, their needs at work and their motivations is essential for sustainable retention. No elaborate "appreciation systems" are needed here. Simple human courtesy (e.g., "Thanks for busting your butt to meet that client’s needs"), decency (e.g., paying full attention to an employee when he or she is talking) and flexibility (e.g., "Why don’t you skip out of here to catch your kid’s talent show at school-we’ll find a way to cover you off") go a very long way. Also, appreciating the contexts in which employees work is enormously valuable. Employees will go the extra mile if they see their manager bending over backwards to get them the equipment they need to do their work. This appreciation of employee needs will go much farther than superficial rewards for good work.



Always Wear Clean Underwear!

This may not be a true cliché, but it is worth paying attention to regardless. Managers within organizations set the example for how the organization operates, feels and presents itself. Many managers do not fully appreciate the significance of their behaviour on employees’ behaviour. Managers who complain about corporate decisions, who whine about "upper management," and who gossip about others create a culture of scepticism, helplessness and blurred boundaries. This culture can be very unpleasant to work within, and employees who would otherwise love their roles leave in search of better surroundings.



The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be

This article has focussed on retention efforts that are sustainable in good times and bad. The future is impossible to predict. Establishing systems that will not be sustainable in difficult times is risky. Not only are they difficult to quickly dismantle, but their removal can substantially de-motivate staff who otherwise would have been productive.



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Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Magnusson, K. (1997). Radical change in the world of work: Counsellor’s guide. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Human Resources and Employment.

Redekopp, D.E. & Day, J.B. (1990). Passion-based hiring: A career developmentalist’s perspective. Available at no charge at www.life-role.com.

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Dave Redekopp and Barrie Day are the Principal Partners of the Life-Role Development Group Limited, a national career development firm based in Edmonton. The Life-Role Development Group trains leaders through a unique combination of career development and leadership principles and practices. For more information about the Group, go to www.life-role.com.


[1] These conditions include the "basics" of an effective worksite: reasonable supervision, decent corporate policy, equitable pay within the industry, reasonable equipment and a safe/comfortable work environment.

[2] Spear, S. & Bowen, H.K. (1999). Decoding the DNA of Toyota. Harvard Business Review, Sept/Oct.

[3] Seligman, M.E.P. (1990). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket.