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Keep Your Top Talent: The Return of Retention

When it comes to sustaining star talent, think like a good coach: Once you land top performers, you must motivate them to stay—and continually raise their game.

Retention.jpgApril 2014 Cover​LeBron James doesn’t play basketball for the money—or for the celebrity, perks or fans. "He plays for the ring," says John Sullivan, Ph.D., professor of HR management at the College of Business at San Francisco State University. James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat because he believed that Miami was more willing to hire players who could help him win a championship, Sullivan says.

So what can this all-star athlete teach you about your company’s top performers? According to Sullivan’s research, high-level talent will stay in a job for two reasons: They are doing the best work of their lives, and they believe they are changing the world. Similarly, Gallup research has found that giving employees the "opportunity to do their best" and "mission and purpose" are the strongest factors supporting overall retention. In other words, most people play for the ring.

Now, with unemployment dropping and the job market improving, it’s more important than ever for HR to provide that opportunity to their star players. According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace, only 30 percent of U.S. employees describe themselves as engaged. This is significant with regard to retention because disengaged employees are 2.5 times more likely than engaged employees to leave their job for any pay increase, according to a 2012 study from Dale Carnegie Training and MSW Research. And, according to the results of a recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, released monthly by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. workers are quitting their jobs in increasing numbers, with the percentage of voluntary separations up by 14 percent in November 2013 compared with November 2012. Some of those separations undoubtedly involve star talent.

The good news: To learn if your top performers are at risk of quitting, Sullivan says, you just have to ask. Disengaged workers often don’t leave until they are prompted by a specific "trigger event," such as losing out on a promotion or seeing a beloved boss leave. In the meantime, HR can play a key role in turning things around by minding the three R’s: re-recruit, re-energize and re-engage.


For many HR departments, stay questions have always been part of the mix—but the concept of re-recruiting goes beyond that. It’s a strategic HR process that identifies top performers so that management can engage them in a conversation about their needs and desires, and then entice them to recommit to the company in the same way they were persuaded to join it in the first place.

"Especially at the early stages of economic improvement, as we are in right now, the work increases but the resources haven’t caught up yet," says Adam Zuckerman, Ph.D., global practice leader in the Employee Surveys Group at Towers Watson in Chicago. "Focusing on retaining and energizing your employees, especially top performers, can be the difference in being competitive."

Why is re-recruiting so powerful? For one thing, it keeps employees out of a rut. Even in great places to work, top talent can get bored, with ruts occurring as frequently as every 18 months. Re-recruiting can create new and exciting career opportunities.

It’s also important for employers to remain competitive in the brave new world of recruiting, where other companies and headhunters can communicate with your top people instantly. Individuals don’t need to "apply" for outside positions anymore, and recruiters are excellent at making new jobs sound spectacular. Managers need to step up their game to "sell the stay" if they want to keep an employee. Re-recruiting is also a great way to acknowledge your best people. Employees are pleased to know that their organization values them and worries about losing them.

Here are some action steps to consider:

  • Make re-recruiting a goal. Adopt the premise that, unless they are re-recruited, your top performers won’t stay put for longer than 18 months—or won’t be fully engaged. "Drop ‘loyalty’ from your vocabulary," Sullivan says. He suggests making re-recruiting a percentage of top-performing employees part of a manager’s annual bonus criteria.
  • Develop a toolkit. HR and managers can work together to devise a list of new perks they can offer re-recruited employees, such as more flexibility or the ability to pick their own projects. Consider putting up an internal online re-recruiting forum to exchange ideas.
  • Identify and prioritize targets. Require managers to identify whom they would classify as "regrettable turnover," Sullivan says. Although re-recruiting all top performers might be a good idea, limited resources may force you to focus on those at highest risk of leaving soon. Develop a list of indicators to assess that risk, such as average length of time in previous jobs or whether an individual is overdue for a raise or promotion.
  • Develop personalized retention plans. For each target, work with the employee’s manager to identify "frustrators" that may lead the person to think about leaving. Customize retention actions to counter each one. The retention plan should include goals, intermediate success measures and who is accountable for each step of the plan.
  • Write the script. Initiating re-recruitment conversations can be awkward for managers, so Sullivan advises providing them with a rough script: "Erin, you are one of our most important employees. I would like to talk to you today about updating your current role so that it is more exciting, challenging and impactful. I would like your help in identifying how we could change and update your role over the next few months so that you enthusiastically look forward to coming to work every morning."
  • Update and improve the process. Six months after re-recruiting an employee, interview him to find out if the changes sought were realized, if the employee is re-engaged, and what parts of the process worked and didn’t work.

Prepare a counteroffer action plan so that you can respond immediately if a valuable employee gets an external offer. "Get it out in the open and have a dialogue about what situation could persuade them to leave, and then work to provide that situation in your organization," Sullivan says.

