The Top 20 Retention Tools That Produce Immediate Results

During this time when almost every firm is facing record turnover, it’s important to realize that research has shown that between half and three-quarters of all turnover is preventable. But in order to reduce turnover, the decisions on the appropriate retention actions must be made as close to the employee as possible. That means an individual’s manager must take ownership of the retention problem and administer the retention tools that will prevent them from leaving.

So, if you’re responsible for advising managers on which of the available effective retention tools produce results immediately, consider the following, which are all intuitive, low-cost and easy to implement. Managers should consider adopting one or more of the following top retention tools when faced with impending turnover issues. Fortunately, each of the tools can be implemented without any formal training required. The retention tools with the highest demonstrated impact on top employee turnover are listed first.

1. Conduct pre-exit “stay interviews” that identify the factors that tie the individual to the firm instead of waiting until an employee considers another external offer. It pays to be proactive and to ask them directly in a one-on-one interview with their manager, “Why do you stay?” This “stay interview” should focus on the positive factors that keep the employee at your firm. By identifying what keeps this individual in the job and at the firm, you can then act to reinforce each of those stay factors. The first stay interview should be held when they start a new position. But follow-up interviews should be held at least every two years and more often when an individual has a high risk of leaving.

2. Walk them downstream to see the impact of their work. One of the reasons employees give for staying in a job is that they feel they and their job “makes a difference.” Telling them their job matters is good, but it is better to demonstrate to them their job makes a difference by showing the impact of their job on the total product and on the end-user. As part of the “walk them downstream” effort, take them to visit the customer to see how their product or service has a final impact. For example, if you’re producing medical equipment, let the employee see some of the patients who have been helped by the product they contributed to making. Also, continually provide them with information that allows the employee to understand the importance of their work, and helps them feel they are doing the best work of their life. If making the product meets sustainability standards, make them aware of that also.

3. Ask targeted employees to alert you when they begin to look. Sometimes employees are willing to warn you when they begin a job search. Meet with each retention target and let them know how important they are to the work and the team, and tell them how important it is that they stay. Then in a one-on-one discussion, the manager should ask their key people to agree to a “professional understanding” in which they agree to instantly let you know when they are frustrated, when they have returned any recruiter’s phone call or when they have begun a job search. Over half of your employees will generally agree to warn you, and this heads up gives you at least a little time to address their retention issues.

4. Post-exit interviews are superior for finding the real causes of turnover. Standard exit interviews usually produce false answers because they occur on their final day when exiting employees most need a positive reference. And that fear of the negative consequences of “being completely honest” during exit interviews often causes departing employees to give false answers 40% of the time. A superior alternative is post-exit interviews (PEI), where the exit interview is delayed 3-6 months after the employee has exited. A phone interview with a third party is the most effective approach. You can improve your response rates and the authenticity of your answers if you make sure that interviewees are aware there is a formal process for acting on the provided information.

5. Identify what motivates the employees targeted for retention. Employees that are continually excited are not only productive, but they stay longer. Start identifying employee motivators by developing a survey to ask newly hired employees during onboarding, “What specific things have you found that increase your motivation?” However, motivation factors of individuals change over time. Provide each targeted employee with a yearly survey listing the most common motivation factors, and have them rank the top five in both monetary and non-monetary categories. The manager should then develop a plan to ensure that when a targeted employee is asked to judge their level of motivation, they put it at 9 or 10 out of 10.

6. Develop a “more of / less of” list covering job-related factors in addition to understanding their mental motivators. It also makes sense to determine which of their job duties and responsibilities excite them and which ones they dread doing. So at least once a year, managers should utilize an interview or survey to identify the segments of their job that they really enjoy doing (that they want “more of”). Some of the typical “more of” factors that innovators often want include:

  • better equipment
  • support help
  • opportunities to work with other innovators
  •  improved executive access
  • the opportunity to work alongside a favored teammate.

In addition to these excitement factors, you should also identify and try to minimize the “less of” related work elements that bore, frustrate, stress, or that they consider to be a waste of their time. Typical “less of” factors are any direct work responsibilities they no longer enjoy doing. Those “less of factors” often include meetings, paperwork, back-to-back travel, and administrative work. Managers should also develop a set of measures, benchmarks, and tickler reminders to ensure that for your target employees, the ratio of exciting duties to dull ones never gets out of balance so that key employees spend most of their time doing their favorite tasks and “what they do best.”

7. Keep an “overdue” list to maintain a sense of fairness. The feeling of being overdue for something is a perception based on what an employee thinks others are getting. Unfortunately, some employees may frequently feel they are being left behind or treated unfairly compared to others. When they feel they are “overdue” for something important in their work, they can feel unappreciated, and that could cause them to leave. Determine which employees are overdue for important job factors by measuring how long it has been since their last positive work event. Positive work events usually include promotions, transfers, new equipment, receiving praise, training, etc. Compare how long it has been for them against the average time between these work events. Use the “overdue list” as a tickler to remind yourself not to wait too long to offer work factors that motivate/excite the employee.

8. Periodically “re-recruit” your most desirable employees. Even when top employees are treated well, they are often startled when they periodically receive lavish praise when they are courted by outside recruiters. The best approach to keep their heads from being turned is to beat the external recruiters to the punch by having a “level up” or senior manager “re-recruit” these key employees at least once every two years. That means you should treat these employee targets as if you were recruiting them for the first time. Treat them as a new recruit. Then “redo their deal,” modifying their job to raise it to at least the level an external recruiter would likely offer them. The process of re-recruiting your key employees and focusing attention on them will likely excite them and reduce their chances of answering an external recruiter’s call. Periodically re-recruiting employees keeps them from feeling as if they have been forgotten. And, it increases the odds your internal re-recruit offer will be at least as good as any external offer.

