Highly Effective No-Cost Retention Tools for Public Sector Managers

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Sep 16, 2019

Alert: Employees are quitting their jobs at the highest rate in a decade. But few public-sector managers realize that a majority of employee turnover is both predictable and preventable. Today the overall U.S. monthly “quit rate” is the equivalent of a 30 percent turnover rate over one year. And, even though the government sectors have much lower quit rates, with state and local government at 10.8 percent, and the federal workforce at 6 percent, the pain from turnover that government managers feel may be much greater because historically their bureaucratic recruiting processes makes it much harder to find replacements. So positions stay vacant longer and their replacements often require extensive training before they get up to speed.

A survey of government managers from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence revealed that “91 percent of respondents cited recruitment and retention as important to their organizations.” Unfortunately, these high turnover rates are likely to continue on for a while because currently when employees are approached by a recruiter, up to 85 percent will respond positively (Source: LinkedIn). Let’s start with four foundation actions that public sector managers should take.

Retention Action No. 1 — Help Public Sector Managers Realize That Their Cost of Turnover Is Much Higher

Normally, government executives would scream if someone walked out of their office door carrying thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. However, typically, when one of your top employees who you’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and training announces they’re literally walking out the door, many managers do little more than hold a party celebrating that they are leaving.

When I work with public sector organizations, I am constantly surprised when they universally place little emphasis on employee retention. Their lack of alarm comes primarily because, unlike the private sector, they have never accurately calculated the real cost of turnover. If you want your public sector executives and elected officials to focus on turnover, they should understand that even though they have a lower overall turnover rate than the private sector, the costs associated with a single vacant position in the public sector are often higher for multiple reasons.

First, government is often the sole source service provider. When there are vacant positions, people who need services like fire abatement or permits have literally no alternative to fall back on. So the “no/weak service damages” resulting from position vacancies pile up.

Next, the dollar damages also increase because much of the work done by government employees has by its very nature a “high cost of an error” associated with it. For example, if a dam or bridge maintenance are neglected as a result of understaffing due to turnover, the cost of a catastrophic event can reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

Finally, the often-mandated lengthy hiring process helps to increase the cost of vacant positions. The quality of replacement hires is likely to be low because few top candidates will still be available after a prolonged hiring process. The much-faster private sector systems will have long ago captured them. The extended hiring process also means that vacancies from turnover are open much longer, further increasing the poor service and errors resulting from understaffing.

Taken together, the cost of not having an important government service area with a “high cost of an error” covered (e.g. police or EMS) can be extremely high. In fact, one study found the cost of replacing an officer with three years of experience to be more than twice his or her annual salary. Given the record low unemployment rate, refilling turnover vacancies today will be even more difficult, slow, and expensive. Especially as the cynical public attitude toward government and its workers grows.

Retention Action No. 2 — Make Managers Aware That Most Turnover Is Predictable and Preventable

Once executives learn the real cost of turnover, their next surprise is to learn that nearly 77 percent of turnover could have been prevented by employers, without major action. Although most think the primary driver of turnover is money, a Gallup survey states “only 22 percent mentioned money” as the reason for their exit.

While we are on the topic of surprises, during my research into public sector turnover, I have also found that public-sector managers seem to be almost universally surprised when one of their top employees quits. The situation is much different in the private sector where firms like Google, Hershey, and IBM all have processes for precisely predicting individual employee “flight risk.” In fact, IBM’s AI-assisted “predictive attrition program,” has a 95 percent success rate for predicting who will quit within six months. It has already saved it $300 million (Source: IBM). This accurate prediction rate helps to give retention “risk assessment solutions” a high ROI (Source: Work Institute 2018 exit interview results).

Much of their painful turnover is both predictable and preventable.

Retention Action No. 3 — Your Approach to Retention Must Be Data-Driven — when retention efforts fail, it is because most retention efforts operate on intuition and generalizations. Before you begin any retention efforts, commit to making all-important retention decisions based on data. Use data to determine which jobs have the highest cost of turnover, why people are leaving, where they’re going (i.e. track them on LinkedIn), and who is at risk of leaving.

Retention Action No. 4 — Rather Than a Universally Prescribed Approach, Managers Need a Retention Toolkit

In the public sector, I have found that the most common retention approach is a centralized one based in HR. However, the cost of an understaffing error varies widely between functional units (e.g. EMS and janitorial services). HR should instead develop a retention toolkit which allows each individual manager to pick and choose the retention tools or “levers” that they find will have the greatest impact on their team. Giving them choices also makes it more likely that managers will “own” the retention problem. And, based on this premise, the remainder of this article will provide short summaries of the most effective retention tools that should be in a toolkit provided to managers. Each of the listed retention tools can produce results almost immediately, and they are simple to understand, low-cost, and easy to implement. The retention tools with the highest ROI are listed first.

