Preserving Restless Top Performers

Keep your top performers engaged so they dont jump ship once job opportunities arise.

By Paul Falcone Mar 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, March 2006Ah, spring is just around the corner, and spring means new life and new opportunities to all of us on this lovely planet: plants, animals and those top performers in your office who you just can’t live without.

Have no doubt: Survey after survey reveals that some 50 percent to 75 percent of employees say they will leave their current companies once the job market starts heating up. Members of your staff may be no exception this spring. How do you identify subordinates who may be vulnerable to becoming recruiters bait, and, more important, what can you do now to reinvigorate their loyalty to your company so they don’t leave when temptation calls?

First, remember that it’s not so much employee satisfaction that’s at issue as much as employee engagement. Keeping subordinates engaged in their work and providing feedback that makes them feel like they make a true difference indirectly helps them build their skill sets. In fact, the glue that binds someone to any company at any given time is the learning curve. Help them to better themselves while benefiting your company, and they’ll be both satisfied and engaged. No amount of money will be able to entice them away.

Man Overboard?

Signs of moderate employee dissatisfaction abound at any given time in the workplace. No job, after all, is great enough for the human spirit. In fact, some labor pundits believe that people are most responsive to learning when they are moderately dissatisfied. That seems to be the push necessary to force people to step up to the next level in their career.

However, too much dissatisfaction can be paralyzing. Once an us vs. them entitlement mentality takes hold in your employees mind, it’s difficult to go back. The grass tends to become a lot greener anywhere other than at your company. That disengagement may show itself in subtle as well as concrete ways.

So what does a high disengagement level look like? It’s different for different individuals, counsels Lucille Sanchez-Pearson, an executive career coach and president of Global Resources in Los Angeles.

Disengagement may show itself in a number of common ways, including a sudden 9-to-5 time clock mentality, an unwillingness to participate in social events outside the office or a tendency to fox hole oneself apart from peers. It becomes most noticeable when someone who’s normally outgoing and enthusiastic seems to fall by the wayside and has nothing positive to contribute.

Sometimes disengagement shows itself quietly with raised eyebrows and sighs of apathy, and other times it results in open challenges to authority or shouting matches with peers. You’ll not always know concretely if someone isn’t happy, but your gut may tell you that something’s changed, believes Sanchez-Pearson. Whether the change is obvious or intuitive, assume that you’re going to lose your superstar once opportunity comes knocking because work at your office just isn’t fun, rewarding or exciting for that individual anymore.

If you want to make sure that doesn’t happen, there are things managers can do. People remain engaged when they receive recognition and appreciation for a job well done, says Sanchez-Pearson. They’re satisfied when they experience open communication and trust with their immediate supervisors, and they excel when they believe that they’ve got longer-term opportunities available to them beyond their current role in the organization.

In short, there is a psychic income at work that makes people feel socially accepted and respected. Meeting the needs of this psychic income may indeed be more effective than meeting the monetary income needs of most individuals from a retention standpoint, says Sanchez-Pearson.

Throwing Out the Line

Re-engaging the superstar isn’t all that hard to do if you, the supervisor, have the desire to turn around the individual. There are myriad books available on tips for motivating those around and beneath you, but the most effective strategies focus on the particular individuals needs.

The key issue to ask yourself is, is there trust in the relationship? If the answer is yes, then assume you can fix just about anything. If the answer is no, then you may be best off allowing the employee to self-select out of the company and looking for a replacement.

Assuming that trust is indeed present in your relationship, the first move will be yours as the supervisor to raise a potentially uncomfortable subject this way: Sam, I’ve read all the stats that say that more than half of all U.S. workers would change jobs if they could. I know you’ve been in your current role for four years now, and we haven’t had much to offer you beyond our standard annual 3 percent merit increase, but you know how much I value your work and our friendship. Let me ask you this: On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being you’d jump ship tomorrow if you had the chance, where would you rank yourself?

Expect some type of mitigated response from your employee, as most people won’t tell their bosses outright that they’re a 10 on that scale and looking to make a change as soon as something crosses their bow. However, if trust exists in the relationship, many a loyal subordinate may say that if an opportunity to assume broader responsibilities, a higher title, and/or more money surfaces, and they’re tapped on the shoulder to pursue it, they should take it for the sake of their career and family. (Assume that will make them an 8 on the scale.)

