Growing a better culture

16 steps to help recruit and retain top talent
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|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 08/15/2007

If organizations aren't seeking ways to nurture employees and meet their needs, they will move on to greener pastures and take customers with them, according to an organizational effectiveness consultant.

"The old paradigm says that your primary focus should be on keeping your customer happy," says Joanne Sujansky, founder and CEO of Pittsburgh-based consulting firm KEYGroup. "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, employees are the face of the organization. They build strong relationships with customers and vendors, they know the ins and outs of the operation, they train new hires and indoctrinate them into the company culture. On top of that when an organization loses great employees, it hurts customer retention and the morale of the rest of the team.

Clearly, preventing "greener pasture" syndrome must be a top priority for today's leaders. Sujansky has 16 "seeds" that will help an organization grow the greenest pasture and create a culture that will help attract and retain the best employees.

Seed 1: Don't misrepresent your culture.

Engaging employees starts with the first time the organization interviews them and it's important to be honest about the company's values and culture.

"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."

Seed 2: Learn the rules of engagement.

Bored employees are neither happy nor productive. To keep employees engaged and satisfied, present them with challenging assignments and provide them with opportunities to grow and develop.

"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 an organization's pasture the greenest. A diverse workforce creates an energy that can rarely exist in an environment of uniformity.

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.

Seed 4: Be a good corporate citizen.

Today's employers are finding that they have to care about more than just profits if they want to keep their employees happy. A study by the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College found that 30 per cent 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.

"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.

"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. Employees not only enjoy the rewards themselves, but they also see that what they're doing truly matters."

Seed 6: Get creative with benefits.

Employees are looking at benefits other than those that meet the norm when considering the elusive "happiness" factor. These "normal" benefits are really the price of admission because employees can get them almost anywhere. Creative benefits include bringing in dinner for employees who work late, on-site educational programs and access to dry-cleaning services.

"There are many inexpensive ways to satisfy your employees; you just have to use your imagination," says Sujansky.

Seed 7: Be aware of the changing needs of your employees.

Keep in mind that as 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 baby boomer employees get older, so do their parents. By understanding the changing needs, the organization shows sensitivity to what's going on their lives. This builds loyalty and helps employees better manage their personal lives so they are more productive at work.

Seed 8: Realize that great employees thrive under great leaders.

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. Pay attention to your front line managers. Keep a close eye on their relationships with employees and get rid of bad managers when necessary."

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.

Allowing employees to develop and implement their own ideas within your organization will keep them passionate about their work. The organization should also ensure 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 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 an organization gives this impression, even subtly or unconsciously, it will be disrupting their work-life balance. Today's workers actively seek out companies that make providing a true work-life balance a priority.

"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.

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. 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.

"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," says Sujansky.

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. To inspire this trust, leaders need to treat everyone with respect and hold other accountable for their actions.

Seed 14: Rid your pasture of weeds.

The weeds in an organization's figurative pasture are those poor performers and negative employees who stifle the good attitudes and high performance of their fellow employees.

"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.

Seed 15: Use internship and mentoring programs to grow and nurture new talent.

These programs allow promising prospects and employees to learn what the company's culture is all about while also developing their own professional skills. They offer a win-win situation for the company because they allow the company to get a good look at new talent without paying out a huge salary or making a long-term commitment.

"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."

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