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Expanding the Scope of Your Retention Efforts

By:  Dr. John Sullivan

As the economy heats up and firms once again look to build up their talent strength, it's only logical that senior leaders, managers and HR professionals will increasingly look at retention as a major business imperative. But as a professional who has been designing retention solutions for corporations for well over a decade, I can attest to the fact that most newly enacted retention efforts will not only fail  they will do so miserably.

The approach many firms take is doomed during the initial goal-setting period, when managers and HR professionals alike define the goals of the retention program to narrowly. If, for example, your firm defines the goal as merely to "keep good people," you are automatically dooming the effort by failing to identify specifics that can be measured. I recommend that you identify a broad set of goals that cover additional areas, including identifying why people leave, where they go, and whether the separations could have been prevented.

21 Possible Goals for Retention Efforts

If you want your retention program to have a major impact, it's important that you consider a wide range of ambitious retention goals. Each goal must, of course, also include a numerical target or metric to ensure that it has been successful.

Some of the possible retention goals to consider for any successful retention program include the following:

  1. Target your efforts. Increase the impact of your retention efforts by targeting key areas. It may not be advantageous or even necessary to retain everyone in your organization. If you have limited time and resources, it's important to first identify, and then focus your efforts on, mission-critical jobs, hard-to-replace individuals and positions, individuals with critical "future" skills, and all jobs within key business units.

  2. Increase productivity first. Get targeted workers to be more productive while they are still on the job.

  3. Limit responses to recruiters. Prevent high performers and critical individuals from ever picking up the phone to answer an external recruiter's call.

  4. Increase tenure. Get key individuals to stay longer (i.e. extend the average tenure for a person in that position).

  5. Identify causes. Develop processes to identify why top performers leave in order to learn how to prevent future turnover.

  6. Prevent other employees from following. Since departing managers and top performers often convince others to follow them, it's important to try to prevent additional turnover by identifying and managing those individuals that are likely to follow a key employee to his or her new firm.

  7. Predict departures. Develop processes that accurately predict when an individual is about to leave.

  8. Leave at the best time. Get employees to leave during slow periods.

  9. Minimize the impact. Develop processes to minimize the economic impact when employees do actually leave. For example, have a "backfill" person for every key position.

  10. Reward high retention. Develop a process to reward managers who have low top performer turnover rates.

  11. Separate out preventable turnover. Identify which voluntary turnovers were preventable so that turnover metrics will be more revealing.

  12. Identify where they go. Identify where top performers go (e.g. competitors, a different field, or retirement) in order to help more accurately quantify the costs of losing someone to a competitor firm. Where possible, it's also desirable to direct employees to a non-competitor when they leave.

  13. Depart happy. Get employees to leave "happy" so that they don't disparage your company and hurt your employment brand. After all, former employees frequently buy your firm's products or act referral sources.

  14. Increase the return rate. Develop a process to get those who left to return some day. For example, start a boomerang program to lure high performers into returning some day.

  15. Increase involuntary turnover. Increase the turnover rate of low performers in order to increase overall productivity and reduce the frustration of the top performers who have to work alongside them.

  16. Get management's ownership. In order to increase the chances of success for any retention program, it's important to get managers and employees to "own" retention.

  17. Distribute turnover metrics. Develop a process to distribute monthly turnover metrics to all managers in order to increase competition and "embarrass" under-performing managers.

  18. Identify bad managers. Because weak managers are the prime cause of turnover, one goal needs to be to fix or replace managers who have high top-performer turnover rates and low involuntary turnover rates.

  19. Best-practice sharing. Develop a process that rapidly spreads "what works" retention tools to all managers throughout the organization.

  20. Avoid "zero" turnover. Develop processes that ensure that the firm has a minimum turnover rate in order to keep the organization vibrant and to be sure your people are desirable.

  21. Identify why new hires quit. Develop a process that identifies why each new hire quit his or her last position in order to educate their new managers about what might trigger the new hire's next departure.

Conclusion

I am not advocating that every retention program include each one of these goals. It's important, however, to initially consider each of them on its own merit. It's also important to be constantly aware that if you define your program goals too narrowly, you may be actually dooming them to at best minimal results, or at worst, failure.


Dr. John Sullivan (JohnS@sfsu.edu) is a well-known thought leader in HR. He is a frequent speaker and advisor to Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley firms. Formerly the chief talent officer for Agilent Technologies (the 43,000-employee HP spin-off), he is now professor and head of the HR program at San Francisco State University. He was called the "Michael Jordan of Hiring" by Fast Company magazine. More recruiting articles by Dr. Sullivan can be found in the ER Daily archives. Information about his numerous other articles, books and manuals about recruiting and HR can be found at www.drjohnsullivan.com. Dr. Sullivan is also the editor of VP of HR, an e-newsletter providing "out of the box" solutions for senior HR managers. Free subscriptions can be obtained on his website.