Reeling Them In

Your fact-finding mission is paying off! Now is the time to spring into action and implement a re-engagement plan for this individual to greatly increase your chances of retaining him despite external job offers.

Where do you start? That’s simple with your employee. State, Sam, I'll make no bones about it; I want to keep you. I see you as an integral part of the future of this company and our department. I realize we may not have any promotional opportunities for you right now, and I cant tell you where our year-end merit budgets will be allocated, but I can tell you that I want to help prepare you for greater responsibilities within the firm, and Id like to speak with you now about how to do that.

With such a solid verbal commitment (and hopefully an equally solid performance review and development plan on file), its time to get creative. This creativity will be a function of your industry, geography and company history as well as your subordinate’s personal interests, but let’s take a look at an example from the discipline of human resource management.

Your director of staffing is doing a stellar job identifying talent and closing offers with difficult-to-find job candidates, but you suspect he may be recruited by competitors who know of his reputation. You also suspect he may feel that his position is becoming less challenging and more of a maintenance mode type of job. Maybe this individual wants to eventually run his own HR department, or maybe he prefers to remain in the sub discipline of recruitment over the long term. Following are creative alternatives that should motivate this individual to stay with your company for his own good despite an onslaught of job offers that may come his way:

Scenario 1: Sam, I realize that your next move in career progression will be beyond recruitment into more of an HR generalist role so that you could ultimately head up your own department. Let me tell you where I need your help as I pursue new initiatives within our group.

First, its time for us to take another baseline look at our entire department from compensation and benefits to training, employee relations and HR systems. Id like you to spearhead that fact-finding initiative, work closely with all the group heads to benchmark their current practices, and then develop a market comparison so that we know where we stand relative to our peers and competitors.

By the end of this six-month project, you’ll be as savvy about the overall HR operation as I am, and at that point I could show you line by line how that audit will provide us with tremendous opportunities for operational improvements and increased efficiencies. Ill also ask you to present your findings to our senior management team.

It’ll be a very time-intensive task, and it will no doubt take you away from your immediate recruitment responsibilities fairly often. Are you up for the task and willing to join me in this new initiative?

Scenario 2: Sam, I realize that you enjoy recruitment, and you’re certainly stellar at it, but Id like to see you move in some new directions that will really complement your overall approach to staffing and selection, and give you a much broader appreciation of your specialty.

First, the biggest trend in HR’s future lies in international expansion. Although our firm has no overseas operations, I’m going to recommend that you enroll in an international HR course at the local college so that you can gain an appreciation of recruitment practices in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Once you see how staffing as well as other HR generalist functions are performed abroad, you will gain some greater insights into the work you do here for us domestically.

Second, once you’ve completed that international HR course, I'd like to spend some time with you reviewing our organizations financials and human capital metrics. One of the things I’ve benefited most from in my career is my understanding of enterprise valuations, income statements and balance sheets, because once you understand what to look for in those kinds of financial statements, you become much more astute at forecasting workforce planning needs.

Combined with an HR scorecard to see how were increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of our organizations human capital, you’ll be all charged up and ready to go as far as driving your career to new levels of achievement. Are you game?

By making individual commitments like these to your key keepers, you will be helping them gain skills, knowledge and competencies. You’ll also identify skill gaps and developmental opportunities to motivate them and enhance your own reputation as a true leader and career coach.

It’s a win-win for all because your proactive outreach will have kept a top performer from leaving. In addition, you will have saved the company the time and expense of having to recruit and train a replacement, and you will have re-engaged someone who, consciously or not, may have simply been cruising along unaware of his own career desires and needs. In essence, you will have initiated a counteroffer negotiation before it was ever needed and in a much friendlier light.

Spring has indeed sprung, and challenging your employees to re-engage in the workplace will no doubt make your own career a lot more rewarding and fun. You may just find that creating new career opportunities for those you care most about in the work place will take on a new life of its own.

Paul Falcone is a human resource executive and a best-selling author of five AMACOM books, including 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews, The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, and 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination .

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