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October 1, 2000
Related Topics: Featured Article
If hiring the right people is costly,time-consuming and difficult, then keeping them is critical, and probably one ofthe most important issues facing organizations today. It is no wonder that, fromthe boardroom to the first-line supervisor, companies are wrestling with whatthey can do to retain talent. 

    What is the answer? Nothing less than acomplete system of employee communication tools can serve to enhance anorganization’s ability to retain its top talent. Without such a system, anorganization will wallow in the mediocre, competing with, and frequently losingto, other organizations in the ongoing war for talent. 

    Current research confirms that it isgenerally not pay, benefits, or dissatisfaction with the job that prompts goodemployees to leave. In fact, according to the CorporateLeadership Council, the vast majority (67 percent) of employees who intendto leave their organizations are satisfied with their jobs. Rather, employeesmost often leave because they feel they are not valued. And, the majority ofemployees who feel this way say it is demonstrated by the fact that managementfails to either solicit or listen to their opinions. 

    Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman makethis point in their book, First Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster,1999), when they suggest that people don’t leave organizations, they leavemanagers. Jack Martin, vice president, human resources, for Land O’ Lakes,Inc., agrees. “In my experience, the single most important attribute to theretention of high-potential employees is the quality of the manager,” saysMartin. What can an organization with an existing management team in place do toincrease the probability that it will retain its talent? Martin, who has been inthe human resources field for over 20 years, says that the best employers alwaysuse a number of employee feedback systems to keep a handle on the pulse of theorganization. 

Employee Feedback Systems
   What are the best practices and how canthey assist managers in retaining talent? Betsy Buckley, a noted speaker oneffective communication and president of What-Matters, says, “The fundamentalprinciple of communication is that it be two-way; unfortunately, most employeecommunication programs are one-way and are, therefore, more likely to fail. Anysystem must incorporate two-way communication.” In addition to an effectivesystem being two way, Buckley says, “the ‘system’ itself must be a seriesof internal communication initiatives that, together, are integrated into thefabric of the organization.” 

    Such systems typically involve avariety of integrated components, such as periodic, structured employee surveys,ongoing employee feedback that includes such things as management broadcasts,pulse surveys, exit interviews, and post termination surveys. The reality isthat any single system used independently will not produce positive results. 

    However, taken together, they not onlysend a strong message that employee feedback is desired and encouraged, but theyalso generate incredibly valuable information with which to more effectively runthe company. The critical factor is that management must actually use thisinformation. 

    A brief overview of each of thecomponent tools can help to pinpoint how they can be coordinated for maximumbenefit. 

Employee Surveys
   For decades, organizations havecollected employee feedback through periodic surveys. Many employees are cynicalabout these efforts, because for the most part, little if anything is ever donewith the information. In fact, employees are so distrustful that they oftenthink that the questionnaires have been coded so that their responses can betraced. 

    Typically, the results also are notavailable for months, so that when the results are published, there is oftenlittle or no connection between the findings and management’s subsequentactions. At the extreme, so much time elapses between the data collection andthe analysis that the results are no longer reliable. Nonetheless, structuredsurveys of employees’ opinions can give management an important, big-pictureidea of what the main issues are, and the results can set the framework forongoing feedback efforts. 

    What’s important is how theinformation gleaned from an employee survey is used as part of an overalloutreach effort. An experience at American Express Financial Advisors is a goodcase in point. Not long ago, the company’s management was taken by surprise bythe low scores received on an annual employee survey about the company’scareer management initiatives. Employees felt not enough attention was beingpaid to this much-needed activity, especially at a time when the company wasgoing through significant change. 

    Consequently, from the top of theorganization on down, management made a very strong and visible effort tostrengthen the support available to employees in the area of career management.Not surprisingly, the scores on subsequent surveys improved dramatically. 

Ongoing Feedback
   Probably the most neglected componentof an effective employee communication system is one that provides ongoingfeedback from the front lines. Karen Gustafson, former director of employeecommunications for The Pillsbury Company, whose employee-feedback system won anOptimas Award in 1998 from Workforce, describes the benefits of such a system. 

    “Obtaining ongoing feedback fromemployees ensures that there are no misunderstandings between what is in thehearts and minds of employees and what management believes is in the hearts andminds of employees,” says Gustafson. “Senior management is somewhat isolatedbecause they analyze and plan organizational changes long before the changes arepresented to the troops. A system that provides real-time feedback to managementprovides a reality check,” continues Gustafson. 

