Help for Employers – Guest Column – Key Ways to Lose Key Employees


Key Ways to Lose Key Employees  |

By Susan Sterritt Meyer  |   Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), MS, BS, BA  |

Published in the July/August 2010 issue of print Search & Employ®  |

Meyer helps individuals and companies craft credible, image-enhancing communications. She served nine years in the Army Reserve, with two activations. She devoted more than 20 years of her career to management positions in human resources, and now uses her expertise to teach, coach, and develop leaders.

Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned employers are trapped in historical ways of interacting with employees, bound by stale, unhealthy practices based on out-of-touch philosophies. Of course, consistency in policy application along with a predictable, positive culture will bolster your company’s ability to retain a talented workforce. But stubborn, blind adherence to outdated management approaches, simply because “that’s how things have always been done here,” is courting disaster for retention of your top players once the economy turns around. Be prepared to lose many of your best performers if…

1.  You demonstrate to these employees that you don’t trust them. 

I once worked under a CEO who lingered by the front door to make sure everyone was at work by 8:00 a.m. We greatly resented the kindergarten feel of this practice. Although some of us (exempt professionals and managers) chose regularly to devote upwards of 70 hours a week to the business, the message he sent was one of glaring distrust in our professionalism and commitment. Ultimately, I saw many of my best colleagues change their behavior to come in exactly at 8:00 a.m. and depart exactly at 5:00 p.m.

2. You don’t shift your leadership style to match the performance-maturity of these employees.

Micromanaging performance-mature employees — those who consistently demonstrate strong job knowledge and competence, company knowledge (people, processes, product, and procedures) and initiative — stifles and insults individuals who would go the creative, extra mile for your company. Instead, establish goals and parameters together, be available to lend support if they ask for it, award them the necessary authority and resources to get the job done, and then stay the heck out of their way.

3. You don’t show appreciation in ways that employees actually value.

“Praise in public” is short-sighted advice. I’ve seen top performers reduce their output to avoid the embarrassment of some very cheesy recognition programs. Particularly humiliating are some of the “employee of the month” rituals and anemic tokens for low-quality prizes that most individuals wouldn’t even want in their homes. Find out what employees actually value and where possible and sustainable, make a selection of these rewards available instead. The best reward, a handwritten note, for example, need not be costly and will be valued for a long time.  And saying “thank you” is always in the budget.

4. You don’t reward the right behaviors.

What really counts? Do your performance reviews get hung up on measurable minutiae rather than on behaviors that actually drive success? Creativity, customer focus, innovation, courteous and respectful treatment shown to everyone, for example, will probably propel your business success far more than many of the factors on which you “grade” others. You will drive behaviors by what you pay for, so reward the qualities and contributions that matter most to your organization in the long term.

5. You promote false economy that says your time is not important to us.

Policies that promote false economy spell death to your hopes of retaining key players. This brings to mind a senior manager I know who, during part of his week, must travel to key customer locations all over the country to conduct important negotiations. His company’s policy of booking the least expensive flights exhausts him and wastes hours of his time. To save $200 or so, the company books flights with long connection times after business hours, leaving him sitting in remote airports where he cannot be productive or rest. The company’s message, though unintended, is loud and clear: Your time is not valuable.

6. You are too inflexible to keep your best performers.

We live in a business culture so intimidated by the real threat of employment litigation that we throw common sense out the window. While I would never advocate violating timekeeping and overtime requirements of the FLSA, or creating precedents that would come back to haunt you, a company can stay within the law and still show a little flexibility with understanding. Your best performers deserve this consideration.

7. You fail to keep key employees informed of things that will impact them.

Usually 100% of the hands go up in my leadership classes when I ask supervisors and managers if they are ever left out of the important information loop. Few things say “you don’t count” better than decision-making processes that keep these key players in the dark. If you want them to accept and implement change, tap into their expertise or keep them informed early in the process…not just after the big decisions have been made. Some sense of control over their work lives and participation in the direction of the company are critical to building trust and retaining loyalty.

8. You fail to compensate key players properly–based on market value and internal equity.

Frittering away your labor budget by giving all employees raises every year simply because they showed up regularly and didn’t make a mess of things is very short-sighted and a great way to deplete your ability to pay at or above market to attract and retain key talent. Failure to pay going rates or compensate based on the relative internal value of the job (not just tenure with your company) is another recipe for discontent and churn of your very best players. Have a compensation professional evaluate your pay structure. Participate in legitimate salary surveys from reputable firms such as ERA (not headhunters or groups with vested interests) to learn what your competitors’ practices are.

9. You still use draconian policies.

Changing policies is very tricky business, but smothering your good employees with policies designed to snare a few offenders punishes the wrong people. The world is a very different place today than when many company policies were established. Commission a certified HR professional as well as an attorney outside your organization (fresh eyes and no bias) to ascertain whether your policies are helping or hurting you.

10. You don’t hold everyone accountable.

Adam’s Equity Theory is alive and well in 2010. Failing to properly manage and discipline those employees who need their feet held to the fire demoralizes your high-performance employees who often have to pick up the slack for them. Professional leadership classes will help supervisors learn how to apply the needed coaching and discipline.

11. You don’t attend to key players as well as you would customers. 

If you always hurt the ones you love, you also tend to become blasé and sloppy in your treatment of your greatest asset – your key employees. Usually, more time is expended dealing with the company troublemakers. I’m not advocating pampering or kowtowing – I’m suggesting mentoring, holding them accountable, and providing them with the tools and techniques they need to grow and succeed. And finally, the best statement of respect you can give is the right level of autonomy. All the rest is nothing without this dimension.

About the Author

This article was written by Jay Myers