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Why Guess What Will Keep Your Employees? Ask Them!
Excerpts from Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay

Human resource specialists and senior level leaders spend countless hours pondering the question. Special task forces and consultants conduct research. They benchmark other organizations in related industries, in a quest to learn: How do you hold on to key talent?

All that effort, time and money may be well spent. But the obvious is often overlooked. Has anyone asked your employees what keeps them at your company? Has anyone asked what might lure key talent away? Have you? If not, why not?

When we suggest asking employees why they stay or what would keep them, we hear reactions such as: "You've got to be kidding." "Isn't that illegal?" "What if they give me an answer I don't want to hear?" We dance around this subject for fear of putting someone on the spot or putting ideas into their head (as if they never thought about leaving on their own).

Some managers are afraid they will be unable to keep people anyway, so why ask? They fear that the question will raise more dust than they can settle and employees may expect answers that are out of the manager's hands. And there is another reason: Time. Many managers say that their time is totally consumed by the business at hand. If you fall into this category, you are missing a secret of how to succeed: through asking.

THE DANGERS OF GUESSING. What if you don't ask? What if you just keep trying to guess? You will guess right sometimes. The Christmas bonus might please them all. Money can inspire loyalty and commitment for the near term. But if the key to retaining Tara is to give her a chance to learn something new, whereas Mike wants to telecommute, how could you ever guess that?

A senior manager told us of an employee who was leaving his company. On her last day, the senior manager, who was upset at the loss, expressed his disappointment that she was leaving. He wished her well but said, "I wish there were something we could have done to keep you," assuming that her direct supervisor had asked what would make her stay. But the supervisor hadn't asked, and something could have been done. The employee said she would have stayed if she could have been more involved in higher-level meetings. It was a request that would have been easy to fill — if only he had known!

Asking has positive side effects. The person you ask will feel cared about, valued and important. Just asking the question is a retention strategy.

How and when do you bring up this topic? How can you increase the odds of getting honest input from your employees? There is no single way or time to ask. It could happen during a developmental or career discussion with your employees. (You do hold those, don't you?) In that context, you could simply ask: "What would make you want to stay here? What might lure you away?" Be understanding and listen actively. Does the person want a chance to grow and learn, or will a promotion and big title keep him with your company?

After you listen, you need to respond. What you say is critical. Responses like "That's unrealistic" immediately halt the dialogue. Maybe you are uncomfortable with the direct question. And perhaps your employees are hesitant to answer. If so, ask in a more comfortable way. Try this: Think back to a time when you stayed with one organization for a fairly long time. What kept you there?

This question might be easier for some employees to answer because it avoids current needs and wants. What kept them before is most likely to keep them on your team today.

THEY DARED TO ASK. A high-tech company in Silicon Valley decided to ask a group of talented people that it wanted to retain what really mattered to them. There was a great risk they'd leave the company. The employees, who were being trained to implement a new business-integration software system, were hot commodities. Headhunters called even during the early stages of their training. In other companies, eight out of ten newly trained specialists left during or immediately following implementation — reportedly because they were offered big bucks by the competition or consulting firms.

The company began by asking employees exactly what would keep them and what would lure them away. Three external consultants conducted confidential interviews. The responses were candid and provided exactly the information the company was seeking. People knew what they wanted, and it was not always money.

Many people said they wanted to do "meaningful work" after the project was completed, not return to what they had been doing. Some wanted another team experience. Others wanted another challenge. Management was able to find those opportunities inside the company. One and a half years later, only one member of the group had left. The others stayed despite lucrative offers from other organizations.

Our research confirms what many others have learned about the reasons employees remain at a company. Here are the most common reasons, in order of popularity and frequency (Note: 90% of respondents listed at least one of the first three items among the top three or four reasons they stayed):


1. Career growth, learning and development

2. Exciting work and challenge

3. Meaningful work, making a difference and a contribution

4. Great people

5. Being part of a team

6. Good boss

7. Recognition for work well done

8. Fun on the job

9. Autonomy, sense of control over my work

10. Flexibility — for example, in work hours and dress code

11. Fair pay and benefits

12. Inspiring leadership

13. Pride in organization, its mission and quality of product

14. Great work environment

15. Location

16. Job security

17. Family-friendly

18. Cutting-edge technology

Ask yourself which of these you can offer. You will likely find that many more are in your control than you thought.

Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans are entrepreneurs and experts in employee retention. Kaye is the president of Beverly Kaye & Associates Inc. and Career Systems International of Scranton, Pa.( Jordan-Evans is the president of Jordan Evans Group, a leadership consulting business based in Woodland Hills, Calif. ( For more on the authors' retention strategies, see

Adapted and excerpted from Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay

Copyright 1999 by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans

Reprinted and excerpted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. Available at online and other bookstores or through Berrett-Kohler at (800)929-2929 or



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