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What Keeps People on the Job?

Even in this tight economy, there are simple steps organizations can take to help foster healthy professional relationships between managers and employees.

August 9, 2009
Related Topics: Technology
KEYWORDS technology

The average organizational budget has been substantively cut, but development options can be inexpensive to implement and do wonders to retain valued talent and foster engagement.

Everywhere we turn, we hear news of disengaged workers forced to do more with less as their organizations weather the economic downturn, layoffs and hiring freezes. “You should feel lucky that you even have a job,” is a common mantra among leaders who can’t understand why some employees are losing a foothold on productivity and creativity.

This attitude will hurt organizations, as fear of losing a job is obviously not a key long-term motivator. So, what will keep people engaged in the workplace? And why should it matter, since the high unemployment rate has left thousands of capable people available to fill vacancies?

The simple answer is cost. It costs organizations too much to ignore the ramifications of high employee turnover. Consider the electrical wholesale distribution industry, for example. A February 2009 Electrical Wholesaling article (“The First Step”) reported it costs a profit-draining 1.5 times the salary of each employee who must be replaced. That doesn’t take into account potential service interruptions and morale issues with other employees who take notice of the revolving door. Further, if studies are correct, that revolving door is about to start spinning, or has already.

According to a December 2008 Electrical Wholesaling article (“Hold Onto Your Employees”), at the height of the 2008 recession, 65 percent of employees said they would consider leaving their company within one year. In 1993, that rate was only 39 percent.

The talent manager’s big question is how to not only retain key employees but also how to engage them in the organization’s mission. There are several short- and long-term strategies organizations can implement to foster an engaging, rewarding environment. Perhaps the best place to start is determining what kind of managers companies have and making sure there are development programs in place to enhance their effectiveness. The aforementioned December 2008 Electrical Wholesaling article said 50 percent of job satisfaction is the direct relationship an employee has with his or her boss. In other industries those numbers are likely comparable. That means managers trump companies with regard to impact on employee retention and engagement, and that holds true no matter the age of the employee.

Even in this tight economy, there are simple steps organizations can take to help foster healthy professional relationships between managers and employees in order to keep employees on the job.

Leaders as Coaches

Managers and employees are more swamped than ever, often doing the work of several people while staring at falling revenues and rising pressures. Taking the time to mentor and coach others is on the bottom of the to-do list. But, now, more than ever, paying attention to employees’ attitudes and concerns is one of the least-expensive, highest ROI approaches to effective engagement. It can help to examine what each generation looks for in a boss.

Traditionalists: People of this generation grew up in face-to-face meetings and may be put off by learning information through e-mail. More often than not, they aren’t sure what texting and twittering are all about. If possible, managers should take the time to speak with these employees in person, honoring the traditionalists’ commitment to the organization and the knowledge they have acquired over time. As bosses, traditionalists should understand younger generations’ habits, such as casual clothes and earphones, are just their way of life, not signs of disrespect.

Baby boomers: Baby boomers like being in charge. They are a hard-driving, results-oriented group. As managers, they may come off as disengaged to younger generations who crave consistent feedback. The boomers should take the time to listen — not just about the results, but about the work process — and develop ways to offer meaningful feedback. Especially during times of bad news, this group is likely to stay sequestered as a management team to solve the business issues at hand. This may neglect critically important talent management issues that keep a solid workforce engaged. The best advice during turbulent times: Walk around, find out what people are talking about and offer straight answers and sound advice.

Generation X: Gen Xers like working hard, but on their terms. They are not like the baby boomers, who see long hours and missed vacations as a badge of courage. They want the flexibility to pursue other interests and commitments, such as friends and family. As managers, they may not fully understand the work-style preferences of the generations above them. As such, they may not truly respect the experience their older colleagues bring to the table. As employees, they may be disengaged, as they see their promotions once again put on hold while they wait for the boomers to retire. Honest, open communication can help the boomers and Gen X understand each other’s perspectives. But don’t fake it — Gen X can see straight through a facade.