9. Develop an individualized retention plan because every employee’s reasons for staying and leaving are unique. The employee’s manager, working with HR’s retention experts, should put together a personalized retention plan for each targeted employee. The plan should first identify the potential issues likely to cause the employee to consider leaving and the factors that attract or excite, and keep the employee here. The manager should then put together a plan to periodically implement the appropriate tools, or “retention levers,” that are likely to have the highest impact. HR should distribute templates and samples of customized retention plans to managers so that it is easier for them to develop individualized retention plans for their key employees.

10. Develop a “how to manage me best” profile. Even a great manager needs to understand the most effective or optimal ways of communicating, motivating, empowering, engaging, rewarding, making decisions and providing feedback to each individual employee. The best way to personalize or customize the way a manager manages key employees is to work with the employee to establish a profile covering the most effective ways they can be managed. And since they know themselves better than most others can, utilize the employees themselves to identify the most effective and least effective ways of managing them. This is best done when they start but their “best way to manage me plan” should be updated at least every two years. One approach is to ask them to assume they were their own new manager and ask them, “How would you change your current job and how you are managed to make the job perfect?” By shifting your management approach and style slightly to better fit the approach that maximizes their productivity and innovation they will likely stay longer and produce more.

11. Identify barriers to productivity. Highly productive employees are less likely to leave because they can see the results of their work. In addition, these better results usually mean more praise and rewards. If you want to increase individual and team productivity, the most effective way is usually by simply asking employees to identify barriers or roadblocks keeping them from being more productive. Start by simply asking individuals on your team: If they set a personal goal to increase productivity by 25%, “What are the “barriers” that would prevent them from reaching the target?” In most cases, implementing individual interviews, a simple survey or a focus group can identify and reduce these productivity barriers in a matter of months. In one particularly powerful case, after the barrier identification effort, productivity went up 200%.

12. Give them an individualized learning plan. One of the main motivators of top performers is continuous learning. So rather than leaving their learning to chance, why not work with key employees to develop individualized learning plans? That works because employees that are continually learning new things and growing seldom quit. Also, consider giving them their own learning and development budget so they have more control over their own learning. Rapid learning has the added benefit of making them more productive and capable. Similar “growth plans” can also be developed to increase an employee’s level of challenge and internal exposure.

13. Appreciation plans – a significant factor that drives many employees away is “not feeling appreciated.” So, in addition to informally asking an employee to rate their level of “feeling appreciated.” Managers should put together a plan and a schedule for periodically reminding each targeted employee how specifically they are appreciated and needed. Typical appreciation areas to cover include their ability to volunteer, the quality of their work, and how they help others in their ability to solve complex problems. In many cases, recognition at the team and corporate level can also increase an employee’s feeling of appreciation.

14. Just ask them to stay – a simple, cheap, and effective retention tool is simply “asking them to stay.” This works especially well on employees that are candid and that keep their promises. It can be part of an informal conversation where you are reminding them how they are appreciated and needed. And then you interject your request that “you really want them to stay.”

15. Practice boomerang rehiring – it’s a mistake to assume that once a key employee has departed, your retention role ends. Instead, you should institute a boomerang rehire process where former top employees are approached as to whether they would consider coming back if the right job opened up. These returning boomerang rehires usually turn out to be above-average performers, and they are much less likely to leave again before the end of their career. 

16. Offer part-time job rotations – one of the best ways to increase learning and excite and retain your employees is the use of job rotations. However, a shortcut approach that offers many of the same benefits are part-time job rotations. Where the employees are assigned to work one day a week on a live or virtual project. Part-time job rotations for learning and development generally require less administration and often do not require a change in an employee’s job code or even payroll.

17. Provide them with a challenge plan – one of the top reasons employees leave a job is because they no longer feel challenged in their current job. So by giving each employee an individual challenge plan, they can continue to grow and learn. The challenge plan would include things that the targeted employee feels would challenge them in order to increase their growth. Typical challenges might include new projects, tasks, and presentations in front of management. If you want to jumpstart the process, ask your employees to choose from a prepared list of “tried” challenges that others profited from.

18. Measure and reward managers for great retention and productivity – if you want individual managers to pay more attention to their team’s retention and productivity. There is no faster way to get that attention than to measure, recognize and reward those two factors. On the retention front, even more effective approaches to reward performance turnover. Which is where you identify the performance level of those that departed. And you put a higher weight on the turnover of top performers. So that managers will focus on keeping them. 

19. Offer key employees 20% release time – one of the key drivers of retention is the amount of freedom that the employee feels that they have. One way to ensure that freedom is to borrow from Google. Where employees get 20% time to work on their own individual projects. This offers them both freedom and the opportunity to innovate. In most cases, their side project needs to be approved and monitored. A much less difficult alternative is to offer them one day a month release time.

20. Make retention a shared responsibility – other team members are likely to be the first to know when a teammate is frustrated to the point where they are considering leaving. You can take advantage of that coworker’s knowledge and their college relationships by tasking every member of the team with the role of teammate retention. Remind them that it’s in their best interest to keep the best teammates. So specifically ask them to work informally both to identify who might be at risk and to contribute to convincing them to stay.

Final Thoughts

Many in HR falsely assume that money or benefits are the keys to employee retention. However, if you delay your normal exit interviews for six months, and then asked the departed employee why they left, their delayed response almost always reveals it was because they were frustrated or that they were poorly managed. Up to 75% of the factors that frustrated them and caused them to begin looking were controlled by their manager. If your organization is having a turnover problem, my advice is to place the retention burden on individual managers. Because they are close to the problem, they can get immediately measurable results by using one or more of the above proven retention tools.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, please take a minute to follow or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn.

As seen on TLNT Media on April 29, 2019.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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