Retain Your Best Employees in a Tightening Labor Market

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Every organization has them … the high-performing employees who make magic of whatever they touch. Their results set them apart. They push themselves to continually improve, or to find the resources they need to get the job done. They almost don’t need to be managed — so they’re easy to ignore.

They’re invaluable.

And if they wanted to … they could easily get a job somewhere else. (And don’t think your competition wouldn’t be happy to snap them up.)  A changing employment picture exacerbates the threat … Towers Watson reports: “The ratio of unemployed persons per job opening peaked at 6.8 in July 2009 and has trended downward since, to 1.4 in July 2015.” Employees in highly skilled jobs are particularly scarce.

How can you hang onto your top performers?

  • Let them know. Make it clear how much you appreciate and notice their work. Tell them who they are and that you want them to stay. (Exit interview findings show that top employees often leave because their extra work and results went seemingly unnoticed.)
  • Find out what motivates them. Spend time getting to know these heavy hitters — their likes/dislikes. Understand what kind of a reward is best for them: rewards unique to their interests, time with the boss or CEO, trips, extra vacation days …. (Here’s more information on unique rewards.)
  • Make them part of company decision making. Ask for their input/opinion on issues that affect the company as a whole. Author Marshall Goldsmith offers this example: “Division-level executives provide quarterly report on high-impact performers who should be recognized. The CEO personally calls, thanks them for their contribution, and asks for their input on what the corporation can do to increase effectiveness.” Being included in the inner circle can be a big motivator. (When you take time to get to know them, find out if they’d like to be included.)
  • Give them ownership of their work. Give top performers the reins. Whenever possible, let them complete tasks and solve problems on their own.
  • Get rid of low performers. Top talent doesn’t usually like to work with unmotivated workers. And they don’t want to clean up someone else’s mess. (Don’t make the mistake of pairing them up with someone who’s underperforming — giving them the daunting task of motivating someone whom you’ve been unable to motivate yourself.)
  • Provide a relaxed work culture. A loose dress code, flexible hours, etc., give more freedom and show that you trust someone to act professionally.
  • Pay them more. Make performance (rather than seniority) the key driver of pay. Work toward matching the difference in contribution between a high performer and a below-average performer with their pay level. If they’re contributing 50% more, why are they only getting paid 5% more pay? Towers Watson reports “some companies reward poor performers at 65% of target, while others award the same payout to every employee regardless of performance.” They suggest no bonus payouts for poor performers, establishing a clearer upside for your top workers.
  • Understand their career goals and accelerate them. Work to help top employees move along their career path wherever possible. If this includes moving up the corporate ladder and that’s not a possibility, try to build breadth in their existing job. Goldsmith points to a program one large firm adopted: “Potential leaders engage in an ‘action learning’ project in which they work on real-life problems facing the firm. This gives young leaders fantastic development and gives the firm valuable input on solving real problems. It also enhances the young leaders’ commitment to stay with the firm.”

The high-performing employees working for you are extremely valuable. With a tightening labor market, you’ll need to work hard to keep them happy and challenged. Be sure they know you’re aware of their contributions.  Find out what makes them tick. Then reward them with special treatment and pay.


Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.