Winter 2008
10 Cost Effective Ways to Keep Great Employees

Employees matter. No, they really matter. In fact, it’s safe to say that the men and women who work for you are everything. Think about it. Your competitors have access to the exact same resources as you. That means almost infinite choices exist not only for your customers but for your employees as well. If you’re not seeking ways to nurture them and meet their needs, they will seek greener pastures—and your customers may follow.

Many leaders don’t realize that the rules of business have changed almost overnight. The old paradigm says that your primary focus should be on keeping your customer happy. The new paradigm says the employee has taken over that spot. Keep your employees engaged, and they’ll keep your customers happy. Neglect their needs, and they won’t be so concerned about keeping their end of the bargain.

Make no mistake: When employees start searching for greener pastures, it can be a bona fide disaster. After all, your employees are the face of your organization. They build strong relationships with customers and vendors, they know the ins and outs of your operation, they train new hires and indoctrinate them into the company culture. On top of that when you lose great employees, it hurts customer retention and the morale of the rest of your team.

And every time a great employee leaves, you have to shell out the cost of rehiring and retraining a replacement—a cost that studies have shown could range from 70 to 200 percent of that person’s salary. You also lose that employee’s institutional memory, another great asset for your company.

Clearly, preventing “greener pasture syndrome” must be top priority for today’s leaders. And while it may sound self-evident, the best approach is to make your pasture the greenest. Ultimately, that means becoming a Vibrant Entrepreneurial Organization, or VEO: a company with a culture that allows that elusive sense of employee ownership to flourish. But in the short run, it means making your company a place where employees truly want to be.

And by the way, it isn’t always cash that makes other pastures greener. When salaries are commensurate with the marketplace, other factors take priority. Good people stay put when they are challenged, when they have the opportunity to develop and contribute, and when their employers take care of the small yet meaningful things that make their lives easier.

So what specific steps will help you keep your employees engaged and productive? And on behalf of all of the small business owners out there, how can you make your pastures greener without breaking the bank?

Here are 10 easy-to-plant (and inexpensive!) “seeds” that will help your pasture be the greenest it can be for your current and future employees.

Don’t misrepresent your corporate culture.

Engaging your employees starts before they’re employees—the first time you interview them. What do you say to your new hires about your company? Is it really an accurate representation of how your organization works? Do you tell them about exciting opportunities, only to hold them back from new assignments until they “pay their dues?”

If the corporate culture is misrepresented at the time of hire, when new employees find out how things are really done, not only will they resent you, they’ll likely find somewhere else to work. If your culture isn’t quite what you’d like it to be, tell your new hires about the type of company you are striving to build, how you are going to get there, and how they can help you get there. They’ll find the honesty refreshing, and it will help them get off to a great start.

Cross-pollinate by embracing diversity.

A diverse workforce creates an energy that can rarely exist in an environment of uniformity. Companies that bring together a diverse group of people to get the job done have a corporate culture that’s richer, more stimulating and, frankly, more fun. By hiring employees from all walks of life, you’ll create an environment where differing ideas flow freely. Learn how to use diversity to better your company, and you’ll create an environment where top talent wants to stay.

Be a good corporate citizen.

Once upon a time, the corporate heads of many organizations had one concern: “How much money can we make and how fast can we make it?” Well, money still matters, of course. But today’s employers are finding that they have to care about more than just profits if they want to keep their employees happy. The environment, health and safety have never been more in the spotlight, and as a result, employees want to work for companies who take these factors into consideration. In fact, a study by the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College found that 30 percent of employers say that good corporate citizenship helps them recruit and retain employees. Good corporate citizens maintain high ethical standards, decrease the negative effects their company has on the environment and give back to the community.

Give praise when praise is due.

If your employees do a great job, let them know. And then let their co-workers know. And then let your customers know! Recognizing a job well done isn’t an expensive proposition, but it will mean the world to your employee.

A good way to achieve employee recognition on a regular basis is to create an employee recognition program, which doesn’t have to be complicated and overly formal. You might give managers the authority to reward their employees on the spot—say, with a gift certificate or a small cash bonus right then and there. Some companies even allow fellow employees to reward one another with small bonuses for jobs well done. Employees not only enjoy the rewards themselves, but they also see that what they’re doing matters to the people they work with.

Recognize your employees have personal lives.

Keep in mind that as your employees progress in life, their personal lives and therefore their needs as employees change. After having a child, an employee may want to travel less than before the child was born. As your baby boomer employees get older, so do their parents, who might need more attention than before. Be as understanding as possible when they need to take time off to take care of the health needs of Mom or Dad. And never give them a hard time when they need to take care of their own health issues.

By understanding their changing needs, you show sensitivity to what’s going on in their lives. You demonstrate that you see them as people, not just cogs in the machine. Not only will you build loyalty with your employees, but you will help them bring stability to their personal lives—which means when they are at work they can focus on getting the job done.

Hire and keep great leaders.

It’s often said that employees don’t quit their job, they quit their boss. Employees of great leaders will go to the ends of the earth to do a good job for them. Employees with poor leaders will simply go. Pay attention to your frontline managers. Keep a close eye on their relationships with employees and get rid of bad managers. Praise and reward the good ones. If your employees see that you care about whom you put in charge as a manager, they’ll feel more secure and work even harder.

Conduct “stay interviews.”

Great employees like to hear about what they can do to make the company even better. As opposed to “exit interviews” that only get feedback after things have gone south, regular “stay interviews” provide a great opportunity for leaders to compliment their high performers on their great work and inspire them to do more to take the company to the next level. Use these interviews to gauge how well you are meeting your employees’ needs. Be open and honest with your employees and always seek out their suggestions on what you and the company can do to improve.

Create an open environment.

s your work environment restrictive and stifling or is it open and innovative? By allowing your employees to develop and implement their own ideas within your organization, you’ll be able to keep them passionate about their work. Also, periodically ask your employees if they have what they need to do their jobs effectively. Do they have the equipment they need? The right software programs to work efficiently? Few things frustrate an employee more than not having the right equipment or materials to do a job well.

Earn your employees’ trust.

There’s no doubt about it: Employees are happier and work harder when they feel like they can trust their leaders. They decide which leaders they can trust based on how their fellow employees, company vendors and customers are treated. As a leader, do you treat all with whom you come into contact with respect? Do you behave ethically? When you have to take tough action, like terminating someone, do you treat the person with dignity in the process? If an employee sees you treating someone else poorly, whether it’s a vendor or a fellow employee, his level of trust diminishes and he starts to care less about doing a good job for you.

Rid your pasture of weeds.

The weeds in your figurative pasture are the poor performers and negative employees who stifle the good attitudes and high performance of their fellow employees. If you’re not pulling out your weeds, then it’s likely their productive counterparts won’t stick around to keep working with them. They’ll choke out your best performers. Any environment where employees are not held accountable for their actions, whether they’re positive or negative, can create a poor working environment. The greenest pastures are not filled with weeds.

In the end, striving to keep employees happy and engaged is not just a nice thing to do—it’s the right thing to do if you want to create a successful business. Furthermore, it’s not just a matter of trying to retain people to avoid the costs and hassles of replacing them. Engaged employees are creative, productive, motivated and brimming with good ideas. If you take steps to create a healthy corporate culture, reward good work and promote an open environment, not only will your great employees stay, they’ll be fully committed to their jobs and to your company’s success—making your future pastures even greener.

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