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Prepare Employees for Their Next Job and They'll Stick Around

Marriott and others show how you can retain employees, even in high turnover industries.

July 28, 2000
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A lot of our conversations these days focus on recruitment and retention issues. Its probably true with you as well. They go something like this:

"When are we gonna get the jobs in ___ filled? There just aren't any good applicants anymore. What's the matter with these Generation Y kids? I just can't compete with those dot-coms. Why in the world do we keep losing good people?"

Invariably, the loudest, highest-pitched noises emanate from those who still view recruiting as the exclusive domain of HR, or have yet to realize that one's reputation as an employer is as important as bandwidth. We've got some advice for those folks, and by all means invoke our names when you pass it along: Stop whining!

Yes, finding and keeping the right people is, for many, today's central business challenge. While few escape the problem, no one loses more sleep over it than those in the retail, food service, and hospitality sectors.

The National Restaurant Association suggests that "finding qualified, motivated labor is the biggest challenge restaurant operators face today." In a sad commentary on the "motivated and qualified" part, one fast-food operator recently made this appeal for warm DNA on its marquee: "Now Hiring Faces. Smiles Preferred but Not Required." With turnover of fast-food workers approximating 300 percent, by the time you get your fries, the person who took your order may already have initiated a career change!

A recent article in HR News described the dilemma of Florida companies trying to recruit hospitality workers in the face of a 2.8 percent unemployment rate. The article described creative (more like desperate) steps being taken by some of the biggest names in hospitality to ensure that breakfasts are cooked and served, beds made, and park sidewalks swept. Disney has reportedly resorted to making recruiting trips to Puerto Rico, dangling airline tickets and sizable recruiting bonuses in the faces of those willing to sign on for a year's stint as a maid or food-service worker.

In the war for talent, it is all too easy to become blinded by fads and low-hanging fruit, thus ignoring two simple truths that are the real critical success factors in this equation:

1. Retention begins with recruitment, and

2. Your people practices matter -- a lot.

Hire for Fit

The most successful enterprises are careful to hire people who are competent, of course, but first and foremost, they hire people who fit the organization by virtue of style, values, and work preferences. They realize that these folks will be happier, more productive, more successful, and just might stick around longer. Talent is important, but to them, finding people who fit the organization is mission-critical.

All of Marriott's 143,000 employees have one thing in common. They are unfailingly polite. If they've got any surly employees, they're hiding them in the basement. Maybe rule No. 9 of CEO Bill Marriott's 12 Rules for Success -- "It's more important to hire people with the right qualities than with specific experience" -- has something to do with that.

Chick-fil-A, the fast-growing, Atlanta-based, "Eat More Chicken" chain, takes a similar path. Founder and CEO Truett Cathy's decision to place someone in a position of leadership can ultimately rest on a single consideration: "Would I like my son or daughter to work for this person?" Does it work? Well, how would you like a turnover rate that approximates one-fifth of the industry average?

Maintain Outrageously High Standards

Loosened work standards often provide the first visible clue to your better performers that they are no longer part of an elite, winning team. These folks, the ones you really want to retain, have a serious dislike for losing organizations and don't want to hang around with losers.

We heard recently from an operations manager with a major California-based casual dining chain. It seems that about a quarter of the 100 or so employees in one of its stores had just been caught confusing the restaurant's money with their own. The GM's response was -- get this -- to let them off with a verbal warning, on the premise that "if we terminate them, we won't be able to keep the doors open." We're told that several of the restaurant's better producers immediately opted to vote with their feet, muttering something about not wanting to work with thieves and losers.

Forget the Fads -- Get Serious

In a retention effort running a mile wide and an inch deep, some companies have a penchant for every fad-of-the week program. They have Friday afternoon beer busts, allow employees to bring their pets to work, and call everyone an "associate," but when it comes to dealing with managers who run roughshod over people, or eliminating ridiculous policies that sap morale, their knees buckle.

Let's be clear about something. People don't leave organizations. They leave managers who continually fail them in some important respect. They leave jobs that bore them. With regard to the former, we'd suggest you start dealing with the people that General Electric labeled "Type 4" managers in its 1995 annual report. You know the ones. They manage to generate pretty decent short-term results, but do it by grinding people down. Either coach them to acceptable levels of behavior, or help them find other jobs -- preferably with a competitor.

Give People Their Work Back

People want suitable challenges and the freedom to pursue them. In an attempt to broaden responsibility, authority, and accountability, Marriott introduced its "First 10" program, in which the person greeting you at the door also handles check-in, helps with your luggage, and escorts you to your room. Aside from being pretty neat from a guest's standpoint, it provides more variety in the employee's work, not to mention a clear signal that the company believes it hired more than just a strong back. And it doesn't stop there.

Recently, we conducted a leadership seminar at a Marriott hotel near Dulles Airport. About 90 minutes before the seminar, we visited the meeting room. To our dismay, several things about the room set-up were wrong, including an absence of critical audiovisual equipment. (It was our fault, not the hotel's.)

We began looking for a banquet coordinator-type person to help with our predicament. There was exactly one human in view: a lady from the wait staff busily putting out coffee and breakfast rolls. She immediately noticed us and asked if she could help. We spouted out the problem, not really expecting much in return.

With a look and a voice that suggested she meant business, she said: "No problem. It will be taken care of before you get back." She handed each of us a business card imprinted with her name and job title, banquet server. She did get our situation resolved as promised, and later in the day we asked our new friend, Annie, how a banquet server came to get involved with AV equipment and the like. With obvious pride, she replied "These meeting rooms are my responsibility and I make sure my customers have what they need." Wow, put that in a bottle!

Balanced "Worth Its"

At the end of the day, people expect to see personal interest and an investment in them commensurate with the effort you're expecting them to put forth. It often comes down to simple stuff. A manager at Crate & Barrel has been known to tie a pair of theater tickets to the handle of a broom, for the benefit of the first person to pick up the thing and use it. Part-timers at Starbucks get benefits just like "real" employees. Employees at Marriott and Chick-fil-A get opportunities that can be bigger than their resumes.

Will some of these things better prepare people to leave you? Yes. But then again, they just might make them more eager to stay.

Recent Articles by Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden

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