Forget What the Dictionary Says: Retention Comes Before Recruiting

Mar 12, 2001

In the buyer’s recruiting market of the past several years, our urgency to get open positions filled (what I like to call “cheeks in seats”) has sometimes overshadowed other, more fundamental considerations. But now that the market has been tamed ever so slightly, it’s time to devote attention to the things that might have suffered during times of recruiting triage: your current talent. While many organizations try to separate retention from recruitment, I believe that it is unwise to consider one without the other. I realize there are programs and philosophies around training and development that focus solely on retention (and this article could be quite lengthy if we tried to discuss it all). So for now let’s focus on the association of recruitment and retention under the umbrella of “talent management.” In this article, talent management is defined as the identification of talent pools – both externally and internally – matching talent to opportunity and business needs, and the movement of talent within your organization. What it comes down to then is that retention is everybody’s business – and it starts first and foremost with recruiting. Idea #1: Employees who have more realistic expectations of their new job before they start are happier in their position and stay longer in it. The bottom line is: a better fit through matching and selection is the key to retention. This may seem logical, but it still begs the question: how do you make it happen? You start by making sure that you clearly outline what potential candidates can expect from their day-to-day activities and responsibilities. Have them talk to (not interview with) a high performer actually doing the job. Make sure they understand how they will be measured in their position, and how the position fits within the organization. This basic information is easily overlooked but can mean the difference between an excited new-start and a disillusioned one (“I thought I was going to be working on strategic development, not account management!”). Slightly more difficult to understand is what it takes for an employee to be successful in a particular position. This will take some research on your part. The better you can align candidates to jobs (beyond work experience), the more they will thrive. Talk to top performers in the same or similar positions and their hiring managers to discover what it takes to succeed in the position. Ask them to identify the skills, competencies, work environment, and work-style preferences that could mean the difference between mediocre and stellar performance. For example, if tolerance for ambiguity is a key factor for success, someone who needs structure and routine may not be the best fit. Or, if the position is an integral part of a team working on a project, a candidate who prefers working in solitude is not the best fit – no matter how genius he or she may be. Remember to track all of this data, as it will prove to be very valuable later. Idea #2: employees who understand their growth opportunities (upward and laterally) within your company will be happier and more likely to stay within your company. Employees have long suffered from our inability to identify growth opportunities for them. The second most frequent reason I’ve heard for an employee for leaving a company is lack of opportunity for growth (the first is their manager: more on that later). You have to ask yourself: is part of your attrition rate due to employees not knowing about growth opportunities? What are you doing to ensure that they have and know about these opportunities? Furthermore, your employees should feel as if they know about opportunities before the outside world does. Unfortunately, internal politics can sometimes stand in the way of an employee’s desire to switch jobs. But while you can’t rid your company of these problems completely, you can arm your employees with information about your company’s newly opened positions. Not only do you have to make sure that your current employees know what their growth opportunities are, you have to put systems in place to assure this. Posting jobs to your corporate Intranet site is a good start. But you have to wonder – how many of your employees will randomly look at the site and come across an open position they’re interested in? How much time do you want them to spend doing this? Giving your employees the ability to profile their ideal job and receive automatic emails if something similar opens up is an even better idea (employee “Talent Agents”). Companies that allow employees to transfer jobs internally can keep top performers as an asset to the company, even if they’re not in the same department. Idea #3: Training your managers to be territorial about your company and not their department will give your employees greater mobility. The number one reason that I’ve heard for why employees leave their job is that they don’t like their manager. All of you reading this can probably identify with this problem. But are you doing anything about it? By the time an employee gives notice, it’s usually too late to keep them, but it’s not too late to gather information from them. (A manager’s greatest heartburn in losing a candidate is finding a replacement, in high-growth positions a constant pipeline is particularly essential.) During exit interviews, ask targeted questions: Why are they leaving? What could the company have done better? Did they feel they had enough growth opportunity within the company? While many might not be 100% forthcoming, you can still get some good information. It’s also a good idea to call ex-employees up about a month after they leave to get more information and let them know that the door is always open for them to come back. Usually after a short lapse of time, ex-employees feel freer to speak their mind about the real reasons as to why they left. However, before this even becomes an issue, it’s important to stop the problem at its roots. Are your managers well-trained? Do their direct reports respect and like them? Have they mapped out career and growth plans for their direct reports? Have they done a gap analysis on where their direct reports lack skills for their current position and future desired positions, resulting in identified training needs? Will they give their employees the freedom to move within the company if it is what they want to do? To be honest, this can (and has been) the subject of many articles and books. Recent books that have been written include “First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, “Recruit & Retain The Best” by Ray Schreyer and John McCarter, “Competing for Talent: Key Recruitment and Retention Strategies for Becoming an Employer of Choice” by Nancy S. Ahlrichs, “The Recruiting and Retention Handbook” by Wayne Ford Ph.D., and “The Employee Recruitment and Retention Handbook” coming out April 2001 by Diane Arthur. I won’t go into this subject any further in this article except to say: There is a lot that you as recruiters can do to help your managers become better ones. Start evaluating whether this is a problem at your company and what you can do about it. Simply listening tends to offer the best results. Idea #4: If you don’t know where the talent lies within your company at all times, you will be caught unprepared someday. I recently had the honor of speaking on a panel at the Electronic Recruiting Expo in San Diego last week. At one point during the panel, the audience was asked who had employee referral programs. A majority of the audience (about 600 people) raised their hands. Then the audience was asked who had internal referral programs – employees referring other employees for internal positions. A smaller number of hands were raised. Out of curiosity, I asked the audience who had the ability to search against an internal database in the interest of identifying current employees for open positions. Almost no hands were raised. You should know the work experience and skills of every employee in your company, and be able to search against it. While the tight talent market isn’t expected to get easier (it’s projected that there will be more jobs than qualified candidates over the next 10 years at least), the job market has been shaken up ever so slightly. Take advantage of this opportunity to focus inwardly. For example, if your company experienced a RIF, merger, or acquisition tomorrow – would you know who you needed to keep or who to re-deploy? Asking employees to turn in updated resumes in the face of a RIF is a sure fire way to decrease morale and retention. Or, imagine that your company projected the need for experience in a certain type of technology for future business growth. Would you know which employees have a desire to learn this technology or already have experience in it, and therefore be able to implement training programs in advance because of this knowledge? I’ve always advocated aligning company business strategy to workforce planning and recruiting. However, it makes it much harder to do this is you can’t tap the true potential of your current talent. Conclusion Thinking of recruiting as retention is the most important place to start. Continuing to think of your current talent pool as a source of recruitment is also important. Always remember that your talent is considered as a source of recruitment so why should you consider them that way? More importantly, put systems and processes in place that let your employees know they’re valuable and have room to grow. An extra-added bonus about happy employees is that they get you more happy employees. When you have a company filled with people who like to work there, they share their excitement with others. No employee referral program can succeed without the good word of your inside talent: I don’t care how much of a referral bonus you give them. Your internal resources become more of an advocate for your company and everyone turns into a recruiter. Take the time to turn inward to your company and put resources toward showing your commitment to them. You’ll be rewarded in more ways than you can imagine. <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>