Generation Y: Their parents told them, Mr. Rogers told them, even “Saturday Night Live” characters told them: “You’re good enough, you’re strong enough and people like you.” This group isn’t afraid to ask for what it wants, and its members are not afraid to leave if they don’t get it. To older generations, they may seem demanding and pushy. But they are used to constant feedback and open discussion. To keep Gen Y engaged, managers should create standing meetings to review projects and performance. This generation doesn’t want to just hear the positive story; they want feedback on what will make them better at their jobs, which, of course, is a bonus for the organization.

Make Talent Management a Top Focus    

Few would dispute the importance of having leaders who coach employees of all generations, but as previously stated, talent management processes like this have taken a backseat to other priorities due to today’s economic environment. That is a mistake. Talent management strategy and successful retention efforts go hand in hand. Yet, the trend to place talent management at the top of company leaders’ priority list has been rising for years — rising as in not there yet.

A 2007 PDI Ninth House “Pulse on Leaders” study found talent management was second on the list of priorities for CEOs, just behind “achieving top-line growth.” Just one year later, in the PDI Ninth House study, “When the Recession Ends, Will You Have the Talent to Succeed?” conducted from December 2008 to January 2009, only 5 percent of respondents said “loss of leaders in key areas or insufficient talent to quickly adapt to change” was a current business challenge.

Leaders need to remember that if they want to make it out of this recession and retain their staff, they need to recognize the generational viewpoints of their employees and their expectations from leadership, and then engage, develop and retain the key talent that will help the organization flourish.

Talent leaders can create cost-effective talent management programs, despite current financial challenges, by implementing some of the following:

  • Consider a mix of classroom, online and peer-to-peer learning. It will save travel time and costs. In the case of peer-to-peer learning, create cross-generational groups to help break down silos and foster collaboration. Examples include technical training for a tech workforce via a webinar or online format. One client purposefully took a broad-brush approach to talent management. While the organization had a specific development program focused on high potentials, it also took care to offer a wide series of online classes to all employees.
  • Create learning that solves real-world problems. Another client formed senior leadership teams that tackled issues such as cross-selling across functions and managing workplace diversity. Participants felt empowered when they saw their recommendations implemented and also formed professional relationships that helped them do their jobs more effectively.
  • Enhance leadership. Create programs that help leaders engage with employees one-on-one and one-on-group. Choose programs that offer advice on how to provide genuine, meaningful feedback. If there are changes in the workplace, senior leaders need to explain them, rather than leaving explanations to direct managers. However, keep in mind this type of leadership style may be uncomfortable for some. When times are tough and stress levels increase, it’s easy to fall back into a comfort zone. To combat this, one client would literally schedule “walk-around time” on his calendar.
  • Celebrate workforce diversity. Earlier we talked about generational diversity. That’s just one aspect. There’s diversity in personalities, socioeconomic status, race and, in this global workforce environment, geography.

Recognize that one size does not fit all, and take the time to understand the best communication practices for different groups in the organization. The first step is to listen to what the workforce is telling you and respond appropriately.

The No. 1 problem talent managers face in the quest to achieve long-term employee engagement is a lack of consistent communication. If messages aren’t getting to employees, they will make them up. Water-cooler energy is not productive. Organizations need to know who their employees are and what their preferences are and alter their organizational strategies as needed. Take the time to create a general structure that allows leaders to communicate with the troops, while at the same time focusing attention on the needs of each individual.

To keep employees engaged in today’s economic environment, company leaders must recognize just how important the manager-employee relationship is for employees across generations and the critical role that coaching and talent management play within this relationship. Once leaders understand this, there are cost-effective programs as well as perks that companies can put in place that will lead to better manager-employee relationships and improved learning opportunities and, in turn, will promote an engaged workforce that stays on the job for long-term business success.

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