Winter 2005 Getting Staff to Stick

Retail isn’t always a picnic, especially during the holiday season. Dealing with rushed, even rude customers and doing “gruntwork” for hours on end can make staffers want to run for the nearest exit.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The fact is, some carts, kiosks and stores are more enjoyable to work in than others, and for that reason, they experience less employee turnover, despite similar pay. Although monotonous tasks and difficult customers won’t disappear, there’s plenty you can do to get your employees to stick around—especially when you need them most.

Experts have a pocketful of techniques for motivating employees and making them feel valued. Try these basics to improve your chances of getting them to stay through the season.


“Making employees feel valued is the best way to retain them, especially during stressful times,” says Dr. John Austin, associate professor of psychology at Western Michigan University, and director of the non-profit Organizational Behavior Management Network. How do you do that? Tell them how they’re doing. That’s a good start.

“The most tried and true techniques involve what we call ‘applied behavior analysis techniques,’” says Austin. They include frequent performance monitoring and frequent feedback, “especially feedback that is positive,” he says. “People especially value kind words of thanks and praise, particularly when they come from someone they respect.”

Speak to each employee—especially seasonal ones—informally on a weekly, even daily, basis. “Say, ‘Here’s what I liked today, and here’s what I want you to work on tomorrow,’” says Legrand. He adds that if you wait to give feedback, even if it’s positive, “later” is too late to impact that employee’s performance.

Vested interest

People want to know that the work they’re doing for you is worthwhile. “Talking to employees in… supportive ways about their positive contributions to the business or organization is an effective way of making them feel valued,” says Austin. It’s known as “vesting” them in the business.

“Ask employees for suggestions,” says Marcel Legrand, senior VP of strategy and planning for, which collects statistical and anecdotal data from hundreds of thousands of corporate customers. “You’ll get some of your best advice for improving the business from your staff, and it will make them feel vested in the business.”

Employee-referral programs are an effective tool for allowing staff members to contribute to the business while helping you recruit staff. So if you need extra seasonal help, “ask your existing employees to recommend friends and family, and give them a bounty for each hire they recommend,” says Legrand. He points out that a really good worker is likely to hang out with people with good scruples and discipline, so a referral plan is often effective for finding more good help. Another benefit, says Legrand, is that it “gives staff the chance to resell themselves on why they work there in the first place, since they’ll have to sell someone else on joining.”


You can use bonuses and gift certificates to recognize outstanding work—but rewards don’t have to be financial to be effective. For instance, some retailers reward employees with more flex-time, says Legrand.

And don’t discount the power of praise. “It seems pretty clear to us that a spoken word, if it’s done properly and comes from the right person at the right time, can carry as much weight as a prize or other tangible item,” says Austin. “Be sincere, make it personalized, and be sure it immediately follows a positive employee action that you would like to see more of,” he says.

Legrand says public recognition is prized, often more so than a private nod of approval. “‘Employee of the Week’ and ‘Employee of the Month’ awards… tend to do well,” he says: so well that they’re a staple among retail employers. On the flip side: “Counseling poor or marginal performance” is also important, he says.


As Austin points out, the boss’s words carry more weight if that boss has the employee’s respect. How do you earn their respect? By showing it. Respect is gained, he says, when you tell people what you will do; do what you said you would do, and then make sure they know you did it.

But respect is a two-way street: “Respecting your current employees is the best way to prevent turnover,” says Legrand. “You have to be fair to everyone. Be open and direct, and properly communicate your expectations to everyone.” Another aspect of showing respect is to be receptive to employees’ ideas, criticisms and concerns. “You have to be able to respond to their needs,” he says.

And you have to be consistent, says Daniel Butler, VP of retail operations for The National Retail Federation (Washington, DC). “Be consistent in the administration of policies and procedures, and if there are any changes, give employees as much notice as you can.” You can use a bulletin board or a newsletter to keep staffers informed about the business. And if you do, “make sure it’s well-maintained to show that you care about the information on it—don’t just staple 100 memos to a wall,” says Butler.

Smart hiring

You can avoid a lot of future problems right in the interview, says Butler: Ask the right questions, and communicate what the company expects from the prospective employee in the interview process. “You should be able to tell during the interview if someone has unrealistic expectations about the job,” he says. “For example, if you’re hiring someone to help out during the holiday season and he wants to go away for two weeks during that time, it’s probably not going to work out.”

Once you hire someone, don’t put the newbie on the sales floor without proper training and someone to turn to if questions come up. “You want to set everyone up for success,” says Legrand. “Having realistic training opportunities will go a long way in ensuring that the staff will succeed and remain motivated.” Many retailers also use a buddy system, another effective tool. “Assign a new employee a buddy or mentor, [someone] to go to if the manager’s not around,” says Butler.

If you’re one of the many specialty retailers who hire extra seasonal help, the best-case scenario is to have a group of employees Legrand calls “boomerangers”—staffers who return year after year and need minimal training. To get them to come back each year, Legrand says you can’t wait till November to call them: “Call or email them in June, then again in September.” If your location is year-round, “you can also have a store-get-together three times a year with permanent and seasonal employees, to build a sense of community,” he says.

A good place to work

“Attitude has a lot to do with either the retention or loss of employees,” says Legrand. Retail owners and managers who are enthusiastic and who create a fun atmosphere where they work will create a positive workplace “culture.” “If you as a manager or owner can get excited about your work and rally the team… the role employees play in the business will become more exciting,” he says. And they’ll stick with you.