Small Business

How Employers Can Win the Talent Quest


Looking for a fresh start as the new year unfolds? So are some of your employees. Every month, 1 out of every 7 workers quits to take a new job. That's up from 1 in 10 five years ago. By 2008, there will be 7 million more job openings than workers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In his new book, Keeping the People Who Keep You in Business, human-resources consultant Leigh Branham discusses two dozen ways to hire and retain talented workers. Nowhere on the list will you find, "Hope for an economic downtown to tighten up the job market." Branham calls for a much more active approach in these days of record low unemployment, which he and others predict will last at least 20 years -- even as economic downturns come and go.

Also absent from Branham's list is, "Just keep paying more and more money." Yes, salaries have to be competitive -- your administrative assistant or marketing manager wants to be paid on a par with peers in other companies. Beyond that, Branham says, money isn't the answer.

MESSY ISSUES. Once the pay is competitive, the main reason people stay or go is whether they like the boss. "Good management is what keeps the most and the best," says Branham, a vice-president in the Kansas City (Mo.) office of Right Management Consultants. "Still, an alarming 89% of managers truly believe that employee retention is largely about money. They believe it's easier to throw money at the problem than to take the time to grapple with the intangible, soft, seemingly uncontrollable issues of motivation and retention."

Tackling these issues requires that the boss pay attention to the employee, to acknowledge contributions daily, to coach, to reward, to interact at a variety of levels. What people crave, more than Starbucks in the lunchroom or massages on Fridays, is simple acknowledgement, the author emphasizes.

The small-business owner who thinks he can't compete with giants like Cisco Systems (which pays cash for employee referrals) and Sony Electronics (which issues "performance shares" to workers who achieve individual goals) should note that employees care deeply about day-to-day interactions with their immediate supervisor, no matter how big -- or small -- the outfit. So honor your commitments, don't interrupt, and always remember to smile, make eye contact, and greet the employee, the author advises. "Act as if you're there to serve your employees and not the other way around," Branham urges.

STRATEGIES FOR IMPROVEMENT. If you think that's just too much trouble, look at it this way: You're not just keeping your employees, you're keeping your customers (and thus your profits). Branham cites studies showing how customer loyalty diminishes as employee turnover rises. He also explains how to figure out, in hard dollars, the impact of employee turnover on the bottom line.

The author's list of ways to retain valuable people covers a wide range of techniques and includes examples of how companies have put the wisdom to work. Burnham also details a system for reckoning, and improving, your company's competency at minimizing staff turnover. The strategies fall into four broad categories: Be a company people want to work for. Select the right people in the first place. Get new workers off to a great start. Coach and reward to sustain commitment.

Here are some other tips to reduce the number of farewell parties:

Ask the right questions. It requires work to hire the right person, so begin by investing a little thought in identifying the talents, traits, and behaviors of your best people. Then you'll know what to look for when interviewing potential new hires.

Next, use "behavioral-based" interviewing techniques -- an approach based on the premise that the past is the best guide to the future. Rather than asking a customer-service candidate, for example, whether she's polite to rude callers, invite her to describe how she handled such situations in past jobs. And yes, check references. Branham details good techniques for getting honest references from former supervisors and colleagues. And no, you shouldn't delegate that to the human-resources department.

Hire and promote managers who can actually manage. Companies that manage people well can expect profits that are 30% to 40% higher than those that don't, Branham claims. The biggest mistake companies make is promoting good technical specialists without heeding if they have a talent for managing people -- or even an interest in doing so. What workers want most from a manager is clear feedback, he says, so someone who isn't interested in listening to underlings and coaching them is a liability, no matter how good he may be at turning out widgets.

Near the end of the book, Branham has a chapter on retaining specific types of employees, including:

* Those going through a merger or downsizing: Don't lie or withhold information.

* Generation X: Independent and self-reliant, they're not intimidated by authority and enjoy solving problems.

* Generation Y: These twentysomethings are techno-literate, goal-oriented, team players, and have a strong sense of fairness and ethics.

* Technical professionals: Their primary loyalty is to their profession or craft, not to the organization. They want flexible hours, few rules, and cutting-edge technological tools.

Branham's list is exhaustive. Most managers wouldn't want to tackle all 24 items at once -- but they might spot individual strategies in the list that could make a big difference.

And while you're reading...

Another new book boasts a title that screams self-help but a pedigree that demands attention: The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, comes from Harvard Business School Press and is endorsed by UCLA Business Professor Warren Bennis, World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, and Anthony Gottlieb, executive editor of The Economist.

TURNING LINES INTO HABITS. The authors -- he is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and she a psychologist -- have a lot to say about how people and companies can succeed by shedding old assumptions and embracing new ones. They demonstrate -- drawing pictures where necessary -- how such catch phrases as "thinking out of the box," "creating win-win outcomes," "making a difference," and "embracing risk" can be a way of life rather than nice ideas buried in a mission statement or a list of resolutions.

Some people might dismiss their ideas as too touchy-feely. But it's a new year, a new millennium, and a new economy. Surely a new attitude couldn't hurt. By Theresa Forsman in New York


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