Retain Key Talent by Keeping Employees Happy!

A large telecommunications company in the Southeast was experiencing retention issues with their hi-tech employees leaving for other jobs.  Research found employees wanting more human contact, and a chance to grow on the job.  A leading management consulting firm was then brought in to provide career and management coaching, and prepare employees for a meeting with their supervisor.  Employee strengths were discussed, and new ways were found for workers to contribute.  Result: satisfied employees, reduced turnover, higher productivity. 


It’s not magic.  And it doesn’t happen through wishful thinking.  The facts are in and it’s clear*.  What employees are asking for, and what needs to happen to improve their sense of commitment (wanting to stay with your organization for at least two years) is for managers and leaders to demonstrate or provide these six things:

  • Care and concern
  • Fairness (including fair pay)
  • Trust
  • Job resources
  • Communication
  • Appreciation (for ideas and contributions)


The cost of not providing these important ingredients to employees is reduced profit margin, in the form of approximately two times salary for everyone who leaves.  So the question is: why don’t organizations go out of their way to offer the things people want– the very things that actually increase productivity?


Is it because employers don’t care about employees?  No.  Is it because employers are too busy trying to drive quarterly profits and have lost sight of the importance of first serving their own internal customers (the employees)?  Partly.  Or is it really about human nature—we’re too caught up in serving our own needs and preferences to think about providing for what others need and want?  I think so.


Organizational leaders are generally savvy, confident, and want to be in charge.  Listening to and serving the needs of others is often not a key preference or strength.  Giving orders, solving problems, and making decisions is a lot more fun.  (A lot more ego satisfying.)  The problem is, it just doesn’t work as well.


Here’s the real paradox: in making sure employees get what they want, (and possibly having to overcome the fear of giving away too much and feeling taken advantage of), organizational leaders can truly discover what high performance is all about.


The very first factor that inspires commitment is first making sure you have an organization employees are proud to be a part of.  That is, an organization that has a real mission, a “raison d’être”; an organization that contributes something meaningful to the world; an organization that demonstrates quality and inspires excellence.  If you’re overly focused on pleasing your investors, you won’t get there.  If, however, you’re focused on serving the needs of others, and doing it well, profits will take care of themselves.  Guaranteed.


Here’s what really needs to happen, day by day, in the trenches, to keep people on your payroll.  To keep people working to their potential.  Yes, even to keep people happy.  It’s up to you: struggle, or prosper.  What you give attention to will determine the outcome.


1.      Demonstrating care and concern.  It’s not unlike the family issues we hear so much about these days—the way we were parented has a lot to do with the way we turn out.  Those in authority (like parents) have a lot to do with how employees feel about themselves, the degree to which they accept their personal power, and are well adjusted and motivated on the job.  So leaders and managers, more than anything else, need to attend to the people around them, and bring a certain amount of heart and soul into their work.  What this is, exactly, and how it gets expressed, is an individual matter.  But actions like listening, complimenting, and thanking go a long way to foster a sense of caring.


Another way to show concern is to take an interest in your employees’ growth and development.  We all want to keep moving ahead, work with greater challenges, and expand our capabilities.  In a recent article in HR Magazine, it was reported that 62% of respondents link mentoring and education to the likelihood of staying with their current employer.  And 61% say mentoring increases the likelihood of staying in their current job for the next five years.  At one Fortune 500 company, employees at entrance interviews were asked: “Why did you come to work here?”  The number one answer (over 70% of respondents) was “Career Development Opportunities”.  When asked, “Why did you leave?”, the number one answer was “Lack of Career Development Opportunities”.


2.      Fairness.  We all want a sense of justice.  Treating people fairly means paying them fairly, and for what they are worth.  No one gets upset for a return on the truth.  Deep down, we know what we’re worth.  The problem is, this worth issue isn’t dealt with openly.  When pay scales and merit increases are kept secret, suspicion arises.  With suspicion comes increased fear.  So, one way to handle the fairness issue is to be more open.  Tell people, with specific examples, how you rate their worth, and what they have to do to increase it.  Most of us are open to developing and expanding our potential, but we first must know and understand what the criteria is, and what needs to change.  Otherwise, we will assume we’re being treated unfairly, based on our own perceptions of the situation, which generally won’t match how the boss sees it.


  1. 3.      TrustPracticing care and concern, and getting specific, open and fair, goes a long way to building trust in the organization.  “Trust” is in the domain of “feelings”, and like a feeling, is related to individual interpretation.  Regardless of how hard it is to measure, however, it’s critical to your success.  If your “culture”, (another toughie to define), is not communication friendly, open and honest, specific and sincere, then you don’t have trust.


While you can’t practice trust, you can build skills and learn to practice openness, and even confrontation, which leads to trust.  Because we think we need to protect ourselves from how others might think of us, we tend to withhold information, and defend against the possibility of “future attack”.  Just the opposite is true: in our defenselessness our safety lies!  Hard to believe, unless you check it out and practice this new way of “being” in the world.  No one can cause us harm—we do it to ourselves.  When we defend and protect, we’re assuming there’s something negative about to happen; we’ve already attacked ourselves!  Be defenseless by first not attacking yourself, then get specific about how you are interpreting a situation.  Know that your interpretation may not be the truth, but a filtered experience through your own learnings or messages you have given yourself over time.  Then share this openly, and make a request.  Here’s the model:

“When you (fill in the blank with specific descriptions),

I feel (add your feeling- not your thought about it).

