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It's Time to Court and Keep Your Best Employees

If you're playing the field, your employees are playing it, too.

January 5, 2004
Related Topics: Labor Relations, Retention

It would be irrationally exuberant to say that happy days are here again. Unemployment rates are creeping downward, but more than 8 million Americans are still looking for jobs they can’t find. The Dow is keeping company with 10,000, but it’s not a serious relationship yet. Many companies plan no new hiring this year, and some are even contemplating layoffs of "non-critical skill" workers.

    Even in such tenuous times, there are glimmers of life in hiring. In a recent Watson Wyatt survey, 28 percent of companies said they will be hiring more aggressively this year for "critical-skill" employees.

    "In certain industries and parts of the country, I think things are beginning to get better," says Jane Paradiso, Watson Wyatt’s national practice leader for workforce planning. Right now, she sees increasing demand for the employees who drive the engine of revenue growth, such as topflight sales and marketing people.

    After a long slog through a recession and a barely alive recovery, it’s easy to get caught up in the chase for fresh faces and new talent. It’s courtship. You put out the word that you’re available. You spruce up your corporate image and practice your best lines ("We’re an employer of choice! We’ll give you stock grants!").

    Meanwhile, there’s that other relationship--the one with your current employees. They’re the people who have kept you afloat during very lean years. They’re probably your best performers; you should have let go of everyone else by now. And yet, as Paradiso says, you might not have been treating them that well.

    "They’ve lost their 401(k) matches," she says. "Their commission and bonus pools have been lowered. They feel like they have less money, and they have less of a feeling of success."

    So while you are wining and dining the new candidates, they’re back at the home office, rethinking their commitment to the workplace relationship. Even if you never saw Unfaithful, you can guess what will happen next.

    Not every company sees the danger signs, says David Snyder, senior vice president at Aon Consulting and director of Aon’s Loyalty Institute. He says he has a couple of client organizations that understand the need to cement their relationships with existing employees. But many companies out there don’t have a clue, he says.

    Consider this the clue. If your sector’s economy has enough life for you to be playing the field, your employees are playing it, too.

    Paradiso recommends back-end bonuses for those who stoke the profit machine. "You take some of your best performers and tell them, ‘You’re really valuable to us. Here’s some start-up work, and we’ll pay you $50,000 at the end of nine months.’ " That’s effective headhunter bane.

    If you don’t have money to hold them, you still have a relationship that you can shore up, says retention consultant and author Beverly Kaye. While you woo the new talent, she says, ask yourself: "Have I given the attention to the people who plodded through two tough years and now are watching things change before their eyes? Have I shown appreciation?" If not, you’ll be recruiting to fill holes, not to add positions.

    "People haven’t had to think about retention until about two months ago," Paradiso says. "Then, it was ‘They should be thankful they have a job. So what if the bonus isn’t as good?’ "

    Maybe you’re a glass-half-empty person, and you think your current employees are still captives to a sluggish economy. If so, here’s a simple test. Do nothing. And see what happens.

Workforce Management, January 2004, p. 10 -- Subscribe Now!

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