What Comes Before Workforce Retention?

Last week, I attended a seminar on workforce retention.  Just the notion of having such a meeting topic sparked the question:  Is this a sign that the job market pendulum is shifting in the other direction?

Actually, the pendulum shifted back in candidates’ favor early last year.  It’s just that virtually no one was willing to proclaim such a milestone.  It seems that such declarations are done while looking in the rear view mirror.  Over the recent months, a substantial number of the long-term unemployed and underemployed have gotten hired into new positions and this trend appears to be accelerating.  Many of those who have been employed all along, albeit under duress, are now seeking better opportunities in a highly selective fashion.

No doubt, the job market is tightening in the other direction.  High growth companies with aggressive hiring objectives are already hitting pain points around not finding enough qualified talent to support their growth plans.  It strikes me as both humorous and disingenuous that companies are now scrambling to address workforce retention.  Not that they’re off base in doing so.  After all, it is far less expensive to retain your good employees than it is to be forced to replace them.  And that doesn’t even take into account the invaluable tribal knowledge embedded in current employees that could easily walk out the door at any time.

The last three years saw companies hold employees hostage.  Given the stormy economic climate, employees were, to a fair extent, afraid.  After seeing many of their colleagues caught up in workforce reductions, they could envision being next on the chopping block.  On top of this enduring angst, employees whose jobs were saved were rewarded by inheriting additional workloads and work hours.  Their positions were transformed into ones they did not sign up for, all the while not being compensated at levels commensurate with the additional load and responsibility.

That’s why workforce retention talks that are occurring now come off as disingenuous.  During the last three years, why didn’t managers and executives reach out to their front lines, listening to their concerns and ideas?  Why didn’t they offer more flexible work schedules to offset increased workloads?  Why didn’t they step up their recognition programs?  Why didn’t they promote a culture of loyalty?  Sadly, the answer to all these questions is because companies could get away with it.  There is no loyalty.  And now, in an environment that enables sweet revenge for all those pent-up feelings of being unappreciated and exploited, it’s the employees’ turn to vote with their feet.

Yes, let’s talk about raising the game regarding employee retention.  But first, let’s do it with consistency, regardless of the economy.  Let’s do all we can to protect our most valuable asset – people.  But first, let’s make sure we get the recruitment, hiring and onboarding phases right.  What good is an employee retention plan if your front-end processes are marred with delays, unresponsiveness, empty promises, and incomplete, inaccurate job descriptions?

Addressing workforce retention now implies that it wasn’t valued before.  It is being instituted reactively to put out preventable fires.  Where there’s no loyalty, there’s no trust.  One of my very first sales managers told me that the mark of great sales professionals isn’t how they perform during good times, but rather how they think and act during tough times.  That always stuck with me.  So why shouldn’t that adage apply to companies?

It’s all too easy for organizations to proclaim their care and concern for their employees’ welfare and thoughts during good times.  The real test is how adept they are at employee relations during tough times.  Better times may indeed be at our doorstep.  But before rushing off to avert unwanted employee attrition, put some serious thought into why people may want to leave.  In doing so, you may gain actionable corrective insight that ultimately may help encourage people to join…and stay.

 

Action items:

1.  Before you fully address employee retention, make sure to get all that comes before that tightened up.  This includes solidifying roles & responsibilities, interviewing & hiring, and onboarding.

2.  Workforce retention should be a company initiative that is ever-present and worked on consistently, whether in good or challenging times.  Otherwise, it can come off as disingenuous and ultimately backfire.

3.  Make sure that workforce retention strategies are ones that can be sustained and followed through on.  To not deliver on retention programs is far more deleterious to employee morale than not having any such programs at all.

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