In the future I would appreciate it if you (add your specific request).

When you do this (new behavior),

I will (describe how you will feel, act, or respond).

Thank you for listening!”


Here’s one example:

“Jim, when I asked you to prepare your business development plan for your key accounts, and have it to me by the 25th, I assumed you would have it done.  When the 25th rolled around and I did not receive it, I became irritated and thought you let me down.  I was counting on the information, which I had to pass up the line.  By not having it, I was put in a difficult position with my boss.  In the future I would appreciate your letting me know well in advance if you can’t make the deadline, so I can inform my boss of any problems.  This will really help me out.  Thanks!”


Here’s another:

Cheryl, when I asked you to develop our capabilities overview, which I needed the next day for a client presentation, I did not really anticipate you could have it completed so quickly.  Your quick action, however, meant a lot to me.  And your initiative in re-designing it was great!  I took the copies you handed me, and was able to effectively use them at the meeting.  Thank you very much for the speedy and quality work!


This way of communicating is hard to do– we’re unaccustomed to doing it, and it seems to go against the rules of “protection”.  But then again, no one said keeping employees happy was going to be easy!


4.      Job Resources.  Employees want to contribute.  We all feel more satisfied when we’ve completed a project, made a difference, or added to the bottom line.  What many employees are missing, however, are the resources to make that happen– quickly, easily, and well.


“Not happening around here”, you might say, or “Can’t afford to do it.”  But can you really afford not to?  If you stop and look hard, even ask your troops, I bet you’ll discover much that is missing in the way of support.  We all get used to operating with what we have, and are a bit reluctant to ask for more.  We don’t want to be perceived as “a complainer,” or someone who can’t get by with the least amount of resources possible.  We’re a “can do” country, don’t you know.  So what suffers is productivity.  And employee satisfaction.  And then people leave. . . and gravitate to where they will get the resources to be able to make the kind of contributions they want to make.


5.      Communication.  Probably one of the first words created was this one.  We need to understand what’s going on, what the other guy is thinking, and whether to stay put or run.  But we play the game like it’s best to keep our cards close to the chest and maintain a poker face.   While it seems like we hold the power this way, we actually lose it.  People leave—because they want to be included in the game.


A good friend of mine recently told me that while he had lots of authority over people and was getting a nice check, it wasn’t enough.  He wanted to sit at the table where the decisions were made—so he could get in on the action.  I think most of us want that.  We don’t like surprises, and we don’t like “it done to us”.  We need to know what’s going on, and participate in the process.


What does good communication look like?  Fresh is important; truthful is appropriate; openness is great; even ideas in process are useful.  Let people know what you’re thinking, not just the decisions that you’ve made.  And give your employees the problems you would rather solve.  They will jump at the chance, and take ownership to boot.  If things don’t work, they’ll want it fixed!


Good communication, whether formal (in newsletters or written form) or informal (in the hallway, at the desk, or in the meeting) needs to be clear, concise, and from the heart.  No point in trying to deceive or manipulate—people know when they’re getting a snow job and will check out.


6.      Appreciation.  Oh how lovely to be recognized for contributions made.  It stirs us on to greater action.  I haven’t figured out just why this is so uncomfortable– letting others know you appreciate their good work.  Or maybe it’s just a skill we haven’t developed.  In any event, employees are asking for it, and we as managers and leaders aren’t giving it out, or at least not enough.


One subtle insight here: many people are not in the “right” job, and therefore lack the capacity to make a good contribution.  These folks aren’t stirred to action by internal motivation (passion), because they aren’t in a position to offer what they may be best qualified to do.  In my many years coaching job seekers I have always found that the key to success lies in the preparation.  Before looking for work, I say, look first inside, take an inventory, and discover what you are good at, what you love to do, what your abilities are– and then connect it to a sense of purpose or personal mission.  It’s a lot easier to be happy in work when we are connected to the right job.


Helping people get connected to their own sense of mission is a gift to give, and rewards to receive.  Organizations reap the benefits of a little employee career coaching.  Effectively managing your talent means guiding them to the right position within your organization, or at least making available the resources that will enable them to effectively manage their own career, and contribute to your bottom line, with enthusiasm!


In addition to actions and results, look for good ideas to praise or acknowledge.  It has been said that “ideas” are the new currency of work, the fuel that drives the engine.  Keep it flowing—with appreciation and acknowledgement.


While we are not responsible for the happiness of employees, we are responsible for making it an option.  We create the environment for employees to flourish, or for employees to begrudgingly come to work each day, until they find something better.  The choice is ours.


*Study conducted by the Hudson Institute and Walker Information, October 1999

About Jim

Jim’s innovative and influential style of coaching and facilitation stems from over 15 years of Management experience in Human Resource and Organization Development. He has written two books, and has coached others in the area of Personal Development for the past 20 years.