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They’re Your Employees — Make Them Want to Stay

by Jim Martin

The Wall Street Journal recently noted that a surprising number of new grads accepted positions and then declined them before their planned reporting day arrived. I have had several SCORE clients comment that the competition for employees is fierce in all parts of the job market. One entrepreneur told me, “There are lots of people looking for work, but there are few really good people. Everybody wants them, and it seems that many of us are willing to steal to get them.”

I asked her if she had been the victim of such a theft. She said she had developed a few tools for keeping good employees from disappearing into the skill-trolling morass. She mentioned a few things she had done, and as I thought about it, I came up with a few more. The obvious answer might be to counter the offer made to your employee, but don’t be hasty. Consider whether a person who is offered 30% more than you pay them is truly worth it. You have the advantage of knowing their skills. The prospective new employer has to move ahead on the basis of what the employee has told them. You have already invested the cost of training. The new employer must retrain them to some extent. Make the decision carefully, but if it makes sense, do it.

You might be better off if you had made the switch less attractive. Make your business so attractive that your employees would view a job change as risky. That’s what my client did.

Salary is clearly one technique. Pay your employees what they are worth. If they feel well rewarded, they’ll be harder to steal. Remember that fringe benefits are an important part of the pay. One technique my friend used was to make each employee’s birthday a paid holiday. She told me that one key employees was approached by a competitor. He asked whether they offered birthdays off. When they said no, he decided not to talk any further with them, since that probably meant they weren’t as employee friendly.

However, salary is not the only thing that shapes a worker’s view of his job. What can you do to make the job enjoyable rather than just routine? Here’s one example: A colleague ordered pizzas for the office on Friday. While the pizza was being devoured, he roamed around asking employees how things were going, whether they had suggestions and if there was anything they would like him to do differently. The pizza created an atmosphere that made it easy for them to respond, and a feeling of camaraderie that probably made it easier for him to retain employees.

There are other ways of creating atmosphere. I had a client whose business provided technical support by telephone. I had seen dog kennels that looked more attractive than his facilities. When I asked him, his reply was, “My customers never see the place.” My response was, “but your employees certainly do. What about them?” He had never considered the question. He decided to redecorate. Before he started, I suggested that he tell his staff of his plans and ask for their suggestions. A week later, he had some pretty good ideas regarding décor, furniture, lighting and other items. He admitted that some of the ideas were better than anything he might have dreamed up. Three months after the site was refurbished, he called me and commented that he couldn’t believe how much more productive (and I would assume loyal) his employees were.

I knew one businesswoman who stumbled into a motivator. She wanted to be more customer friendly, so she bought badges that said, “I’m Laurel. How can I help you?” Her staff had no objection to wearing them. Three weeks later, she got a pleasant surprise. One of her employees caught her and said, “We’ve all decided we like the badges. It’s really nice to have customers call you by name.” That’s the kind of atmosphere that retains employees.

Training is also important. There is absolutely no job that cannot be improved through training. But you have to do several things carefully. First, your employees have to understand you are upgrading skills of which you are already highly appreciative. Secondly, they should be paid for the training time. Third (fourth, fifth and sixth!!) make the training entertaining. If you aren’t Will Rogers (am I dating myself?) there are many sources out there for reasonably stimulating training modules. When you train your employees, they know you are interested in them and that you consider them key members of the business. Does that spell motivation to stay?

The message is simple: Decide what will make people want to work for you. Implement it. Make it work. And talk to every employee frequently enough that they know you care.