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Guest Commentary

Remember Me? I'm Your Long-Term Employee

Sid Scott

February 2004

(Sid Scott)During the past few years of the down economy, managers had an inclination to not be too concerned about retaining employees. However, now that the three worst economic years since the Great Depression have apparently passed into history, it may be time to start thinking about how to keep the important people who make our businesses succeed-our employees.

During the sluggish economic times, employee owners who were fortunate enough to not be downsized stayed put, so turnover rates for many organizations dropped. Benefits were not expanded beyond what was necessary, and there was a tendency to take employees for granted-especially those who showed up every day, quietly did their jobs and kept the ship afloat. But, with economic indicators rising, those loyal folks may be coming to work and saying, "Hi, Boss. I have a new job. Bye, Boss."

What inspires people to leave? Sure, we will lose some people for the "right reasons"--job advancement, an employed spouse moving, retirement or significantly better pay and benefits (other companies have employee ownership, too!). However, when we lose people who don't leave for those reasons, we need to step back and analyze why they are choosing to depart. From my perspective, when people leave for other than the right reasons, it is related to one or more of the following reasons: discomfort with supervisor's management style, lack of communication, lack of training, poor job structure or lack of involvement with decisions affecting their work.

What can we do to encourage people to stay? A place to start would be to look at the individual reasons why people depart, and see if we can do something about them in our workplaces. Some of the changes needed may be structural, while others may involve how we act as managers. While we probably cannot change our basic personalities, we can change our management behavior if we are conscious of the concerns work at making improvements.

First, look at management style. Our individual management style is a reflection of how we relate to others. When I ask people what they like/dislike in a boss, here are some of the typical comments: "I like having a boss who works as hard as we do, but doesn't micro-manage. He or she lets us do our jobs." "Communication is very important to me. I like to know what's going on. I appreciate honestly hearing how things are going." "It's important that my manager listen to those of us who are working for her. We have good ideas and really understand how to fix things. I appreciate being involved in helping decide how to make our workplace better." "People will work harder for a boss who shows respect for them. There's nothing worse than being ignored or taken for granted."

Second, improve communication. Those of you who know me, know I have talked ad nauseum on the importance of good communication. Communication involves managers sharing information people need to know to do their jobs as well as listening to their concerns and suggestions. In fact, good listening may be a more important skill than having good speaking skills. Some things that managers can do to help improve communication are:
  1. Make certain that you set aside adequate time to hear what your employee owners are saying. Even if you don't need to or aren't asked to give advice, just showing you are available can help boost morale and self-esteem.
  2. When you spend time listening-really listen. Don't read your mail, take telephone calls or play with a computer. Give your attention to the person in front of you and encourage them to share. It will pay off for both of you.
  3. Share information on a regular basis. Even if you share more than what people need, you will still be a hero. You can't over-communicate.
  4. Don't let employee owners find out important things you should have told them from other sources. It's not only embarrassing; it may also send the message that they are not important to you and the organization.
  5. Be honest and forthright when sharing information and answering questions. If you don't know the answer, say so; do not "wing it."

Third, increase training. Training is an important retention tool, a way to increase productivity and a great way to build morale, and it doesn't have to be expensive. While I support and encourage people to take college courses and attend seminars, if budgeting is a problem, do on-the-job training. Every investment in training pays back far more than it costs in dollars and time. When people receive training, they are less likely to look for other jobs, they feel the organization is valuing them as a person, and they give back by being better at what they were hired to do.

Finally, review job structure. One of the bad consequences of the down economy is that people have been working harder because of having fewer people to do the work. This "job enlargement" (Frederick Herzberg's terminology) may work in the short run, but long term it can cause burnout, contribute to poor morale and even become a factor in workplace accidents and employee health. Now is the time, as the economy improves, to look at how the work is structured. If you have employees who are regularly putting in overtime or doing the work of 1 to 2 people, it's time to look at hiring another person to help shoulder the load.

Job structure can also involve flexible scheduling whenever possible. American are busy people, but with this "busy"-ness comes difficulty balancing work and home. Managers can help by being sensitive to employee needs and trying our best to accommodate their needs as well as the needs of the company.

In conclusion, getting people involved in the decisions that affect them can enhance their perception of management style, communication, training and job structure. Jay Hall, Ph.D. has said, "People tend to value and support the things they help to create." Involvement can be a great way to improve retention, get good ideas and help people feel better about their jobs. Not bad results!
About the Author

Sid Scott is the former vice president of human resources for Woodward Communications, Inc., a multimedia corporation located in Dubuque, Iowa. Woodward Communications has been an ESOP company since 1992. He has served on the NCEO's board of directors and is a frequent presenter/facilitator at conferences. He has a MBA from Bradley University and a BS in liberal arts from Illinois State University, and he has been a faculty member at Clarke College in Dubuque and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

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