The Top 10 Highly Recommended Retention Tools For Individual Managers

  1. Prioritize your retention targets — All employees and jobs don’t have an equal impact. Taking formal steps to retain everyone will actually increase your costs because you will spend resources on those who are not likely to leave. So, prioritize and focus your resources on high-impact employees and jobs. Often the highest-impact government jobs include components of innovation, cybersecurity, technology, police/fire/EMS, or revenue generation. And among those high-impact individuals, focus on those who are most likely to leave. Also be wary of reporting a single turnover metric, because not all turnover is bad. Consider reporting the percentage of regrettable turnover, performance turnover, revenue impact turnover, preventable turnover, diversity turnover, and desirable turnover.

  2. Develop a process for predicting which employees are likely to quit — after prioritizing their jobs, individual managers should develop a process for estimating who among your most valuable employees are most likely to leave. They are called “flight risks.” Outside recruiters are most likely to target your top performers across all high-impact jobs. Other indicators of flight risk include high Internet visibility, years away from retirement, those who have experienced an internal rejection, and those who have recently completed advanced education. Someone within your team always knows who is frustrated. Ask your “superknowers” (internal gossip trackers) to provide you with guidance.

  3. Use “stay interviews” to reinforce their stickiness factors — “stay interviews” are literally the most effective retention tool. LinkedIn found that “tell me why you stay” interviews can result in a 38 percent reduction in turnover. Stay interviews are proactive periodic one-on-one interviews between a targeted employee and their manager. Key employees are asked, “why do you stay?” by identifying the precise “sticky factors” that tie this individual to the job and at the agency. A manager can then act to reinforce each of those “sticky factors.” These interviews should be held at least once a year and more often when an individual has a high risk of leaving. (My eBook on Stay Interviews is available on Amazon.)

  4. Seeing the impact of their work excites, so walk them downstream — Harvard found that the No. 1 employee motivator is “connecting employees to those who benefit from their work.” Its research also found that meaningful jobs have longer tenure because “employees with “highly meaningful jobs were 69 percent less likely to plan on quitting their jobs within the next six months (Source: Harvard Business School).” So, proactively increase their “stickiness” by letting targeted employees meet users/customers and actually see the importance of their work for the firm, their profession, and on the world in general.

  5. Post-exit interviews are superior for finding the real causes of turnover — standard exit interviews usually produce misleading causes of turnover because they occur on an employee’s final day when they are most likely to need a positive reference. In fact, departing employees give false answers around 40 percent of the time. A superior alternative is a post-exit interview. The exit interview is delayed until three to six months after the employee has departed. Delaying the process will also make it more likely that the former employee will reveal troubling events like sexual harassment. BTW, the most common turnover causes in descending order are a lack of career development, opportunities for growth, achievement, and security. Also, a bad work environment, management behavior, and job characteristics. (Source: Work Institute survey).

  6. Use brown-grassers to educate flight risks about life at the other organization — many leave because they mistakenly think that the grass will be greener and the environment would better at other organizations. Use your current employees who have recently worked at the organization that your target employee is considering (they are known as brown-grassers). Simply ask them to informally educate your potential flight risk about the bad features and the false promises made by recruiters at that agency.

  7. Identify what motivates each key employee who is targeted for retention — employees who are continually excited are not only productive, but they stay longer. Unfortunately, few public-sector managers have a formal process for determining what motivates individual employees. So, rather than guessing, start formally identifying the primary motivators of each target employee. Do that by developing a yearly survey asking them to “please list and then rank the nonmonetary factors that increase your motivation” The manager should then develop a plan to ensure that when a targeted employee is asked to judge their level of motivation, they put it at 9 or 10 out of ten. And if money is tight, prioritize candidates during hiring who are not primarily motivated by money.

  8. Systematically show your appreciation — research by the OfficeTeam reveals that 66 percent of workers are likely to leave their job if they feel unappreciated. Make managers aware that something as inexpensive as periodically showing your appreciation for excellent work can have a major impact on turnover. Make sure that your appreciation effort appears to be authentic and individualized.

  9. Personalized retention plans are essential — most retention efforts fail because they generalize and assume that all employees leave for the same basic reasons. It should be obvious to managers that fixing an issue that an individual employee doesn’t care much about won’t improve their retention. Instead, start by assuming that each targeted employee has their own issues and that effective retention solutions must directly address each of their unique issues. The manager should put together a personalized retention plan that identifies each individual employee’s likely turnover causes and their stickiness factors. The plan should then assign the appropriate retention action for each. HR should distribute templates and samples of personalized retention plans so that managers don’t have to start from scratch.

  10. Ask targeted employees “to alert you” when they begin to look — sometimes employees are willing to give you a “heads up alert” before they begin a job search. Hold a one-on-one meeting with each retention target and let them know how important they are to the mission/team. Tell them how important it is that they stay. Then ask them to agree to a “professional understanding” in which they agree to instantly let you know whenever they are seriously frustrated, when they have returned any recruiter’s phone call, or when they have begun a job search. Over half of your employees will generally agree to alert you. And, this “heads up” gives you at least a little time to address their retention issues.

