Leveraging Long Tenure

By Kathryn Tyler May 3, 2007
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Want to reap the benefits of your long-tenured employees know-how and leadership? Help them fight complacency and challenge themselves at work.

​After 13 years, Leslie Tripodi still loves her job. “Honestly, when I wake up, I’m excited to come here,” says Tripodi, a salesperson with CXtec, an information technology hardware company in Syracuse, N.Y. “I have the best job. I will grow old here. It never occurs to me to leave. I don’t know how many people can say that. There is high turnover in sales, but not at CXtec.”

What makes employees stay? How do you retain a group of employees for six years or more—especially in an industry like sales, which is notoriously known for high turnover? How do you prevent long-tenured employees from getting bored, letting their skills get outdated, and becoming resistant to change—or, worse, from going to your competition?

We asked those questions of three companies that have been named for the past three years to the Great Place to Work Institute’s list of Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America, a recognition program sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management. In each of these firms, 40 percent or more of their workers have been with the company for six years or longer. CXtec; ACUITY, a property and casualty insurance company in Sheboygan, Wis.; and Kahler Slater, an architectural and design firm in Milwaukee, all have discovered ways to maximize the benefits of having long-tenured employees. They also offer advice on the challenges of employing and keeping these experienced workers.

Tangible Benefits

Some benefits of retaining employees are obvious: Companies save money by not having to recruit and train new employees, and they maintain a high level of productivity because they don’t lose time while new employees get up to speed.

In fact, says Chason Hecht, president of Retensa, an employee retention services firm in New York, when companies don’t spend countless hours on restaffing and retraining, it becomes “easy to focus on innovation and growth, as opposed to treading water. If we’re constantly spending our time rehiring, retraining and rebuilding relationships, there isn’t time” for these important activities.

Retaining employees of all tenures can help drive a company’s success, but it is especially important to hold on to seasoned employees and to actively leverage their knowledge and experience because these employees can:

  • Help guide strategic planning. Long-term employees know the company, product and industry so well that they are a fount of knowledge just waiting to be tapped. ACUITY has 774 employees, of whom 55 percent have been with the company for more than six years. The company involves long-tenured workers in “strategic plans for the company, serving on committees with other departments,” says Sara E. Larson, general manager in central claims for Acuity and an 18-year veteran of the company.

    “Other departments and employees rely on long-tenured workers for input on what worked and didn’t work in the past,” to help avoid repeating past mistakes, Larson says.

  • Acquire cross-training. Long-term employees who have already mastered their own job tasks are prime candidates for cross-training, which makes the company more productive and flexible. CXtec cross-trains many of its long-term employees. “They are continually learning more skills, which means we are able to adapt to give time off,” says Barbara Ashkin, vice president and COO of CXtec.

    For example, a CXtec accounts receivable employee with nine years at the firm was cross-trained to perform the work of accounts payable employees. The two jobs differ significantly, Ashkin notes, with accounts receivable employees granting credit on sales orders and following up on collecting from accounts, while accounts payable employees pay vendors. Because the long-tenured accounts receivable employee had the cross-training, that employee was able to step in when an accounts payable employee went on maternity leave.

    “We didn’t have to bring in an additional, temporary staff person,” Ashkin says, and using a cross-trained employee also was more efficient, since the person was already familiar with the people and the company.

  • Mentor and train others. One of the best ways to leverage long-tenured employees’ knowledge is to pair them with less experienced employees. At architectural design firm Kahler Slater, senior employees are intentionally placed on projects with novice employees. “Our profession is still, to a large degree, an apprenticed profession. You learn on the job. That is where long-tenured staff are vitally important,” says John Horky, a principal and HR manager of Kahler Slater. “When we assess the complexity of a project, we assign people who can meet the challenge, but who will also need to stretch a bit. We surround them with people they can teach to.”

    Mentoring benefits everyone involved: The person mentored develops new skills, the seasoned employee feels appreciated and gains a fresh perspective, and the company grows. “A senior project architect’s eyes light up when a less experienced designer asks them how to resolve a specific technical problem,” says Horky. “There is a large degree of personal satisfaction in being able to share my professional know-how with others; quite frankly, it validates my talents.”

    Kurt Thieding, an associate/graphic design manager who has been with Kahler Slater for nine years, agrees that serving as a mentor can benefit a long-tenured employee. “The advantage of mentoring the three staff I manage is it keeps me challenged. They might bring new solutions to the table. Talking with them is not a one-way street. It broadens my thinking and brings a different perspective.”

