How to Retain the Living

Retain No ZombiesThis is the third of a series of four posts based on my interview for the Conscious Software Development Telesummit, conducted by Michael Smith, The Zombie Apocalypse is Not an HR Product: How to Recruit, Hire, Retain, and Develop the Living.

A certain amount of turnover is normal and necessary, especially in the information technology specialties. But that’s no reason to lose skilled team members you could otherwise retain.

Once you hire someone, how do you start them out right?

If you do on-boarding poorly, you’ll increase your short-term turnover rate. Don’t waste the first week by not being ready! It’s the little things: know where they will sit, have their computer and other assets ready, and so on. There is no silver bullet, but there is silver bird shot – lots of little things. Set up a buddy system for the newbies – don’t depend on the supervisor to do it all. Just like the new kid in school, the new hire needs to be accepted. Pairing an introvert and an extravert is probably not the best approach – try to understand the candidate’s preferences and needs during the interview process, and select a buddy accordingly.

Then interview again, two to three weeks after the new hire starts. Make sure their first pay check is correct, benefits elected, and so on. Get the compensation right, or you are wasting all of that effort involved in recruiting and getting that new worker on board. Find out what might be keeping that new hire from doing their work, or being efficient, and get it sorted out. Not every problem requires intervention, but move quickly to intervene when it does.

Finally, monitor your short-term turnover rate, and do whatever you have to in order to get exit interviews with everyone involved. The departing employee, their manager, colleagues, and whoever else had a meaningful contact with them. Take a look at the help desk records, to see if they had a bad experience. Even the receptionist can be a source of information. If you see a problem, or a growing trend, fix it!

What is the key to retaining solid team members?

Plainly, you retain individuals, rather than groups. But know your organization’s turnover rate, and why people leave. If you have a lot of voluntary terminations, find out why. Especially if certain departments have higher or lower rates.

First: People don’t leave jobs – they leave bosses. Good workers deserve good managers. Better still, they need leaders. The Servant Leader model is becoming the ideal in many organizations, and it has to flow from the top. Have zero tolerance for bullies, oppressors, and exploitation. Harassment is just a lawsuit waiting for an attorney! And pay attention to the Dilbert metric: if you see lots of Dilbert cartoons posted around the office, you are a Pointy-Haired Boss. There is no “probably” about it.

Second: Not everything is about money. You need to pay enough to take the issue of money off the table. Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive,” has upended the traditional motivation models. He points out several research studies confirming that where cognitive skills are required, higher incentives led to worse performance (which probably says nothing good about sales people and their compensation models). Pink notes that autonomy, mastery, and purpose lead to engagement.

  • Autonomy leads to innovation. Some examples of this in the real world include Atlassian’s quarterly “ShipIt days”, hackathons, and so on. Giving people the power to act on what they believe to be opportunities for improvement frequently leads to real improvement.
  • Mastery is not a result of training, but of application. Opportunities for doing new things provides learning on the way to mastery. This isn’t to say that routine work should be avoided, but that job enrichment opportunities should be identified and pursued.
  • People want a transcendent purpose. The Open Source movement has arisen from very smart people needing an outlet that will let them “put a ding in the universe,” as Steve Jobs so famously put it.

Retention and Affinity

Good teams tend to stay together, if the managers make it possible. As an employer of creative, skilled people, you are always in competition with that other bunch of smart people working somewhere else. Not that company, but that group. Smart people want to be around other smart people, and they’ll change jobs if they have to, in order to be around their peers. Retention frequently comes down to affinity – whether or not people feel like they fit in. You can’t make handcuffs golden enough to keep highly effective people in the company of colleagues that they feel are not in their league.

Of course, one size does not fit all. For some employees, retention hinges on the potential for promotion. For others, especially the skilled creative types, it’s just the search for more interesting puzzles. There are also generational trends. Millennials seem to have internalized the idea of brief tenure more than Gen X or Boomers, but you can retain them. You simply have to be mindful of their goals, and how they expect to achieve them.

In Part Four, How to Develop the Living, we’ll look at what’s required in order to make that new hire the person who can replace you.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. He also holds the project management professional (PMP) designation, as well as professional designations in human resources (GPHR and SPHR) and in benefits administration (CEBS). In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.