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
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
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
16. Job security
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.(www.careersystemsintl.com). Jordan-Evans is the president of Jordan Evans
Group, a leadership consulting business based in Woodland Hills, Calif. (www.jeg.org) 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.
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