When a valued employee leaves an organization, it creates several problems. The obvious issues are figuring out how the work is going to get completed without the missing resource and how a replacement resource will be sourced. But, there are less obvious issues such as the drain on existing personnel to train new resources which can impact deliverables. In addition, if there is high attrition, there can also be a morale impact (e.g., ‘if others are leaving, should I leave too?’)
So, it is important to minimize employee attrition. To do this, managers often want to give employees money and promotions and lament that there is never enough to truly incent the best performers. While rewarding employees with money and providing promotions can help retain valuable employees, there is a less costly approach that can yield great results. Simply put:
Explain to employees why the work they are doing is important and make sure they know you appreciate their efforts.
Helping employees find the value in their work
Employees should be acutely aware of how their work fits into the bigger picture. When an employee fixes a flaw in the production system, it is far more rewarding if they focus on the value they are providing, such as eliminating a cumbersome operational workaround, vs. simply knocking off one item in the defect queue.
Managers should make sure they know the impact of technology changes and reinforce the importance of the work whenever possible. It is also important for the senior executive to stress the importance of the work. A couple suggestions:
- One technique I liked to use was to send out minutes from my staff meetings. I found this was a great communication vehicle where I could make sure the entire organization understood where we needed to be focused to achieve our goals. Sometimes, we might spend a short time talking about a topic in the staff meeting, because everyone there had history with the subject, but I might spend half my recap making sure everyone else understood why the issue was important, what had happened so far, and what we needed to do moving forward.
- Another technique is to communicate the importance of initiatives at all hands meetings. Too many managers outsource their all hands meetings to outside speakers. While outside speakers are important, they should not crowd out time that might be spend engaging the organization on the reasons the work being done is so critical. A successful all hands meeting has a good balance where the participants leave feeling they heard something interesting (outside speakers) as well as an optimism about the importance of the work (inside speakers).
In one organization I managed, we created a single web page that displayed many of our key metrics. The page contained several transaction counts, such as logons to our web page, and we updated the screen every second so the numbers showed the heartbeat of the production systems. We then put monitors at all our locations to display the web page. While the numbers were not particularly interesting unless we were having a peak day, the rhythmic movement of the numbers reminded employees that a robust production system existed due to their efforts.
It is also important to recognize the great work being done in your organization. While this is easy and does not cost much money, it is not often done well.
One of the techniques I used was to start my staff meetings by asking for examples of the outstanding work being done in our group. I then followed up with handwritten notes to the individuals discussed and I can’t tell you how many people came straight to my office from the mail room, with the note in their hand, to thank me.
Every three months, I had an extended staff meeting which included not only my direct reports but their direct reports. I decided to use the same technique with this group and I was reminded that the value of recognizing employees does not come naturally to managers. The first meeting went well but when I started the next extended staff meeting the same way, one of the managers said, ‘didn’t we do this last time?’. And he was one of my better managers!
In addition to sending notes, some techniques I have used include:
- At the beginning of the year, my senior team would develop a list of items we considered important and we called them ‘really cool milestones’. After an item on the list was completed, I would send out a note to the entire organization congratulating the group that accomplished the work and reminding everyone why the achievement was important (linking this recognition activity with the prior discussion on reinforcing the importance of the work being done)
- After each project install, we would send a survey to our business partners asking them to rate our performance and provide us with feedback. The overall rating was on a scale of 1 to 5. Each quarter, we celebrated the projects receiving ‘5’ scores with an ice cream social. For each project, we made poster boards describing why the project was important (see a theme?) and, at the beginning of the day, these poster boards were displayed in heavily travelled locations. Then, the boards were brought to the social so people could see them there. The boards were often subsequently taken back to the project team areas and displayed for a few weeks
- Project teams love to be taken out to lunch or dinner and this can be a nice way to recognize a major accomplishment. One twist I did on this theme was to invite project teams to my house for dinner. I like to cook so I would make dinner for them and we would have a nice evening together. This was very well received.
To reinforce the messages in this post, I am reminded of a time early in my career when one of my best employees came to visit me. The visit was during a time of economic weakness and there were strong layoff rumors circulating around the company. She told me she provided most of the income in her household, that she was worried about the layoff rumors, and she wanted to know if she should be looking for a new job because she had to stay employed.
What is interesting about this example is the fact that my group had recently force ranked all our individual contributors and this employee was #2 out of over 50 employees in the group. And it hit me—if she is worried, how much angst must exist in the rest of the organization?
That was the turning point for me and I decided to take steps to make sure the employees in my group felt valued. The first step I took was to buy 500 blank cards to be used as ‘thank you’ notes and I began to develop the other techniques I have described in this post.
In all organizations, there are many people who are very dedicated to their work and produce outstanding results. As leaders, it is our job to make sure these individuals know why their hard work is important and to tell them we appreciate their efforts.