RISMEDIA, August 2, 2007—Employees matter. No, they really matter. In fact, as the forces of globalism and the proliferation of technology relentlessly level the proverbial playing field, it’s safe to say that the men and women who work for you are everything. Think about it. Your competitors have access to the exact same resources as you. That means infinite choices exist not only for your customers, but for your employees as well.
According to Joanne G. Sujansky, Ph.D, CSP, if you’re not seeking ways to nurture them and meet their needs, they will seek greener pastures—and your customers will follow them over the fence.
“Many leaders don’t realize that the rules of business have changed almost overnight,” says Sujansky, founder and CEO of KEYGroup® (keygroupconsulting.com). “The old paradigm says that your primary focus should be on keeping your customer happy. The new paradigm says the employee has taken over that spot. Keep her engaged and she’ll keep your customers happy. Neglect her needs and she won’t be so concerned about keeping her end of the bargain. In the end, not only will she go elsewhere, your customers may follow suit.”
Make no mistake: when employees start searching for greener pastures, it’s a bona fide disaster. After all, your employees are the face of your organization. They build strong relationships with customers and vendors, they know the ins and outs of your operation, they train new hires and indoctrinate them into the company culture. On top of that when you lose great employees, it hurts customer retention and the morale of the rest of your team.
And every time a great employee leaves, you have to shell out the cost of rehiring and retraining his replacement—a cost that studies have shown could range from 70 to 200% of that person’s annual salary. You also lose that employee’s institutional memory, another great asset for your company.
Clearly, preventing “greener pasture” syndrome must be top priority for today’s leaders. And while it may sound self-evident, the best approach is to make your pasture the greenest. Ultimately, that means becoming what Sujansky calls a Vibrant Entrepreneurial Organization, or VEO: a company with a culture that allows that elusive sense of employee ownership to flourish. But in the short run, it means making your company a place where employees truly want to be—and “lip service” won’t do the trick.
“You might be proclaiming that you are the leading company in your industry or marketplace in huge letters on your mission statement,” says Sujansky. “But if you’re not backing up that sentiment in the day-to-day realities of the workplace, employees will quickly realize the truth. And by the way: it isn’t always cash that makes green pastures green. When salaries are commensurate with the marketplace, other factors take priority. Good people stay where they are challenged, where they have the opportunity to develop and contribute, and where their employers take care of those meaningful little things that make their lives easier.”
So here’s the million-dollar question: What are these secret little things that will help you keep your employees engaged and productive? And on behalf of all of the non-mega corporations out there, how can you do it without breaking the bank? Here are 16 easy-to-plant (and inexpensive!) “seeds” that will help your pasture be the greenest for your future and current employees:
Seed #1: Don’t misrepresent your culture. Engaging your employees starts with the first time you interview them. What do you say to your new hires about the company? Is it really an accurate representation of how your organization works? Do you tell them about exciting opportunities only to hold them back from new assignments until they “pay their dues”?
“When new employees find out how things are really done, not only will they resent you, they’ll likely find somewhere else to work,” says Sujansky. “One insurance company learned this lesson the hard way. The company took on 12 new hires whose values they felt matched the company’s. However, after only two years all 12 of the new hires had left, citing the same reason: The values leaders said they stood for were not actually upheld. This company could talk the talk, but they couldn’t walk the walk. Every company should be honest about the kind of work environment it represents.”
“If your culture isn’t quite where you’d like it to be, tell your new hires about the type of company you are striving to become, tell them how you are going to get there, and how they can help you get there,” she adds. “They’ll find the honesty refreshing, and it will help them get off to a great start.”
Seed #2: Learn the rules of engagement. Bored employees are neither happy nor productive. To keep your employees engaged and satisfied, present them with challenging assignments and provide them with opportunities to grow and develop. American Century Investments pays 75% of employees’ tuition when they take a course that isn’t related to their job. If you are limited with funding options you can always help employees to use their special skills and talents in their everyday job. (In other words, let your employees graze in other parts of your company’s pasture and sometimes in entirely new pastures!)
“Not surprisingly, employees appreciate it when their employers take an interest in their future inside and outside the company,” says Sujansky. “A great way to do that is by providing opportunities for employees to improve on their skills or learn a new skill they can use in their everyday jobs. Either practice provides you with an opportunity to create a well-rounded, productive employee.”
Seed #3: Cross-pollinate your culture by embracing diversity. It takes a lot of different influences—diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, lifestyle, geographic origin, education, personality, values, experience, socio-economic background and so forth—to make your pasture the greenest. A diverse workforce creates an energy that can rarely exist in an environment of uniformity. Companies that bring together a diverse group of people to get the job done are richer, more stimulating and, frankly, more fun.