Additional High-Impact Retention Tools

  • Make their work more compelling with simple job redesign — for top performers, having compelling work and doing “the best work of their life” is often the No. 1 retention factor. For example, Facebook found that “crafting motivating, meaningful jobs … is what really matters” (Source: LinkedIn). So, when you have the authority to modify jobs, identify aspects of the job that would make it more compelling by asking employee retention targets which job duties could be added or taken away. The employee would spend more of their time doing what they like and “what they do best.”

  • Develop an individualized learning plan — a primary indicator of a top performer is continuous learning. Learning is Rather than leaving it to chance, why not work with key employees to develop individualized learning plans. When possible, start by giving some control over their own learning and development budget. Next, stretch their learning through a series of part-time projects in advanced areas. Similar personalized “growth plans” can also be developed to increase an employee’s level of challenge and internal exposure.

  • Executive calls and visits can be powerful — top performers are happy to learn that their work is known among executives. A powerful way to impress a few top retention targets is to periodically ask your agency’s top executive or a key elected official to personally call or visit them to thank them for their contribution. During this “I’ve noticed your work” contact, the executive should thoroughly know the employee’s past and current work and express excitement about working closely with the employee in the future.

  • Offer them dial-down work options — employee burnout can be a major cause of turnover. Avoid losing them by providing the employee with “dial-down” options. Reduce stressful aspects of their job including responsibilities, work hours, leadership roles, travel, and overtime. Change their work/life balance equation.

  • Management by Walking Around — expanding daily face-to-face contact with your employees builds loyalty and it will likely make employees more open to sharing their issues. Develop an MBWA schedule and keep to it. Make sure that no retention target feels isolated.

  • Keep an “overdue” list to maintain a feeling of fairness — feeling like they are being treated unfairly can be a major cause of turnover. Often the employee’s perception of unfairness comes from thinking that they are overdue for something that others are already getting. Minimize any unintentional difference in treatment by tracking how long it has been since each targeted employee’s last positive work factor. Positive work factors where disparate treatment can cause a feeling of unfairness often include new equipment, first choice at projects, raises, promotions, receiving praise, and being offered training opportunities. Use your “overdue list” as a tickler to remind yourself not to wait too long to offer work factors, so the target employee doesn’t feel slighted.

  • Realize that one key employee leaving may cause others to follow — managers must realize that once a key employee leaves, that can immediately increase the chances that others will follow. In fact, typically when you lose a key manager, an icon, or a top performer, three to five others will likely follow them out the door within four months. Be aware of this likely delayed damage and focus your retention efforts on those who are likely to follow.

  • Teach managers to recognize “career wounds” that trigger turnover — my research indicates that merely being frustrated or even having a weak manager will not by itself automatically trigger a top performer to quit. The added factor that normally triggers turnover is known as a “career wound.” This might include having a major project canceled, being turned down for a transfer/promotion, a sharp reduction in their performance appraisal scores, or a major budget cut. Managers must learn to pay special attention to employees after they have suffered a significant career wound.

  • Develop a diversity retention plan — the impact of diversity recruiting efforts can be limited if your agency doesn’t have a corresponding diversity retention plan. So, periodically hold “stay interviews” with your diverse employees. Reinforce their “sticky factors” and minimize most of their frustration factors.

  • Include retention as a team goal — teammates are often the first to know when a key member is considering leaving, and they are also most persuasive in convincing them to stay. Consider setting a team goal not to lose a single member until a major project is completed. Encourage teammates to help each other work through barriers and other factors that might cause turnover.

  • Proactively reinforce your agency’s image — pride increases retention rates. Pride of their work, their agency, and their community can be proactively increased among retention targets when they are educated on the factors that make their job attractive. HR can help by providing managers with a “story inventory” covering agency accomplishments, awards, innovations, and other notable factors that make it stand out. Proactively getting the agency “talked about” in the press and on social media is another powerful way to build pride and retention. Also, periodically remind employees why their community is such a great place to work and live in.

  • Toxic employees are a major cause of turnover — failing to move, isolate, or terminate toxic employees can create unavoidable retention problems. Toxic employees make others 54 percent more likely to quit (Source: Cornerstone Selection). To learn more about the range of damage done by toxic employees, see my recently published “Toxic Employee Handbook.”

Final Thoughts

In my last week’s companion article on, I outlined numerous powerful recruiting tools for public agencies. Once individual managers realize that most of their need for additional recruiting comes as a result of preventable turnover, it makes sense for them to immediately reinforce their team’s retention efforts. Unfortunately, most public agencies have no fully budgeted retention function in HR. As a result, their retention efforts are mostly scattered and based on gut feelings and generalizations.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take very long to provide your managers with a retention toolkit, that contains proven no-cost tools that are easy to understand and implement. With such a toolkit, agency heads can quickly reduce their employee turnover by up to 25 percent. Reducing millions of dollars of agency costs that occurred as a result of losing key employees whose turnover could have been predicted and prevented.


Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn, subscribe to the ERE Daily, and hear me and others speak at ERE’s Recruiting Conference in October in Washington, D.C.