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6 keys to your employees' hearts

Valentine's Day has come and gone but it's always a fitting time to talk about employee love. (No, not the "meet me in the storage room in five minutes" kind.) I'm talking about the things that the best companies do to engender the dedication, loyalty and, yes, even the love of the people who work for them.

Everyone knows that the days of the one-company career are long gone. Depending on what data you choose to believe, the average person will change jobs somewhere around five to seven times in a lifetime. So if you run a business, it is virtually certain you will lose every employee you have (hopefully not all at once). In fact, you might even help some of them move on.

It's a reality that stinks, because enlightened companies know that employees are at least as important as customers and other stakeholders, and great employees are hard to find and painful to lose. But it's a reality nonetheless. So, while you may have to accept the likelihood that your people won't stay forever, you should never stop working at making your company the kind of place that's hard to leave.

Companies with the happiest and most productive employees, and the lowest turnover, tend to have these six people-priorities (or similar iterations) in common. Compare your own work environment to this list to see if your business is geared towards retention:

Trust. In both directions. Your employees need to trust you, know where they stand with you, and feel safe with you. And you must show that you trust them, whether it's with projects, decisions, time or money. The miserable and destructive phenomenon of "office politics," as cliched as it may be, really boils down to nothing more than issues of trust.

Responsibility. Give your people as much as they can handle, maybe even a little more. It tells them that they and their jobs are valuable and gives them a chance to shine (or fail). It helps you identify star performers, it discourages logjams and gets more done, and it's good for your business.

Culture. I've written about it a lot and I can't write about it enough. Your company culture -- both the qualities and genuineness of it -- is its heart and soul, the glue that holds it together, the spirit that drives it. Plain and simple, great employees don't stick around companies with lousy cultures, and all other things being equal, employees perform better within a great culture. And this is an area where smaller businesses can almost always have an edge.

Opportunity. People naturally want to keep moving, preferably upward. And they will naturally stay with an employer longer if they know they can earn the chance to do more or different things, climb the proverbial ladder, make more money. This can be challenging for small companies, as with only a handful of jobs there just might not be a ladder to climb. You may not have a "track" from manager to vice president to CFO, but you should seek and create opportunities for people wherever and however you can.

Recognition. Some people love getting awards, plaques, employee-of-the-month parking spaces, and other material attaboys, and those things are OK. But what really matters over the long term is ongoing, straightforward, day-to-day appreciation and recognition. Give genuine praise, both publicly and privately, for work well done. Never take even tacit credit for someone else's work (and in general give much more credit than you take). Say thank you, often. There are few things that will get an employee to start polishing up her resume faster than feeling unappreciated.

Compensation. I saved this one for last because although it's a given that people work for money, of everything on this list, it's frankly the one over which most small businesses have the least control. Clearly a good employer must do its best to pay good people what they're worth, but small companies often can't compete with big ones when it comes to compensation or "packages." So while pay is obviously a critical issue, the limited resources of a small business make the other five elements all the more important.

Trust, responsibility, culture, opportunity and recognition are entirely within the means and resources of any company, and it has been proven time and time again that employees will, within reason, make salary compromises for the most appealing overall opportunity.

The employer/employee relationship is much the same as any other relationship: what you get largely reflects what you give.

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