Leaders need to encourage the involvement of all team members who, in turn, need to feel comfortable about offering suggestions and challenging ideas or practices. By hiring employees from all walks of life, you’ll create an environment where differing ideas flow freely. Learn how to use these ideas to better your company, and you’ll create an environment where top talent wants to stay.
Seed #4: Be a good corporate citizen. Once upon a time, the corporate heads of many organizations had one concern: “How much money can we make and how fast can we make it?” Well, money still matters, of course. But today’s employers are finding that they have to care about more than just profits if they want to keep their employees happy. The environment, health, and safety have never been more in the spotlight, and as a result, employees want to work for companies who take these factors into consideration.
In fact, a study by the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College found that 30% of employers say that good corporate citizenship helps them recruit and retain employees. Good corporate citizens maintain high ethical standards, decrease the negative effects their company has on the environment, and give back to the community. A great example of a good corporate citizen is Patagonia, whose environmental activism program works to protect undomesticated lands and waters.
“There are many ways to become a good corporate citizen,” says Sujansky. “You can reward employees who carpool or use mass transit to get to work, you can set goals to reduce the amount of energy your organization uses, you can schedule monthly trips for employees to help out at local soup kitchens or get involved with programs such as Relay for Life or the March of Dimes.”
Seed #5: Give praise where praise is due. If someone does a great job, let him know. It’s that simple. And then let his co-workers know. And then let his customers know! Recognizing a job well done isn’t an expensive proposition, but it will mean the world to your employee.
“A good way to achieve employee recognition on a regular basis is to create an employee recognition program,” says Sujansky. “You might give managers the authority to reward their employees on the spot—say, with a gift certificate or a small cash bonus right then and there. Kimley-Horn & Assoc., an engineering consultancy headquartered in Cary, NC, even allows fellow employees to reward one another with $50 bonuses. Employees not only enjoy the rewards themselves, but they also see that what they’re doing truly matters.”
Seed #6: Get creative with benefits. You don’t have to provide your employees with onsite medical care and state-of-the-art fitness centers. In fact, you probably can’t. But do realize your employees are looking at benefits other than those that meet the norm—such as health insurance and a 401(k)—when considering the elusive “happiness” factor. These “normal” benefits are really the price of admission because employees can get them almost anywhere. It’s up to you to think outside the box and figure out the benefits that will…well, benefit them the most.
“There are many inexpensive ways to satisfy your employees; you just have to use your imagination,” says Sujansky. “Take a note from Qualcomm. In addition to offering an amazing healthcare package, the company caters dinner for employees who work late, a relatively inexpensive perk that is sure to please hungry, hardworking employees. Other options include providing access to dry-cleaning services, treating all of your employees to lunch once a week, or providing them with on-site educational programs delivered by local experts or company vendors in a wide variety of fields.”
Seed #7: Be aware of the changing needs of your employees. Keep in mind that as your employees progress in life their needs change. After having a child, an employee may want to travel less than before the child was born. As your baby boomer employees get older, so do their parents. Be understanding when they need to take time off to take care of the health needs of Mom or Dad. And never give them a hard time when they need to take care of their own health issues. By understanding the changing needs, you show sensitivity to what’s going on their lives. You demonstrate that you see them as people, not just cogs in the machine. Not only will you build loyalty with your employees, but you will help them bring stability to their personal lives—which means when they are at work they can place all of their focus on getting the job done.
Seed #8: Realize that great employees thrive under great leaders. Your employees won’t leave you for that greener pasture unless you drive them to it. The buck starts and stops with their leaders. In fact it’s commonly said that employees don’t quit their job, they quit their manager. “Employees of great leaders will go to the ends of the earth to do a good job for them,” says Sujansky. “The flip side is that employees with poor leadership will simply go. The take-away lesson? Pay attention to your front line managers. Keep a close eye on their relationships with employees and get rid of bad managers when necessary. If your employees see that you care about who you enlist as a leader, they’ll feel more secure and will work even harder.”
Seed #9: Conduct “stay” interviews regularly. Great employees like to hear about what they can do to make the company even better. Regular “stay” interviews provide a great opportunity for leaders to compliment their high performers on their great work and also to inspire them to do more to take the company to the next level. “Use these interviews to gauge how well you are meeting your employees’ needs,” says Sujansky. “Be open and honest with your employees and always seek out their suggestions on what you and the company can do to improve.”
Seed #10: Create the kind of environment where people can do their best work. Is your work environment restrictive and stifling or is it freeing and innovative? By allowing your employees to develop and implement their own ideas within your organization, you’ll be able to help keep them passionate about their work. To show its appreciation for innovation, Google allows their engineers to spend 20% of their time on independent projects. You should also make sure your employees have what they need on a basic level. Do they have the equipment they need? The right computer programs to work efficiently? Nothing frustrates an employee more than not having everything he needs in order to get the job done.
