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Leader's Edge Turning the Tables

The employers’ hiring market is over. As the economy recovers, key staff may start to leave—unless…

By  Julia Kramer

The past year has been a seller’s market in terms of employment. Open jobs were scarce commodities, they did not stay vacant and available very long, and salary negotiations were short and employer-driven. Employees worked smarter and harder than ever due to reduced headcount, but they didn’t look for rewards in terms of pay increases or year-end bonuses. They knew the money just wasn’t there. Most felt lucky to have a job—luckier than many of their spouses, co-workers, friends and partners who lost their jobs through downsizing, restructuring and closures.

During the year, employers found it difficult to maintain employee morale. Some tried hard and succeeded, but many tried hard and failed. Some never really tried; they felt it was a losing battle, or they banked on the fact that their employees had little choice but to stay put. Morale might have been down, but for about a year, firms enjoyed record-highs in employee retention.

The tables are about to turn. As the economy picks up, new budgets will be put in place, and many firms will begin hiring again. It won’t be too long before employees who once felt lucky to have a job, any job, will realize that they have options. As they regain their confidence, they will explore other possibilities and other positions. They will be especially motivated to move if they are not happy with how they’ve been treated by their employer.

If your firm actively supported its employees during the tough times and was able keep the esprit de corps alive and well, then you are going to be in good shape.

Keep up the good work.

If your firm was not as diligent in planning for the future and didn’t take steps to safeguard employee loyalty, all is not lost. There is still time to understand who is at risk and to curtail attrition. But you need to do this now so that down the road, when the tables start to turn, you’re not left sitting at the table alone.

Identify who is at risk and why. Enlist your managers to help determine who is at risk on their staff or in their circle of close associates. Keep in mind that your managers may also be at risk. You may think you know whom to worry about on your own team, but enlist the help of peer groups to check your assessment. Once you have a list of names, don’t just plop a label on them and start giving out “atta boys.” Dig deeper to find out what put the individuals in jeopardy. Ask questions like: “Was this employee happy before the economy tanked or only after we had to make cuts”; “When did this person move from dedicated to uncommitted”; “Was this a slowly developing process, or was there a critical incident that caused the change?” By uncovering root causes, it will be easier to develop plans to undo the damage.

Develop individual retention plans. There are myriad reasons why an employee’s loyalty may be wavering, and these reasons will drive the individual retention plan. For example, Jack was promoted out of a clerical job right before the financial crisis hit. The firm decided not to fill the clerical vacancy, and Jack ended up still performing his old clerical duties. No one thanked him or told him that the situation was temporary. He’s frustrated and unsure that he’ll ever move up now. Retain Jack by thanking him for his teamwork and reassure him that the clerical position will be filled. Keep him further engaged by including him in plans for his future. Let him know when to expect some relief and make sure a portion of each day can be spent on higher-level tasks. Most people, including Jack, can tough it out if there is hope for the future. Tell your Jacks that there is not just hope, but a plan. Help them find reasons not just to stay, but to be excited about what’s in store for them.

Tell them you want them to stay. Nothing is more powerful than saying something like, “We’re not out of the woods yet, but I see light at the end of the tunnel. I know it’s been tough on you, and I thank you for hanging in there. Your hard work has not gone unnoticed, and it will not go unrewarded. I know you have a great future here, and I hope I can count on you to continue to be part of my team.”

Four short sentences. It may be out of character for you, but suck it up and get it said to those on your staff whom you value and want to keep around for the long haul.

We’ve all had difficulty over the last year, and many of us have worried about the state of our firms and the state of our individual jobs. Now that the smoke is clearing, don’t take a gamble that your employees are all on board and not going anywhere. Take the time now to ensure that when the economic tables turn, those you want to share a celebratory meal with are seated firmly with you at the table.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President.

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