Please Don't Go

Recently graduated from a top engineering program, Robert had a career on the rise within a large, international specialty-contracting firm. This bright young man successfully completed the company’s three-year project manager training program and had become one of their most reliable and promising employees. He was rewarded with the responsibility of managing and coordinating multi-million dollar projects and everyone expected Robert to be the firm’s next superstar. So when Robert suddenly resigned his position to return to his home in the Midwest, his decision shocked his coworkers, including his manager. Ironically, if the firm had known about Robert’s interest in changing locations, the company could have considered relocation. Somehow, communication had failed and the firm felt the sting of losing a project manager who was expected to play an important role in the growth of the company.

Like Robert, many good employees leave their employers bewildered — wondering what went wrong. But, by taking a proactive approach to developing an effective employee retention program, the anxiety of high turnover can be reduced. True, employee retention takes time, effort, and resources, but the rewards can prove valuable.

The Importance of Retention

Retaining good employees is critical to long-term success. And in the engineering and construction markets, employee retention is especially serious since the job market is tight and competition is fierce for top candidates. When you add the costs of recruiting and training employees, the financial impact alone is staggering. Some studies estimate that losing an employee costs a company 100 percent of that employee’s salary. When reduced efficiency, lower effectiveness, workforce instability, and lost productivity are added to the cost to find and train a new employee, the stakes become high. A company simply cannot afford to ignore employee retention.

Yet many well-meaning companies fail to invest in retention. The architecture/engineering/construction (A/E/C) industry is fast-paced, and firms are scrambling in the day-to-day business of bidding, estimating, and managing projects. Making a commitment to retention seems like an impossible task when managers’ plates are already full. But when firms consider the long-term value of committing to employee retention, the effort is well worth the investment of time and resources.

One of the major drivers for investing in a retention program is the financial impact of recruiting and training valued employees. No less important is the effect on co-workers. When people leave a firm, morale can be deeply impacted. Other employees may become fearful and uncertain about their status within the company. Such apprehension and insecurity can spread like a virus, and soon turnover may seem uncontrollable. High turnover also can give a firm an unhealthy reputation in the marketplace, making recruiting future candidates especially difficult. To avoid these pitfalls and to keep moving toward success, companies must be willing to devote time, money, and resources to understanding and implementing diverse employee retention strategies.

Effective Strategies for Retention

Understanding what motivates a person to look for another position is an important step. In creating an effective retention program, compensation and benefits are certainly factors in a person’s job satisfaction, but a caring workplace where employees feel valued is critical. Companies have found that the reason employees look, is not always the reason they leave. Why do some firms do a better job of retaining employees than others? Keeping employees for the long term doesn’t happen magically or by good luck. Rather, firms must make a conscious effort toward employee development. The key lies in the planning. Companies that establish a clear, definitive strategy for retention will benefit tremendously. Below are some strategies that are invaluable in a retention program.

Culture and Commitment: It is a common misconception that retention is the sole responsibility of a company’s Human Resources (HR) Department. In practice, a successful program includes buy-in from all departments and levels of an organization. Owners, top executives, and managers must jointly establish company-operating principles that define the company’s value system. Further, these leaders must take an active role in promoting, communicating, and practicing this culture. A strong company culture is one that places value on people, fosters teamwork, is forward thinking, and encourages open communication.

Additionally, it is important to point out that employees typically don’t leave companies. Rather, they leave managers. A poor relationship with a manager is one of the primary reasons people become dissatisfied. One solution is periodic leadership training and retraining directly taught by company leaders. These sessions can help all employees re-connect with the company’s values and mission. Additionally, allowing employees to attend conferences and professional development seminars validates a keen interest in an employee’s professional development -— strengthening not only the individual’s commitment to the company, but also the message that the firm cares about the long-term success of all employees.

Integration

Welcoming an employee into your company may seem like an easy task, but many organizations fail to plan accordingly. Understand that integration must begin before the employee’s first day of work. While a new job can be exciting, it also comes with feelings of fear and vulnerability, not to mention the stress of fitting in, meeting new people, and learning new processes. An individual’s first impression can be lasting, so it is critical for companies to take a proactive approach toward easing their transition.

Begin with a welcome letter from a direct supervisor, the owner, or other recognized leader. The letter should share the company’s vision, culture, and outlook for the future, and it also should reaffirm the company’s excitement about the hire. Also, it is ideal to have the employee’s work space furnished, business cards and name tag ordered, office supplies stocked, and any other required tools ready for the first day of work. What better way to prove your company’s enthusiasm to your new colleague? When the new employee arrives, make it someone’s job to greet and welcome him or her. Provide introductions to existing employees and schedule lunches with a variety of people.

