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The Doors Are About to Open: Can You Really Keep Your Best People?

by
Kevin Wheeler
Dec 2, 2009, 1:28 pm ET

Picture 3Good people know that even in a recession, they can find another position.

In fact, signs point to increased opportunities for currently employed people with specific skills and experience, and many of your top performers are most likely being actively recruited without your knowledge. As the stock market improves, so do attitudes about hiring. Every day I see signs that companies are starting to hire selected people more aggressively than they have over the past six months. Google has (or had) openings for 200 recruiters; do you wonder why? Facebook is ramping up hiring; wonder why? Even in Silicon Valley, the keenest firms are hiring people even when they don’t really need them!

Facebook, Google, and others continue to hire large numbers of top people for two reasons: first of all, to keep them from the competition. Top people employed by you are not going to be contributing to someone else’s’ success; and second, they are “stockpiling” talent to have it ready when things start growing again, which is already starting to happen.

In many areas, including healthcare, telecommunications, marketing, computer security, and computer engineering, demand remains strong. Biosciences and pharmaceutical companies are hiring, as are the movie and media industries despite layoffs, recessions, and slumping consumer demand.

So what can recruiters so about retention? Isn’t it a fact that once people are hired they are out of your hands? While this may be the case in some firms, I believe for most of us there are several ways to help your organization keep the best people and help yourself by reducing your workload and keeping your internal networks alive.

Most basically, you can make a real difference in any employee’s attitude who you have helped to hire. Employment is about relationships, and the strongest relationships are built on trust, respect, and open communication. As a recruiter, you most likely have an advantage with the employees you helped to hire. You spent time with them, got to know them more deeply than many others in the company, and may have given them advice about accepting offers or on how to deal with an interview. By simply checking in with these folks, you can get a sense of their mood, concerns, and what the issues are they may have with the organization. You may be able to change negative attitudes or to pass on information that might help “save” one of them from leaving.

But here are a few other things that you can do, as well.

Help every employee build a social network. Employees make friends and build relationships that can be strengthened or damaged during stressful times. Many employees stay at an organization because of who they get to work with, and many leave for the same reasons. We all know how powerful social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and even Twitter have become, and companies can use these networks to promote employee interaction and teamwork.

Good organizations can even develop networks for those who have been laid off so that they can help each other and retain the connections they had when employed. By making these kinds of assets available, organizations not only improve their own reputation and brand and help former employees, but also reinforce the loyalty and motivation of employees who are still working.

Encouraging internal blogging, the use of virtual communications tools like SMS or IM, and the use of video conferencing to strengthen networks and extend them globally. Knowledge is a powerful retention tool, and naivety and ignorance can best be combated by sharing of ideas and experiences between people from many different firms.

Encourage constant and candid communication. Silence is the greatest enemy of retention. When management does not update the employees on the financial and business state of the company and when rumors can be counted by the minute, turnover goes up and productivity goes down. While some people (usually the “B” and “C” players) hunker down and hide, the best ones start looking. I can’t tell you how many excellent employees who are highly valued have left their employers because of business uncertainty. No one expects assurances or guarantees; what they hope for is an understanding of trends — are things better, the same, or worse? Are customers leaving? How is sales volume?

Make sure your management team is present, is as upbeat as it can be, and that every member of the executive staff is visible and concerned about every employee.

To maintain the employment relationship, employers have a huge responsibility. First of all they need to clearly know who their best employees are, keep them informed, help them maintain and develop skills, and encourage them to build networks and internal relationships.

None of these things cost much when compared to the cost of recruiting and developing new employees, and none of them are really very hard to do. But, to put them into place does require a change of mindset and a willingness to break (or at least stretch) the usual policies and rules that exist in many organizations. Good HR and good recruiting is all about treating people fairly, not necessarily the same.

Focus on internal placement and movement. Offer your best employees an opportunity to move within the company to jobs that may fit their skills and interests better, if that is possible. It is also a good idea to keep the bureaucracy to a minimum and remove time constraints. Lobby HR and hiring managers to look more intently and more honestly inside the company for talent rather than seeking it from outside. We know that the grass always seems greener somewhere else. It is part of a recruiter’s responsibility to push back and encourage managers to give internal people, even if they lack all the requirements for a job, a chance.

Encourage employees to update their skills all the time. In bad times, employees have time to soak up new information. Education and development are the cheapest retention tools in your arsenal. Locking people into degree or certificate programs is almost a guarantee that they will remain with your firm until they complete the program. Most will be loyal and thankful. And all of them will be better-educated and hopefully more productive employees. This is a big plus for the large organizations and you should be capitalizing on this right now.

But development can also occur through on-the-job development and through many informal networks and conversations. Every employer should encourage employees to share knowledge using social networks or communities of practice, and employers should reward managers who encourage their employees to take classes or take on new responsibilities.

Many employees who leave organizations are simply looking for a bigger challenge or the opportunity to use a new skill or degree. Smart organizations will encourage this and motivate managers to source and hire internally whenever possible and even if it will require a bit of training.

None of this is new or unique. Every recession sees the patterns repeated: the good performers leave, the average and poor hunker down and hide. But the good can be retained through active concern, HR and recruiter involvement and caring, and by proactive HR and employment practices.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

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