    At CXtec, seasoned employees facilitate training for others. Long-tenured employees, or salespeople of any tenure who have reached the company’s highest ranking for salesmanship, lead weekly roundtables at which employees discuss what they’ve learned in online training classes. This training role challenges long-term employees and establishes them as leaders, Ashkin says. The company benefits too: “One of our strengths is not only having the long-tenured employees, but the ability to leverage their knowledge to help our newer people grow so that we can continue to help our customers,” says Ashkin.

  • Nurture the culture through team-building community service projects. Team-building exercises are nice, but team building with real-world impact is invigorating. “The way to create community within is to create community outside,” says Hecht.

    At CXtec, each employee is expected to do some charitable work, says Tripodi, who heads the firm’s adopt-a-family project. “We support 29 charities and allow people to do nonprofit work on our time,” adds Ashkin. At one recent fundraiser for the Salvation Army, “about 50 of us in bright orange sweatshirts were outside [the stadium] in 38 degrees before a Syracuse University football game, ringing bells next to the red kettles,” says Ashkin. “We have found that our greatest strength is our strong commitment to our community. It helps you to form relationships between respective departments.”

    The point person for each major community initiative tends to be a long-tenured employee, Ashkin says. Doing service projects renews their interest in their place of employment while also providing a team-building example for novice employees. As employee retention specialist Hecht says, “Maybe their jobs are a little monotonous, but next month they are going to a different community to provide a home for others. That is something to talk about. That is water-cooler conversation. This is where HR can create community inside the workforce.”

The Flip Side

Despite the benefits of having long-tenured workers, “the key challenge is complacency by the existing employees and a lack of new blood and ideas from the outside,” says Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting Group Inc., which specializes in management and organizational development in East Greenwich, R.I.

How do you keep these employees’ skills current, help them be receptive to change, prevent boredom and keep them satisfied?

“Address the other needs, wants and expectations of that population,” advises Hecht. “Long-tenured workers’ needs change.” Just giving them the same benefits over and over isn’t going to satisfy their new needs. For example, at one time a long-tenured employee may have been interested in business travel opportunities, but now wants to stay home with a young family; he may have liked the flexibility and added income of night-shift differential work, but now prefers more predictable daytime hours to meet changing health needs; or he may have needed on-site child care, but now needs elder care. Hecht’s recommendation: “Ask them what they want.” He suggests using a third party to interview long-tenured employees to get more candid answers.

Experts also recommend providing the following job enhancements to keep long-tenured employees satisfied and engaged:

Flexibility. Long-term employees are looking for flexibility to help them balance work with the rest of their lives. Flexibility and work/life balance is a commonly heard refrain when referring to employees with young families or elderly parents, but how about younger workers? What about recent high-school or college graduates? For them, too, flexibility seems to be a recurring theme. The 2002 People at Work Survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, a consulting firm based in New York, shows that 83 percent of workers ages 18 to 24 said their motivation at work is influenced by a flexible workplace (only 73 percent cited salary as important). 

View a chart on the life cycle of the employee

“The old style of thinking is to solve everything with money. Money is not the issue,” says Rob Bennett, author of the Financial Freedom Blog at www.passionsaving.com and Passion Saving: The Path to Plentiful Free Time and Soul-Satisfying Work (The Freedom Store LLC, 2005).

A 2004 study, Generation and Gender in the Workplace, conducted by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research group in New York, found that Generation X and millennial generation workers are more likely to place equal priority on both career and family and less likely to put work ahead of family than were previous generations. These employees don’t want to give work priority over family, friends and recreation.

The management at CXtec understands that. “The senior and best salespeople define what is important to them, and we listen. Working from home, changing their hours, flexibility” are the most important things, says Ashkin.

For example, six years ago, when Tripodi’s children were younger, she didn’t want to work full time anymore. “I was one of the company’s top salespeople, but I didn’t know how I could stay. I proposed something part time. Now, I work 25 hours, but I sell like I’m here 40 hours. It worked out great for everyone,” says Tripodi.

“Leslie is the only salesperson with this arrangement,” Ashkin notes. “That said, if another employee was in need and a great performer, we would definitely listen. The person’s tenure would affect the decision.”

