Retention Programs Are Not Created Equal - How to Improve Yours in 2018

  • March 30, 2018

What makes your top talent stay? If your answer is limited to salary and benefits, you might have a problem.

Sure, compensation is an important component of employee retention—but top talent can find any number of employers who’d love to compensate them. The 2017 Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) Job Satisfaction and Engagement report found that “employees want to feel respected and to have a mutual trust between themselves and management.” They also want to feel the sense of purpose that comes with contributing to an organization’s overall success. A successful retention program must transform the employee experience—but the program must also transform the organization as a whole, making it a more purposeful, inclusive, and engaging environment for all.

Make Diversity and Inclusion a Focus of Your Retention Programs

The benefits of diverse and inclusive workforces have been well-documented, but most diversity efforts fall short and some can actually hinder employee retention. In fact, in 2017 the Kapor Center for Social Impact and Harris Poll found that tech companies’ efforts to bolster diversity by hiring more women and people had regularly fallen short. The reason? Non-inclusive workplaces can leave groups of employees feeling that they don’t belong, or that they aren’t valued. And this can boil over into toxic cultures that are rife with bullying, stereotyping, harassment, and missed promotions. Ultimately, lack of inclusion drives diverse workers away, costing the tech industry approximately $16 billion per year.

Social media and political polarization have made debates on controversial social and cultural issues seemingly unavoidable. By intentionally avoiding these issues, organizations can send the wrong message to employees from diverse racial/ethnic, religious, and political groups, as well as members of the LGBT community and those with disabilities. Diversity and inclusion expert Mary-Frances Winters addresses this in her book We Can’t Talk about That at Work: “Employees who are impacted, either directly or indirectly, by these events are looking for their companies to say something. Organizations do not operate in a bubble; what is happening in the external world has a direct impact on employees, and they are talking about it at work whether we like it or not.” Facilitating conversations and taking a stand on polarizing topics can be a great first step to create more inclusive cultures, which can help improve retention.

Leverage the Power of Employee Resource Groups

Employee resource groups, or ERGs, can also foster inclusion and retention. ERGs enable colleagues from similar backgrounds to connect, organize, share information and resources, and identify needed changes. The groups also provide a voice to underrepresented communities within larger organizations. Erika Irish Brown, the global head of diversity and inclusion at Bloomberg LP, writes that ERGs often lay the foundation for larger organizational inclusion efforts. Also, Brown adds, data indicates that employees taking part in ERGs have higher engagement scores than those who don’t. “With turn-over costs calculated up to two times annual compensation, the benefits are especially compelling,” she writes.

Leadership Style Has a Cascading Effect on Culture, Employee Retention

Just 17 percent of people surveyed by Gallup who were quitting organizations directly cited “management” and the “general work environment.” But there’s a catch: Managers influenced more than 75 percent of all voluntary turnover. Given that management and the overall leadership structure has a profound influence on employees’ decisions to stay or leave, it’s critical that their influence be accounted for in retention programs.

Start by asking what type of leadership style your organization’s managers currently utilize to help you identify potential challenges in employee retention. Concurrently, you should ask: Does your organizational structure support a leadership style that encourages the trust and mutual respect necessary to provide the foundation for a good workplace culture?

There are many different leadership styles that can be leveraged to foster retention through a positive workplace culture. Servant leadership is one example that is proven to build cultures of trust and to help employees find purpose in their careers—which are key elements of retention programs. By flipping the traditional hierarchical pyramid, servant leadership makes employees responsible for meeting goals and managers responsive to the needs of employees. Mutual trust is the foundation. In the collection of essays edited by legendary leadership expert Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell, Servant Leadership in Action, contributor Stephen M. R. Covey describes trust as a starting point that “opens up boundless possibilities.” He continues, writing that command-and-control leadership styles that require less trust are “exhausting, unsustainable, and incapable of delivering the endless innovation, energy, and engagement of an organization that has been electrified by trust.”

Make Training and Professional Development Central to Retention

In the 2017 Work Institute Retention Report, 86 percent of companies saw career development as one of the top three reasons for employee turnover, with work-life balance following closely behind. Giving training and professional development a starring role in your retention programs could address these issues, but not all companies offer leadership development programs.

