The “Right” Retention

Posted by Mark on Mar 28, 2010 | 0 comments
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The “Right” Retention

I remember a number of years ago being in an a some what similar situation to the one is see now. Our current economy has lulled many employers into believing that focusing on recruitment and retention issues aren’t important right now because the current economy has severely restricted employees opportunities to change jobs.

Back in the late eighties I was a human resources manager in a community where we represented one of the only viable high technology careers to people. I felt like we didn’t treat our people very well and we were seeing issues that now I can clearly identify as disengagement and presenteeism. When I pointed this out to our then CEO his comment was “they aren’t leaving, are they?” His point was as we didn’t have a “retention” issue we didn’t have an issue. I replied with a viewpoint that I still believe today. I said, “you know there is something worse than leaving employees can do if they are unhappy. They can stay.” They can stay an produce the minimum, they can “poison the well” for others, and they can hold on to jobs and prevent your ability to attract “contributors”.

I read a recent article by Kenneth Thomas at that expressed a similar viewpoint. His article, titled The Right Kind of Retention, explores that same idea almost twenty years later. He and I agree that the goal shouldn’t be retention, but rather engagement. He points out that the 2008 study on Engagement by BlessingWhite found only 29% of North American Workers described themselves as engaged. If you look at the timing of that report is should be especially alarming, that was pre-recession. I wouldn’t want to bet the ranch on the idea it has gotten better.

He also points out some other things we should know, but seem to continue to ignore- what it takes to create an environment of engagement. His model identifies four intrinsic elements that create or sustain engagement:

  • Meaningfulness. The opportunity to contribute to something with a larger purpose or context. Something that matters.
  • Choice. The degree of autonomy we get to exhibit in doing the work. Not necessarily choosing what the task is, but choosing the how.
  • Competence. A sense of satisfaction, pride, and mastery. Working towards flow.
  • Progress. A belief that your work is moving you and the organization forward. A sense of contribution.

The interesting or maybe not so interesting thing is that once again Thomas found that our old friends compensation and security are at best “break even” factors. In other words if you do them right the effect is neutral, if you do them wrong they are detractors.

How many of us are building these factors into our hiring and retention strategies? I would submit not many. We hire in most cases for KSA’s or knowledge, skills, and abilities. You might call competence a KSA, but in the context that Thomas uses it I not sure it fits.

He points out another truism, we spend most of our time on the “poles” of our workforce, the top performers and the bottom performers. He and I agree there is a lot of opportunity to get significant contribution from the people in the “middle” who make up between 60 and 80% of our workforce.

So I guess my suggestions to you are that you build this in to your hiring and your retention strategies. Don’t spend too much time congratulating yourself on statistics like tenure or a low turnover rate if you aren’t sure why they are staying and how much they are contributing. If you hire for fit and include opportunities for meaningfulness, choice, competence, and progress you will see not only that your retention value goes up, but you are able to attract and keep contributors.

Oh yeah, to finish my earlier story. When other high technology employers entered our labor market our contributors left in droves. Turned out that had long memories and that they preferred choice to the “security” we provided them. Hope we all learn something from that experience.

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