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Retaining your highly valued employees

by Tim Wilson

We hear a lot about the difficulty in finding good people. However, the flip side of this reality is mentioned less often: how to retain those high value employees after you've hired them.

"To keep good people, competitive wages and benefits are a given," says Graeme Simpson, program co-ordinator of the Human Resources program at Humber College. "What makes a difference is the organizational culture, the work climate, and the transparency and leadership of the management team."

One challenge is that many workers see HR as doing management's bidding, as opposed to being an advocate for the worker. This is complicated by the fact that HR professionals are trained in such areas as payroll, benefits administration, and recruitment, and often put less emphasis on designing career paths, training, and employee satisfaction.

"We have worked with large and small manufacturers, and have found that an employees' council is an effective way of addressing retention issues," says Janet Salopek, president of Salopek & Associates, an HR consultancy in Calgary. "If you have mixed representation, and access to the president, it makes a difference."

To keep good workers there has to been an effective, open and reliable means for those workers to communicate with management. And once that communication is made, a worker has to feel that he or she has been heard. A reluctance to invest in training, or to participate in a shared vision for a career path, is a recipe for attrition.

"For those important employees, you need to have a conversation with them to find out what they need–not everyone is interested in money," says Maurice Mazerolle, associate professor of HR at Ryerson University. "Some workers want to broaden their skill base, or to travel and adjust their work-life balance."

But the benefits of engaging employees and making them feel like they are part of a shared enterprise can be scuttled if a worker feels that his or her efforts only serve management. Innovative programs for profit sharing can help keep good people around, particularly in non-union shops.

[subhed]Trust and transparency builds loyalty

Union or non-union, it is the lack of trust and transparency that can get in the way of building strategies to retain valuable workers. The good news is that HR can play a pivotal role in making sure those essential people are retained.

"The challenge is that not everyone likes to hear criticism, so you have to find ways for safe communication," says Mazerolle. "One way is to use anonymous employee surveys, and also exit interviews. Often, employers are stunned when a top-notch worker leaves, and yet with proper communication, and a proper response, the problem might have been addressed before it was too late."

And management has to do its work outside of the immediate employee relationship, too. It is really up to a company to have a granular understanding of competitive salary and benefits structures for its industry and geography.

"A company can purchase an external survey to ensure they are competitive with job benchmarks in their industry, and can also use benefits brokers," says Simpson from Humber. "As well, smart companies will take into account geographic considerations, and address cost-of-living issues."

From there, it is crucial an organization commit to ongoing employee development, and that this reflect the worker's interests. It may mean upgrading skills in a specific area, or working on a job path that will lead to another field altogether. Employers should be open to the possibility, for example, that a machinist may one day want to shift to technical sales.

"We see a lot of need for cross-training for continuous learning," says Salopek. "Younger workers in their 20s and 30s will stay if they feel an employer is paying attention to their needs."

Which brings us to loyalty. One of the biggest misconceptions is that an employer's investment in training and professional development can backfire, with these workers then taking those skills elsewhere. In most instances, the exact opposite it true: investing in your employees builds loyalty, and is more likely to ensure long-term retention.

Retaining diversity

Some workplaces are notable for the extent to which they have failed to take advantage of the demographic diversity in Canada. Most job shop floors are populated with men, and many under-represent Canada's cultural strengths. This is a huge missed opportunity for Canadian employers.

"One way to solve this is for management to have pay incentives to meet diversity goals," says Maurice Mazerolle, a professor in HR at Ryerson University. "This is a professional development process that fits onto a larger cultural change, which can take years."

For many employers, this kind of cultural transformation may be a low priority, but it ties in with the larger challenge of workplace stability and employee retention. If you are only accessing and welcoming to a narrow demographic, you will be in a weak position competitively over the long haul. That said, if your workplace is diverse you might also need to address more complex retention issues.

"Once hired, to ensure retention you have to open up decision-making roles," says Mazerolle. "You have to realize this is the 21st century, and yet still we have under-represented groups, which is a challenge when the make-up of the business does not reflect the customer base."

This will be a factor for Canadian manufacturers in the coming years, as retention issues will increasingly reflect the reality of a more diverse workforce. Getting ahead of this scenario, however, will turn a challenge into an opportunity to ensure long-term stability and growth.

Tim Wilson is a contributing editor. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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