Employees Should Feel Valued, Challenged, and Rewarded

In A Great Place to Work For All, Michael C. Bush explains that gaps exist in the workforce that lead to some workers having a less positive experience than others. These gaps result in organizations “failing to foster the full potential of the people in those categories.” Training and professional development have traditionally been designated for “high-potential” employees only, but, Bush argues, “any person left behind in a company culture is bad for business. Each person, and their potential, matters. You will build the most hopeful future for your organization by including everyone.” That means investing in professional development training programs that will make all employees feel vital and satisfied.

New Managers Should Be Positioned for Success

Professional advancement won’t help retention if managers are not set up for success when they’re promoted. In fact, technology consulting firm Gartner (formerly CEB) found that roughly 60 percent of frontline managers underperform in their first two years. In Managing, leading management scholar Henry Mintzberg writes that the biggest adjustment is shifting from a mindset of “I” to “we.” That means learning how to energize others, how to coach and mentor, building and maintaining cohesive teams, and strengthening the culture. These are skills that individual contributors likely don’t have to use and that they need to learn them before assuming a management role.

Ask Employees What Makes Them Want To Stay

Everyone is motivated to stay with an organization—or to leave—by something different. That’s one of the biggest challenges of retention programs, and not enough companies are taking an individualized approach. In fact, 65 percent of employees say that they want more regular communication and feedback from their managers, according to research by employee engagement firm Officevibe. Checking in with top talent on a regular basis enables managers to gain valuable insight into their employees’ challenges, concerns, and priorities. Managers will also be able to learn how to best motivate and reward their employees—and, ultimately, how to make them stay.

Discover the Power of “Stay Interviews” in Retention Strategies

Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans set the gold standard for employee retention best practices in their best-seller Love ’Em or Lose ’Em. Their followup book Hello Stay Interviews, Goodbye Talent Loss focuses on “stay interviews,”which encourage managers to ask their top talent, “What can I do to keep you?” on a regular basis. Although some managers worry that employees will make unreasonable requests or demands, Kaye and Jordan-Evans argue that guessing is too risky, and they encourage managers who can’t immediately give top talent what they want to reiterate how much they value the employee, truthfully explain obstacles or barriers, be willing to advocate for them, and conclude by asking, “What else?” Then, Kaye and Jordan-Evans write, “When you ask the question ‘What else?’ we guarantee there will be at least one thing your talented employee wants that you can give. Remember to listen actively as your employees talk about what will keep them on your team or in your organization.”

Learn How to Challenge and Reward Your Top Talent

Because the most talented employees are often more savvy, creative, self-driven, and energetic, Kaye and Jordan-Evans write in Love ’Em or Lose ’Em, they’re the most likely to experience discontent in their careers. “They need stimulating work, opportunities for personal challenge and growth, and a contributing stake in the organizational action.” When talented employees feel that is no longer the case, they’ll start considering an exit strategy. The best way around this, Kaye and Jordan-Evans explain, is to give top talent flexibility, challenge them to expand knowledge bases and capabilities, and allow them to “job sculpt” by adapting their current position into one that they love.

In the end, the most talented employees are often the most difficult ones to retain. They’re highly motivated, they have lofty ambitions, and they have a history of success to propel them forward. Stay interviews allow managers to harness all of that ambition and talent in their current employee—instead of looking for their next one.

The Final Word on Improving Retention Programs

When it comes to improving your retention programs, don’t look for shortcuts. Look for system-wide changes that make your organization work better for its employees, its stakeholders, and its larger community. This means working with leadership and management to implement leadership styles that are proven to foster mutual respect, trust, and purpose. It also means creating an inclusive culture that allows your organization, individual employees, and community to realize the many benefits of diversity. Additionally, closing the gaps in the workplace that lead to departures by focusing on training and workforce development will signal to employees that they’re valued contributors—and it will inspire them to reach higher within your organization. Finally, engaging your top talent in regular “stay interviews” will help you better understand how to challenge, reward, and retain them. In the end, if retention programs aren’t making your organization a better place to work—they’re falling short.

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