Having a buddy system or assigning a mentor to each new employee also is very helpful for easing tension or feelings of nervousness. Ideally, the mentor is someone who recently held the same position. Typically, new employees have numerous questions — some big and many small, and the mentor becomes a person the employee can confide in, offering support and information needed for a smooth transition.

An orientation program should not conclude after a series of PowerPoint presentations and paperwork on the first day. A truly effective orientation program is one that demonstrates a long-term commitment toward employee development. Many firms have formal training programs that last several weeks to several years. Training programs vary in nature; but typically in the A/E/C industry, training programs are very job specific.

Whether job-specific or broad in scope, training programs do more than teach processes and procedures. They promote teamwork, allow employees to build relationships, increase employee support channels, illustrate potential career paths, and broaden the individual’s knowledge of the company and industry — ultimately helping employees feel valued and connected to the organization.

Open Communication

An open line of a communication between an employee and his or her manager is a critical goal in ensuring employee satisfaction. A manager is the key in this element of the retention plan, and ideally he or she should receive training in communication and its importance to retaining employees. In addition to training managers in communication, implementing specific strategies will help facilitate open communication. A few ways managers can promote open communication include the following.

• Management by wandering around (MBWA) — managers will benefit from periodic, informal day-to-day discussions with employees in order to understand what challenges they face and what can be done to further enhance their short- or long-term experiences with the organization.

• “Hands-on” management — managers who show a willingness to work side-by-side with employees also demonstrate their compassion and commitment to the team’s success. Offering assistance with projects creates a feeling of mutual respect and enhances the relationship between manager and employee.

• Informal meetings — managers should hold breakfast, lunch, or regular meetings with their employees. Hyler Bracey, author of Managing From the Heart, explains that employees want to be heard and understood, and that they want managers to be compassionate and truthful. Meetings where management and employees share time discussing goals and strategies, as well as providing feedback to one another, can go a long way in making employees feel valued. An informal lunch meeting helps a manager stay in touch with an employee’s day-to-day concerns so he or she can provide assistance as necessary. Managers should encourage feedback, suggestions, and ideas — showing employees their opinions are valued.

Other Tips for Success

To further facilitate communication and ensure open, honest feedback, some organizations assign a sponsor who works in a different department or office. A sponsor who works outside of the department can obtain sincere feedback from employees who don’t feel as comfortable talking about serious issues with their managers. The employee sponsor, however, must have a direct link with company owners and executives in order to provide solutions. Exit interviews also help managers identify current practices, trends, or challenges affecting the workforce. They can reveal how employees really feel about your company’s pay structure, growth potential, benefit plans, culture, etc. This information is critical in understanding what actions are needed to improve an organization’s culture.

Also be sure to volunteer and help facilitate the development of company feedback systems, committees, and other forums designed to solicit information from employees. More important, be prepared to take action on the feedback. And don’t wait until a formal annual review to open the lines of communication — by then it may be too late. Good communication is the by-product of a concerned manager making a consistent effort toward finding out what his or her employees are facing.

Rewards and recognition are yet another crucial component to the success of your retention program because they confirm to the employees that their efforts are meaningful and appreciated. One of the easiest and best ways to reward employees is to simply congratulate employees on a job well done. Long hours and hard work that go unnoticed will leave employees feeling deflated. Other forms of recognition include: service awards; congratulatory/promotion letters signed by top executives; promotion announcements on the company intranet, or in a company newsletter or trade publication; and public accolades at company meetings. Companies might consider a systematic compensation/bonus program designed to establish milestones and reward top performers.

Finally, don’t underestimate the balance between work and play. For a number of employees, work might not be the top priority in their lives. Everyone has certain needs, whether it’s related to family, financial well-being, spiritual connections, or hobbies and extracurricular projects. Today’s workers are more interested than ever before in balancing work and personal life. Hard-working employees want to know that they can leave early if necessary to pick children up from school or to watch a child’s soccer game. Companies must determine which work/life benefits will best fit their culture and coincide with their operating principles. Simply put, organizations that acknowledge the need for balance in their employees’ lives will, without a doubt, create loyalty among their staff.

Even with the best of efforts, some employees are bound to leave no matter what a firm does. The fact is there are many companies offering challenging and exciting work. So how will your company stand out from the competition? When an organization is willing to devote the necessary time, resources, and energy toward cultivating and developing its most valuable assets — its people — growth and long-term success are inevitable.

Shawn Abraham is corporate recruiter for Structural Group, one of the nation's leading specialty contractors. Structural Group is comprised of three dynamic and diversified companies — Structural Preservation Systems, VSL and Pullman Power. For more information, visit www.structural.net.

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