Seed #11: Help employees to achieve work/life balance. In today’s high-tech world, it is easy to set employees up so that they can work from home. Here’s the problem: too many companies do this and then expect employees to be “on call” 24/7. If you give this impression, even subtly or unconsciously, you’re disrupting their work/life balance.
Employees in today’s workforce saw their parents give their lives to companies while missing soccer games, recitals, and family dinners only to be laid off at age 55 without much hope for finding other employment. Today’s working generation seems to share the sentiment of ‘we’re not going to let that happen to us!’ They actively seek out companies who make providing a true work/life balance a priority.
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) went so far as to place someone in charge of helping employees maintain work/life balance. “Providing flexible hours or allowing your employees to work from home shows them you value the lives they have outside the office,” says Sujansky.
Seed #12: Insist that your employees take vacations. As an employer, you may be thinking, “If they would rather keep working than take a vacation, who am I to stop them? The more they’re working the better it is for us!” Several studies show that employees who take vacations are less stressed, lead a healthier lifestyle, and are even at lower risk of having heart disease. All of that means lower healthcare costs for you. Furthermore, employees who get away from the office are less likely to suffer burnout, a problem that harms productivity levels. If it isn’t possible for employees to take a full week off, encourage them to take shorter more frequent vacations.
“Here’s a great opportunity for you to lead by example,” says Sujansky. “Take time off to show them how important you think it is, and when they are enjoying their own time off don’t call them with problems that can wait until they return. Always encourage your employees to leave their laptops and work-related papers at the office. If they are able to completely disengage, they will come back with renewed spirits—which, in turn, will help them reach their company goals.”
Seed #13: Create an environment of trust between employer and employee. Employees are happier and work harder when they feel like they can trust their leaders. They decide which leaders they can trust based on how their fellow employees, company vendors, and customers are treated. As a leader, do you treat all with whom you come into contact with respect? Do you behave ethically and hold others accountable for their actions? When you have to take tough action, like terminating someone, do you follow proper steps and treat the person with dignity in the process? If an employee sees you treating someone else poorly, whether it’s a vendor or a fellow employee, his level of trust diminishes and he starts to care less about doing a good job for you.
In addition, remember that trust is a two-way street. Your employees need to feel that you trust them as well. To prove this, companies such as Chaparral Steel and Nucor Steel have opted to get rid of time clocks, and Best Buy has increased productivity at its headquarters by allowing some employees to make their own hours rather than work the typical 9 to 5 shift. By monitoring their employees less, the focus for both the employees and their leaders is placed on the work at hand. And because employees in these companies feel trusted and appreciated they do a great job to show their gratitude.
Seed #14: Rid your pasture of weeds. The weeds in your figurative pasture are those poor performers and negative employees who stifle the good attitudes and high performance of their fellow employees. If you’re not pulling out your weeds, then it’s likely their counterparts won’t stick around and keep working with them. They’ll choke out your best performers. “Any environment where employees are not held accountable for their actions, whether they’re positive or negative, can create a poor working environment,” says Sujansky. “The greenest pastures are never filled with weeds so keep that in mind when you are growing and developing yours.”
Seed #15: Use internship and mentoring programs to grow and nurture new talent. These programs allow promising prospects and employees to learn what your company culture is all about while also developing their own professional skills. They offer a win-win situation for your company because they allow you to get a good look at new talent without paying out a huge salary or, making a long-term commitment.
The Egg Factory, LLC, offers what they call the Innovation Challenge to help interns learn about innovation and entrepreneurship. Many journalism internships, including those offered by The New York Times, send their interns right out to find stories, and some of the best programs allow interns to shadow the company’s top-tier executives.
Seed #16: Take a seasonal approach to showing employees you care. “There are any number of ways to do this,” says Sujansky. “Be creative. In summer, consider giving half-days off on Friday, or give a half-day off before an employee’s vacation to help her minimize the stress of leaving town. Even something as simple as providing fresh fruit or flowers for the office can make an impact. At the holidays, bring in gift wrappers or give employees a day off to take care of their seasonal shopping. These ideas aren’t expensive, and they go a long way toward showing employees that you care.”
“Striving to keep employees happy and engaged is not just a nice thing to do,” says Sujansky. “It’s the right thing to do if you want to create a successful business. Furthermore, it’s not just a matter of trying to retain people for retention’s sake to avoid the high cost of recruitment, for instance. Engaged employees are creative, productive, motivated and brimming with good ideas. Not only will they stay, they’ll be fully committed to their jobs and to the company’s success.”