A Third of Your Employees Want to Quit. Here's How to Keep Them

Last Updated Mar 29, 2011 7:10 PM EDT

The recession may have been great for employee retention, but all good things must come to an end, dear business owner. "Over the past two to three years, everyone's voluntary turnover has been historically low," says Bob Kelleher, CEO of The Employee Engagement Group and author of Louder Than Words: 10 Practical Employee Engagement Steps That Drive Results. "I tell them that it has nothing to do with them suddenly becoming Camelot."

Expect a return to pre-recession turnover rates in the coming months as the economy slowly rebounds, he says. Not only that, but you're likely to see an increase in historical turnover rates as employees who might have changed jobs in better times, but who cooled their heels during recession, prepare to jump ship. This "queued-up effect," as Kelleher calls it, may result in turnover as high as 25 to 30%.

MetLife's 9th annual Study of Employee Benefits Trends confirms his predictions. "This year's findings reveal a workforce that has grown more dissatisfied and disloyal, to the point where a startling one in three employees hopes to be working elsewhere in the next 12 months," says the report. "Yet employers continue to believe employees are loyal, and they do not appear to be tuned in to this potential flight risk." Our recommendation: Get tuned in, fast. Kelleher recommends these five steps for minimizing flight risk among your key employees by creating a more engaged workforce:

  • Link engagement to high performance. "Employee engagement is not about employee satisfaction -- it's not about making people happy," says Kelleher. "It's about getting a rational and emotional commitment to the business. The last thing you should want is a team of satisfied but underperforming employees." Kelleher defines engagement as "the unlocking of employee potential to drive high performance. For engagement to work in a company, your managers have to understand that this is not touchy feeling -- it's business driven."
  • Start at the top and keep going: It goes without saying that a CEO must live up to a company's stated mission every day. But the key driver of employee engagement is the relationship with one's direct manager, says Kelleher. "Studies show that if one's line manager is disengaged, his/her employees are four times more likely to be disengaged," he says. "But we woefully under-invest in supervisory training." You need to identify the behaviors and traits that define your company, hired managers and supervisors accordingly, hold them accountable, and reward them for stellar performance.
  • Make communication the cornerstone of engagement. "If you have a company with an engagement issue, then you have a communication issue," says Kelleher. "Successful leaders recognize the power of a robust communication plan, one built on clarity, consistency, and transparency. Are you leveraging social media? Are you communicating differently to GenY then to Baby Boomers? Do employees feel that it's safe to have opinions, and are you listening to those opinions?" Employee engagement surveys are a great tool to check an organization's pulse, he notes.
  • Reinforce and reward the right behaviors. "People don't like to hear this," says Kelleher, "but money does not motivate, nor does it engage unless you're in an incredible pay-for-performance job." Think waiter, or commodities trader. "If employees feel that they are being paid unfairly, then they will become disengaged. But for the vast percentage of employees, money doesn't drive engagement. Achievement drives engagement, and most companies do a lousy job of recognizing achievement." Kelleher says that employees need to understand the metrics by which the company measures success, how they contribute to that success, and how they are being measured as employees. And, he says, you need to find out what intrinsically motivates individual employees.
  • Create a strong employment brand. Kelleher often tells clients, "You don't have an engagement issue, you have a hiring issue -- you're hiring the wrong behaviors and traits to succeed in your culture." CEOs need to define those traits by looking at highly successful employees -- the superstars at every level -- and incorporating that analysis into their hiring practices. "It's amazing how many people don't understand what their employment brand is," says Kelleher. "Look at Timberland. Their voluntary turnover of clerks at their stores is 8% -- the industry average is over 100%. That's because they understand their brand, and they hire to reflect that."
Do you feel confident in your ability to retain your best employees as the economy improves? What will you do to keep them engaged, productive, and loyal?

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