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Employee engagement and retention: give your people a reason to stay

This article originally appeared in Ambition, AMBA’s thought leadership publication (in print and online), and has been republished on this website with the permission of AMBA.

Author: Kath Howard

Slow down your revolving door of talent by following five basic strategies that have organisational effectiveness as their ultimate aim, says Kath Howard

If I’m ever on trend in clothing terms, it’s a happy accident.  I do however seem to have been ahead of the trend when it comes to having a ‘portfolio career’. I have never felt the need to find a forever home of work. And I’m certainly not alone, with increasing numbers of UK employees moving workplace each three years.

The rise of the ‘portfolio career’

This career approach isn’t confined to millennials or those in their early career. And the barriers to finding something shiny and new are reducing. Online job boards available 24/7 when a bad day at work tips into ‘I need something new mode’ and instant online job applications removing the time burden of finding a new role. The impact on organisations can be a near never-ending revolving door of talent, and the time and financial cost of responding to this. It’s perfectly understandable for a leader to question why they should want to invest time, money and resource in developing and supporting this revolving door of employees. There is an uncredited meme that frequently does the rounds on LinkedIn, which provides a quick answer:

Leader 1: ‘What if we develop them, and they leave?’

Leader 2: ‘Ah, yes. But what if we don’t, and they stay?’

I would argue there is always a point to developing and supporting our people; it is how we ensure we bring greater humanity to the world of work. This blog post will explore how we can achieve this in a context where your employees aren’t looking for their forever home of work.

Meaningful employee ‘retention’

A quick note on the concept of ‘retention’. The definition of ‘retention’ is the ‘continued use, existence, or possession of something or someone.’ There is something incredibly transactional about this concept, and also in how organisations respond to it. I have always wanted people to stay in my teams because they are engaged and there is mutual benefit in the relationship. If I’m tying them in purely because they can’t get a part-time job elsewhere or because I’ve said they’re ‘tied in’ for a year after completing an expensive training programme, that doesn’t feel good to me. I want people to follow me, not to bear with me.  Meaningful retention interventions need to be tailored to the individual, respecting how different our needs and motivations will be and about ‘staying’ rather than being ‘retained’. I have written an entire book on the topic of people-centred HR strategies, People Not Paperclips: Putting the human back into Human Resources’, which was published in February 2020. A central theme of this book is on treating people like human-beings and not diluting the impact of people interventions through a false hope that one size can fit all.

The label ‘portfolio career’ gives the impression of a career that has been carefully curated. In reality, this is not the case, and therefore there is no formula to judge how long someone is going to stay in our organisation. If I were to find myself in the right role where I could apply my skills to make a difference to others and still grow and develop, I’d build myself a picket fence, throw up some wisteria and refuse to leave until I decide to retire. We should assume that people do want to move on regularly, or that we know what is important to each person based on very broad demographics e.g. all millennials want the same thing. What we do know with certainty is that this approach is now a common lifestyle choice and we need appropriate strategies to support our people to do their best work whilst they’re with us, and to attract them back when they’re ready.

Not all turnover is created equal. The goal is to for your best people to stick around, and for those people who aren’t contributing to leave the organisation. Obvious, but so often not the reality in organisations. I’m reminded of a great analogy shared by Bruce Webster, which he called the ‘Dead Sea Effect’. As we know, the Dead Sea lies between Israel and Jordan and is incredibly salty, due to the water being below sea level and leaving only through evaporation.  Webster argues that many organisations are like the Dead Sea.  New joiners flood in, as the water enters the Dead Sea from Jordan, but the more talented employees evaporate. The talented employees are less likely to tolerate toxic cultures or a poor cultural fit, and they’re more likely to have external opportunities to shift or evaporate toward.  The residue is often the less talented employees, some of whom will relentlessly share how disengaged they are but are unlikely to move on.  So, we need to keep people, but they need to be the right people. Cue a myriad of expensive talent development programmes? Not at all – know who you want to keep and talk to them about making that happen.

To build on this, start with the basics below and review how they land within your unique context.

Five basic strategies for slowing down that revolving door of talent

  1. Hire the right people with honesty and openness.

    Effective ‘stay strategies’, as I’m now going to call them, start with hiring the right person. One of the most common reasons people leave their jobs within the first twelve months is a poor fit, so don’t oversell the position to candidates and be honest about the culture and team environment they will find when they join.

  2. Help people to understand how they can achieve a portfolio career with you.

    Offering structured development is perhaps less important than offering clarity for potential career development options to your employees. Rather than enticing people to stay with structured development events, we should paint a picture of all the career opportunities available internally. The civil service has historically been strong at achieving just this. People often move into vastly different roles, with the common thread being the leadership skills they have developed and honed.

  3. Give your people reasons to stay every day.

    Don’t leave your ‘stay strategy’ discussions for twice-yearly performance reviews, or for when someone is sliding their resignation letter across the desk to you. When people have decided to leave, it’s incredibly hard to get them to stay. Our most talented people are often quite self-sufficient and it’s all too easy to take them for granted and to assume they know they are valued and appreciated. So, don’t ignore the resigned boredom of your people. Boredom grows roots. Help your people to find meaningful reasons to stay with you through continual discussion.

  4. Tailor your ‘stay strategy’ to the person.

    Certain things really matter to certain people. Aligning your ideas for how to develop and support your people should be aligned to their values. We talk so much about organisational values that we can sometimes forget that people have personal values too, and the key to keeping those so-called ‘job hoppers’ is to help these people to manifest their values in your workplace. Find out what matters to them and help them achieve those things.

  5. Your stay strategy should be based on relationships that transcend the employment contract.

    No matter how many ‘stay in touch’ messages are written in someone’s leaving card, this is unlikely to happen without concerted effort on both sides. A person’s resignation is not the end of their relationship with you, but rather marks a shift to be a continued supporter as alumni. During my couple of years with Save the Children, we always appreciated so greatly that people really would come back to support such a special and important cause. Employment isn’t just a contract, it’s a relationship built on mutual benefit.

There are of course many more approaches you could adopt to slow that revolving door of talent, and to work with, instead of against, the inevitability that your employees will leave. If this is the new normal, let’s embrace it, and draw all the opportunities for innovation, creativity and diversity of thought that an ever-changing employee profile offers. We should be seeking the ultimate aim of organisational effectiveness, achieved on the back of a workplace with inclusion and humanity at its heart. There is no reason that what a static workforce should or could achieve is any better than the vibrancy of one cobbled together with career portfolio’ists. (I made it up. Thank you). Let’s develop stay strategies that will inspire your people to stay.

Kath Howard is the Founder of the organisation development consultancy, HeartSparks. She has been an HR leader, Chartered Psychologist and consultant across a range of industries and organisations over more than 20 years. Her first book, People Not Paperclips (Practical Inspiration Publishing) was published in February 2020.