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Avoiding Fun and Games in Employee Retention

Avoiding Fun and Games in Employee Retention

A management culture that emphasizes open communication will help you keep your best workers.

The classic Human Resources (HR) practices are based on an old paradigm that worked well in the 1950s, but may undermine your ability to retain your best and brightest employees today. However, don’t ditch those practices entirely — they have been developed to conform with federal laws and to protect your company legally.

Photo credit: marekuliasz/iStock/Thinkstock

For example, suppose you have identified an employee who really does not fit your company. You realize his hiring was a mistake, and rather than drag things out, you terminate his employment. Two months later, your company is named as the defendant in a wrongful termination suit.

Using classic HR practices, your company puts all new hires on a 90-day probation period during which they can be dismissed for any reason. All employees sign a document stating they agree to this. You dismissed this employee during that probation period. If your state permits the probation period and there’s not some other issue such as discrimination, your attorney can make short work of the suit.

Or maybe this employee waited out the 90 days, and then started slacking off on day 91. You follow your company’s policy of documenting the problems and issuing two written warnings before firing him. If you adhere to the rules provided in your company’s written policy, and that policy conforms to state and federal law, your attorney makes short work of the wrongful termination suit.

Yes, these tools are powerful. But like any other kind of tool, their effectiveness is limited. The main limiting factor is that they assume that when there’s a problem, employers are good and employees are bad. This assumption is not always true. For that reason, practices based on this assumption can cause your company to lose truly exceptional talent.

Suppose Gary’s work as a project manager starts slipping. You call him in and tell him he’s receiving his first warning and he’d better shape up. Gary is miffed at being talked to this way, considering that (in his mind) the company is at fault. So he takes the following afternoon off to meet with your competitor. They hire him, and it’s not long before he starts eating your lunch.

What happened? Nobody asked why Gary’s work was slipping, and so your company missed the opportunity to develop Gary into the happy, ultra-productive employee your competitor now has.

In your company, the tendency has been to award the more difficult and challenging jobs to the senior project managers. Gary, being the last project manager hired, was stuck handling projects that didn’t challenge him. They bored him, and he took each new assignment as yet another insult.

Nor did any of these jobs let him further develop his skills. He was demotivated by the lack of opportunity and at being treated as “just a grunt.” And the lack of challenge took the joy out of his work.

The classic responses when a employee's work or attitude does not meet expectations are generally punishment-based, under the assumption the problem rests totally with the employee. But what if you proceed under a different assumption? Suppose the company has a more open communication posture.

In that case, Gary can go to his boss and say, “I’m not feeling appreciated.” Or better, Gary’s boss goes to him and asks, “What can we do to help you get your mojo back? You don’t seem happy.”

And Gary’s boss will listen, without judgment, to why Gary feels that way. With that input, Gary’s boss can easily make a change that will leave Gary feeling appreciated. “OK, I’m going to take you off the baby project beat and spread those out amongst everybody.”

Unbeknown to Gary’s boss, another project manager was tired of chronic overload. He was jealous of Gary for getting all the cream-puff work. So he’s about to bail, too.

The classic tools were useless in this situation. Do you see how changing the underlying assumption works far better in many situations?

It’s critical to have a management culture that encourages frequent and honest feedback. “If there’s a problem, let’s talk about it” often works much better than, “Clean up your act or you’ll eventually be fired.”

Also think about the annual performance appraisal if your company has these. Can it be eliminated or at least heavily reduced in scope? If your company has these, think about whether they are counterproductive. Does your company really keep employees in the dark for a full year before telling them how to improve? If so, that can’t be very motivating for them or efficient for you.

If you really want to retain your best talent, make that an ongoing exercise in development and communication. Treat the employer-employee relationship like a close partnership. Look for opportunities where the company can improve, not just where an employee can improve.

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