The Retention Crisis

Brian Beck PHR, MHROD
October 30, 2006 — 2,500 views  
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“It’s too touch-feely,” “takes a lot of time and money,” “I would rather focus on recruitment for now,” “you just can’t keep good people these days”…..retention….do our organizations focus on it as much as they should? Statistics tell us as HR professionals that we need to be a bit nervous right now. We have a retention crisis going on. Employees have more options in the workforce and are happy to engage those options if they make sense. In short, they leave your company. What are we doing about it? How can your organization address this crisis? How can you lower your risk of watching employees walk out the back door? In this article, we will explore some ideas that will assist in addressing retention.

Expectancy and/or equity theories tell us that money might be important to some employees. Management of the different generations of workers (Traditionalists, Boomers, X-ers, Y) may tell us work ethics, work/life balance or team orientation is important. Although I believe that all of the above does warrant a strong and balanced workforce, it doesn’t always retain staff. In over twelve years as an HR professional, I have conducted many exit interviews and either written or participated in just as many employee satisfaction surveys. I have discovered a common theme over the years.

Through conducting and participating in surveys and exit interviews I have found what I call the “Big 3” reasons people leave organizations:

  1. Recognition
  2. Management philosophy of service to staff
  3. Communication


How do you recognize employees? Employee of the month/year, years of service programs, lunches, perks, trophies, plaques, certificates, bonuses…? Are they effective?  In many cases, these kinds of programs don’t really encourage retention at the levels we would like to see. So what is recognition? It’s a soft sell. Of the comments I have heard from employees, they are often looking for a simple “thank you.” Fame and seeing one’s name in lights is not always at the top of the recognition list. Employees simply want to know that they are cared about and valued. A manager who can offer employees one on one, sincere and focused appreciation will be successful in communicating these feelings of thanks.

It’s important to remember what Stephen Covey tells us about people and their “emotional bank accounts.” As managers we need to often make deposits. Managers must be able to recognize and understand the different manners in which employees want these accounts filled. Each staff member is going to be different. Therefore, as HR professionals, we need to be familiar with the many different theories of recognition and motivation. We need to teach them to our organizations. What works best for a team? 

Service Philosophy

Management must have a strong philosophy of service to each of their employees.  People want to be inspired at work. They want to know that their manager supports and drives part of the daily work course with them. Managers can inspire and motivate employees in many different ways. As HR professionals, names such as McClelland, Maslow and Herzberg echo in our subconscious. I am suggesting that this piece of our retention puzzle is much easier to tackle than theories might suggest. The solution is the customer service that managers offer to their workforce. 

Managers need to ask employees how they can help them. What tools do you need? How can I support you? How are the systems you work with functioning? How can I assist with creating a deeper engagement for you in your work? This idea challenges the paradigm that managers are supervisors or the boss. That is not necessary to convey. Set aside the “chain of command,” and move on to higher levels of service philosophy and watch your retention efforts increase.


My third point in addressing retention is communication. This seems like a simple concept, but it is often misconstrued in application. Communication in an organization can be downward, upward, horizontal, non-verbal, written, formal and informal. What is an employee looking for? Employees want face-to-face interaction. They want time with their manager….time to review performance, talk about strategy, learn of new goals or simply to engage in open dialogue. 

As HR professionals, we need to assist managers with understanding the formalities of this very critical piece to an organization’s success. Managers must take time each day to communicate with staff. Don’t let calendars or meetings get in the way of spending time with staff. If possible, move beyond the emails, text messages and cell phone calls. Take an employee to lunch. If a manager has more than one employee, sponsor a lunch, order for pizza….anything to get a group of people together to create discussion. Make any meeting times with employees as fun and productive as possible. Even bad news can be turned into an opportunity. 

Retention rates in organizations are at a crisis level. Companies are spending millions of dollars each year to compete with one another for employees. Studies tell us that it will only get worse. HR people need to take some time, meet with company executives and pencil out some ideas as to how their organizations can lessen turnover. Ask the key questions. Explore the options. Brainstorm and capture all possible opportunities! It may only take one idea that will change your organization’s personnel focus and shut that back door.

Brian Beck PHR, MHROD

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