    In designing such a system, it isimportant that it be easy and safe for employees to use. Not doing so is amistake that many organizations make. One example of an easy and safe feedbacksystem consists of providing employees with an easy-to-remember, toll-freenumber they can dial up at any time. Once connected to the system, they areinstructed to record a message for their organization’s management. Within onebusiness day, a verbatim copy of their message is on management’s desk.Employees also have the option of leaving their names and requesting a response,an option that about one-third of callers use. 

    This system can be paired withmanagement broadcasts, in which senior management records a message on thetoll-free number that employees can listen and respond to, and pulse surveys,where questions are recorded for employees to answer. Organizations can receivea written monthly report highlighting the trends in this feedback and commentson the content and tone of the calls, as well as recommendations about howmanagement can respond to the feedback. Without management’s response, thiseasy and safe tool loses its effectiveness. 

Exit Interviews
   A third important component of aneffective employee communication system is a consistently monitored exitinterview process and post-termination survey. The objective of the exitinterview and survey process is not only to identify feedback from departingemployees that can be used to make the organization more effective, but also todemonstrate that employees’ opinions are valued. At most organizations, theexit interview and survey are administered through a formal, written survey thatis simply handed or sent to departing employees. 

    Alternatively, an open-ended,face-to-face discussion between the departing employee and his/her manager or ahuman resource person, or a combination of both formats takes place.Unfortunately, the response rates of traditional exit interviews areexceptionally low, particularly with the mailed format, and yield sanitized, ornearly useless information. 

    There are many examples of the valuableinformation an organization can acquire as a result of conducting theseinterviews, information that can help in the retention of talented employees.For example, a neutral third-party specialist recently conducted a series ofexit interviews for a large employer that wanted to know why so many ITemployees were leaving. The results of more than 400 telephone interviews showedthat people were leaving because they did not believe their work was valued.They were doing more with less, and management did not seem to care. 

    It wasn’t the money, benefits,working conditions, or the work itself; it was the fact that management seemedunmoved by their hard work, increased productivity, and technological talent.Yet they acknowledged that the organization purported to value those things. Theinterview itself would not have retained those individuals, but knowing whatthey believed helped management take steps to value the efforts of the remainingstaff. 

    Unfortunately, exit interviews and posttermination surveys are generally an afterthought on the part of manyorganizations. The task of conducting them is usually given to someone whoalready has a full-time job; as a result, the data are collected inconsistently.More frequently, the back end of the process is not in place, so there is noautomatic way to process the information or use it effectively. The reality isthat, in many cases, employees who are leaving do not want to burn bridges, sothey are unlikely to provide candid feedback because their responses might beattributed to them. Instead, they either won’t respond or choose not to behonest. 

    However, when exit interviews are doneconsistently and allow for anonymity, and when the organization actually usesthe information it receives, another link in the employee feedback loop isprovided. Employees begin to feel that management values their opinions. 

Making It Work
   How can an organization ensure that itreceives open, honest feedback from employees, both while they are working andwhen they leave?  A simple, yeteffective method has probably already been used for other human resource tasks:outsource it. The work can be completed consistently, in a timely manner, andless expensively to the organization. 

    The bottom line? An integrated employeecommunication program will serve both recruiting and retention. First, theprogram makes a powerful statement about an organization’s commitment to itsemployees. This allows potential employees to know right away, even duringinitial interviews, that the company has in place a series of initiatives place that encourages every employee to provide feedback to management,including sending a message directly to the CEO. 

    Second, an integrated system offersgreat versatility when it comes to demonstrating to employees that theirconcerns, opinions, and ideas are being reviewed and acted upon. Management canchoose from a variety of ways to convince employees that they genuinely arelistening, and most important, are responding. 

    Third, experience suggests thatapproximately 70 percent of the information received from such feedback identifies improvements that can benefit anorganization. These include streamlined processes, new product ideas,suggestions for improved productivity, and ways to enhance managementeffectiveness. 

    Engaged talent is a company’s primesource for creating and maintaining a competitive advantage. Any company seekingto exploit this competitive advantage must instill in its management a mind-setthat they not only value employees, but also encourage them to share theiropinions. As Buckingham and Coffman conclude, it is only with engaged employeesthat an organization can have loyal customers, sustainable growth, increasedprofitability, and enhanced shareholder value. 

Workforce,October 2000, Vol. 79, No. 10, pp. 71, 80-85 Subscribenow!

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