New technologies. Companies that take advantage of the latest technology engage employees in different ways. First, technology increases productivity, which means the company can be more flexible about family time. “We use technology to make our people more efficient, such as videoconferencing with our Buffalo office so that we don’t incur the travel time,” says Lisa Belodoff, director of marketing for CXtec.

Second, it keeps long-tenured employees’ skills current. “When I first started, we had to write everything in triplicate,” says Larson of ACUITY. “We’re paperless now. The technology is exciting, to see the progression from pencil and pen to point and click.”

And, third, new tools keep these employees interested. “As technology has evolved, the firm has evolved,” says Kahler Slater’s Thieding. “Print work, multimedia, web site work ... there’s always something new to learn.”

Mandatory training. Most successful companies provide training opportunities, but long-tenured employees might not take advantage of them or might be considered exempt from training, under the assumption that they know everything already. It’s crucial, then, to make continual training part of the employee development process.

Companies also should evaluate managers on whether they promote ongoing learning and professional development for employees of all tenures, Hecht says. Simply giving employees access to training isn’t enough, Hecht adds; managers need to support their employees’ continued training.

At ACUITY, “Managers rely on tools and training to keep employees engaged and motivated. They give their folks new assignments, [and encourage them to] learn a new program, lead a new project or a project team, attend conference seminars. All those offer job enrichment,” says John Signer, ACUITY’s vice president of HR.

ACUITY requires employees to take annual training classes to keep abreast of legal changes in the insurance industry. “The laws are constantly changing, and each state in which we operate is different,” Larson says. “The process is very similar—investigate, record statements—but every claim and customer is different. That is what keeps me engaged.”

Increasingly challenging projects. To keep long-tenured employees engaged, it’s critical to keep them interested in their work. Kahler Slater has mastered the principle of providing long-tenured employees with increasingly complex and interesting projects.

“There’s a lot of intrinsic value to design professionals to work on wonderfully complex, increasingly challenging projects,” says Horky. For example, Kahler Slater, in conjunction with artist Santiago Calatrava, was the architectural firm in charge of an addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. “In 2001, it was named by Time magazine as the best design. It was a project-in-a-lifetime for many people in our profession. We offer lots of opportunities for once-in-a-lifetime projects” that differ in “technological, political or design complexity.”

Thieding has seen the firm move into challenging new work providing graphics and marketing for clients. “As I’ve grown in the firm, the firm has evolved to offer new opportunities. What has kept me here is the variety of projects,” he says.

Horky says, “What is engaging and challenging to you today is routine to you tomorrow. We need to put in front of you new assignments. We have to ratchet it up a bit. We need to assign you someone to work with—to do what you were doing—so that constantly we have to find new young staff to join the firm and do what you were doing yesterday so that you can go and do something [different] tomorrow.”

Opportunities for innovation. When a significant number of your employees are long-tenured, they know their jobs well and are highly productive, which frees up time and resources for innovation and growth. CXtec’s Ashkin says, “We continually remind the teams, ‘Change is constant.’ The real key to overcoming [a resistance to change] is a strong leadership team.”

Weiss recommends that companies ask long-tenured employees to “routinely and consistently improve and enlarge their jobs. Empower them to make decisions about resources, communications, clients, etc. The worst boredom is when you’re told what to do, rather than told to achieve a result and left to your own devices as to how to achieve it.”

For example, employees at CXtec are encouraged to “create their own career paths,” and, because the business is in a growth cycle, there are plenty of opportunities for employees to find their own challenges. “We had a fellow in our used equipment area who came into my office and said, ‘I think telephones are the way to go,’ ” says Ashkin. This long-tenured employee spearheaded the effort to start selling used telephone and voice-over-Internet-protocol equipment, in addition to new and used computer networking hardware. Not only was the employee able to innovate and gain satisfaction from taking charge, but the change doubled CXtec’s business in one year, Ashkin says.

Growing Old Together

“I feel like I blinked and it’s 18 years later. I don’t see myself ever leaving,” says ACUITY’s Larson. “The company encourages me to grow as a person and, as an individual, empowers me to do my job. I never see an end.”

Long-tenured employees are the face of the organization to many customers and vendors. It’s in every company’s best interest to seek out its long-tenured employees and leverage their knowledge and experiences.

And, if you give long-tenured employees new challenges, flexibility and opportunities, they can be your greatest assets for many years to come.

Kathryn Tyler is a Wixom, Mich.-based freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer.

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