10 Stay Interview Questions that Get Results

Asking top performers the right questions can help you figure out how to hold on to them. John Sullivan, Ph.D., professor of HR management at the College of Business at San Francisco State University, suggests asking the following questions:

Are you doing "the best work of your life"? If not, what circumstances would enable you to do so? (Note: This is the No. 1 key retention factor for top performers.)

1. Are you doing "the best work of your life"? If not, what circumstances would enable you to do so? (This is the No. 1 key retention factor for top performers.)

2. Do you feel that your work makes a difference in the company, to customers and to the world? Do your colleagues think you make a difference? (This is the No. 2 key retention factor for top performers.)

3. Do you feel fully utilized in your current role? How else can we take advantage of your talents and interests?

4. What frustrates you in your current job? What restricts productivity and innovation?

5. What do you like best about your current role? What would you like more of?

6. Where would you like to be in the organization two years from now?

7. What are the most challenging but exciting aspects of your current job situation? How can we further challenge you?

8. Have you recently been recognized or praised in a way that increased your commitment to the job? How can we further acknowledge you?

9. Have you been exposed enough to executives and decision-makers?

10. Do you want to move into a leadership role? What are your expectations, timetable and concerns?


Employee engagement—the act of getting workers to feel connected to, and enthusiastic about, their jobs—is a crucial piece of the retention puzzle. According to 5 Ways to Avoid the Engagement Abyss, a 2013 white paper by Globoforce in Southborough, Mass., employees are most likely to feel engaged when they have solid relationships with managers, a belief in company leaders, a feeling of personal accomplishment at work and a sense that what they do is important. Indeed, companies rated as "best places to work" on a 2014 Employee Choice Awards survey by Glassdoor, an employer-rating website, tend to have employees who believe that they have challenging assignments, that they are making an impact on society and that they are afforded opportunities to collaborate with stimulating colleagues. According to Globoforce, ways to build engagement include creating and communicating a clear set of values that permeate the company, demonstrating that employees’ work is in line with organizational values, and building culture intentionally.

A recent report from Bersin by Deloitte, Predictions for 2014, underscores these themes and talks about the need to take a holistic approach to engagement. "The traditional definition of a ‘highly engaged’ employee is one who delivers discretionary effort," writes report author Josh Bersin. "What leads someone to deliver ‘discretionary effort’? Our research shows it takes a working environment that is friendly, flexible, fulfilling and purposeful."

Zuckerman of Towers Watson describes how to make engagement last: "Sustainable engagement means employees are engaged, energized and enabled, and all three are necessary for the next level of engagement," he says. A 2013 Towers Watson report, The Power of Three: Taking Engagement to New Heights, showed the business advantage of not only engaging employees but also enabling sustained levels of performance by giving people the support they need to do their work efficiently and effectively.

In a study of 10 global companies with employee surveys that include measures of enablement and engagement, Towers Watson found the healthiest net profit margins in companies with high levels of both.

Of the workplace benefits Gallup studied, flextime yielded the strongest relationship to overall employee well-being. Engaged employees with a lot of flextime reported 44 percent higher well-being than actively disengaged workers with little to no flextime.


Albemarle is a specialty chemical company based in Baton Rouge, La., with 4,000 employees in 100 countries. Although Albemarle is a leader in the chemical industry, its HR executives wanted to do more to sustain high levels of performance. "We weren’t broken; we just knew we needed to be better," says Susan Shepherd, global HR director.

Her colleague Susan Kelliher, senior vice president of HR, agreed. "Performance was flat, even though the company was still making a lot of money," she recalls. "People were getting burned out."

Albemarle underwent an "energy audit" to assess employees’ energy levels in four key dimensions: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. It was conducted by The Energy Project. According to Andrew Deutscher, vice president of business development at the Atlanta-based firm, energy is an often-overlooked resource that companies can tap to address the pressures of today’s workplace. "Demand is overwhelming our capacity to meet it," he says, and working more hours only creates stress. "Investing in increasing energy capacity within employees, and setting up ways to recover and renew energy, is the only option left."

Albemarle’s audit found a lack of energy in all four areas. The company is now working to improve that through top-down training. It has already reaped benefits, as have other companies, from actively trying to re-energize employees in these four areas:

Physical. Humans are not computers and, thus, cannot function without a healthy diet, exercise and, most important, sleep, Deutscher says. While the average person gets 6.5 hours of sleep each night, top performers get eight, according to Energy Project research. "We need to communicate this to employees, model the behavior and discourage the ‘badge of honor’ association with functioning on only a few hours of sleep."

