Employee retention: A little appreciation goes a long way

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The nation’s businesses are working to lift themselves out of the long and lingering effects of recession, and employees who were taken for granted during the lean years are poised for exodus — just as soon as the economy cooperates.

And while talent retention is often overlooked during a down economy, as employers struggle to salvage sales and retain revenue, employers who treat their employees well now will be better prepared during the economic recovery.

“I spend about 50 percent of my time worrying about retention and who’s the next person on my team I need to hire,” said Kathy Boe, CEO and founder of Boecore, Inc., during a Middle Market Entrepreneurs seminar at the Center for Creative Leadership. “Our leadership team works for our employees — we treat our employees like customers. And when we treat them the way they want to be treated, they take great care of our customers.”

Proper treatment is not merely a matter of paying fair wages and offering great benefits.

“They want to know that you appreciate them — and that you even know (specifically) what they’re doing,” Boe said. “I spend a lot of time doing recognition and writing thank-you notes.”

Employees also need a work/life balance strategy, said Steve Wychulis, director of corporate development for CEA Technologies Inc.

And one cannot hire employees and then more or less abandon them — if one expects them to have positive attitudes and perform well.

“If you leave your employees alone — you don’t train, nurture or develop them — they will drive your car into a ditch for you,” Wychulis said, alluding to something he unintentionally did at the age of 5.

Left alone in a Mercedes Benz, he released the emergency brake and rolled the car into a bayou.

One of the best ways to attract and retain quality employees is to invest in them and maintain and teach a company’s core values.

“We talk about integrity and our core values each day,” Wychulis said. “You must engage the employees at all times — or they will release the emergency brake on you.”

Often the most obvious way to retain quality employees is overlooked.

“Retention begins with recruiting,” he said. “If you’re going to retain the best people — you have to hire the best people.”

Smaller businesses that don’t have human resource departments can use a staffing service to help with the screening and hiring process, but senior executives should not make the mistake of delegating all hiring responsibility to human resources or professional recruiters.

They can delegate the task side, said Roland Smith, senior faculty, at the Center for Creative Leadership, “but executives need to own the people side of human resources.”

And employers should be cautious about hiring overqualified people.

A “bad” hire is usually not a bad person but an overqualified person, Boe said. If your company doesn’t grow as quickly as employees expected, and they’re not challenged — they can become disgruntled quickly.

And respect cannot be overestimated for attracting and retaining quality employees.

“In the Army, the officers are last in the chow line,” said Steve Bigari, CEO and founder of Stellar Restaurant Solutions and Mr. Biggs. “If you don’t genuinely care about your employees — get an attitude adjustment or find something else to do.”

He advocates servant-based leadership, and getting to know one’s employees and what’s important to them. The younger generations, for instance, want to know the relevance of their work.

“If they understand the why (of a job) — they’ll go to the ends of the earth for you,” Bigari said.

Aerospace manufacturer General Aluminum Forgings has daily production meetings, said Sandy Williams, general manager. “We’ve talked with employees at each step of the way — with all decision making, we kept people involved.”

The company was able to remain profitable and avoid layoffs during the recession by cutting overtime hours — with the support of employees.

Despite the necessity of showing appreciation to employees, providing them with training and room to grow, and being honest with them — money still talks.

“There are no bargains,” Boe said. “You get what you pay for.”

The Pikes Peak region has plenty of highly educated and experienced workers and professionals. Once the economy recovers — which it will — they’re not likely to stay at a company that doesn’t value them.

“Have the ‘stay’ conversation,” Smith said, “before it’s necessary or too late.”