Employees at Albemarle wore that badge, Shepherd says, so she and her team have been communicating the importance of getting enough shut-eye. As a result, attitudes are changing. "One executive committed to getting to bed an hour earlier at night and, after three days, came into the office talking about how great he felt," Shepherd says. "That role-modeling ripples down the organization."

Emotional. People can maintain emotional energy by staying in a positive frame of mind, even when negative things happen. "The way HR professionals and managers create this is through value and trust," Deutscher says. "If someone is truly valued for his contributions, then he has the confidence to overcome challenges and to bounce back quickly from mistakes." Gallup’s studies show that the more hours per day people use their strengths, the more likely they are to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested and smiling a lot.

At Christiana Care Health System’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute in Wilmington, Del., an advanced cancer treatment facility in one of the nation’s largest health care systems, the nature of the work can take an emotional toll on staff. "We provide managers with tools to create a positive work environment," says Kerry Delgado, corporate director for talent acquisition and engagement. "We talk to our staff members to find out what their particular stressors are and then give managers the tools and flexibility to address that employee’s needs individually."

Mental. In energy audits, companies tend to fare the worst on this dimension. On average, only 20 percent of people say they can consistently focus on one thing at a time. "Through technology, employees are constantly bombarded with information and requests with the expectation that everyone respond immediately," Deutscher observes.

The Energy Project counsels organizations to help employees set boundaries with e-mails and time off. "The brain needs time to rest and recover and to think about the work without distractions," Deutscher says. He suggests educating managers to curtail after-hours e-mails and to leave work behind on vacations. "If the manager doesn’t respond to e-mails when he is off-duty, it gives the employee the courage to put the phone away and not check e-mail right before bed," he explains.

Excessive meetings can also sap mental energy. "We are advising companies to structure days or blocks of time where there is freedom of interruption," Deutscher says, although taking breaks is also important. "Research shows that people work better in 90-minute increments."

Albemarle leaders are now telling employees to take vacations without their phones—a concept that would have been unheard of before the audit. "We are actively telling people that they have permission to take control of their work and make decisions," Shepherd says.

Spiritual. Connecting the organization to the individual’s sense of purpose refuels depleted energy wells like nothing else, Deutscher says: "When the individual understands why his job helps the company meet the overall mission, he is more likely to be engaged and fulfilled—and less likely to leave." People in professions such as health care, education and social work often run almost solely off spiritual energy, he says.

Sustainable engagement can become a way of life. "This isn’t a program; it’s a transformation of how we work together to get the best out of everybody," Kelliher explains. "It’s not enough that people work hard; we need them to bring their full energy when they work and really relax when they aren’t at work." The risk of not doing so can be burnout, disengagement and turnover.

So don’t be like the Cleveland Cavaliers and watch your star player bolt. Do what it takes to re-recruit, re-engage and re-energize your talent to stay in the game—and win.

Record Retention: Tasty Catering’s Team Spirit


The 200 employees at Chicago’s Tasty Catering meet quarterly with managers to answer two questions: What do you want to do differently, and what are your personal desires? HR Manager Rich Henquinet, PHR, recalls one employee who began working in the scullery with little knowledge of English and limited skills. Nine months later, after the man’s language and proficiency improved, he told his manager he wanted to move to sandwich preparation. "We moved him immediately, and he’s one of our best team members," Henquinet says.

That story helps explain why turnover at the company is less than 1 percent. When people do leave, it’s typically due to a change in their life circumstances—such as a new baby, a move or a retirement—rather than job dissatisfaction.

Key tenets of Tasty Catering’s approach to retention include:

Trust. Tasty Catering trusts its employees. A driver can take a percentage off the bill or waive the delivery fee if a customer is unhappy. "Calling the supervisor for approval wastes our time, the driver’s time and the customer’s time," Henquinet says. Similarly, if a truck gets loaded without sodas, the driver can buy them at the nearest store and get reimbursed later. "Everyone makes mistakes," Henquinet says. "It’s how you fix the mistake that matters. If you start penalizing and finger-pointing, then you create a culture of fear and cover-up, which is the opposite of engagement."

Transparency. Each of Tasty Catering’s top managers produces weekly reports for the CEO that are shared with all employees at a 30-minute meeting every Wednesday called "the huddle." "We share all financials with employees, including which clients are behind on their payments," Henquinet says. "We have scullery workers sharing ideas on how to improve efficiency and drivers chiming in to suggest ways to save gas." The company rewards two or three employees each month for coming up with great ideas that worked.

Thankfulness. Tasty Catering leaders show they care about the person and not just the performance. One way they do this is by including on the company’s website a photo of each employee, along with a short bio that includes an appreciation shout-out. One example: Dionicio Cerecero in scullery "has been a part of the Tasty family as our scullery extraordinaire for over 12 years. He is a real team player in the kitchen and warehouse."

Adrienne Fox is a freelance business writer in Alexandria, Va.

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