Creative Ideas for Retaining Employees.
Roger E. Herman & Joyce L. Gioia-Herman
Monday, 1st October 2007
Most companies are suffering from staffing difficulties which increases the importance of employee retention.

Creative approaches are giving many employers a competitive- edge in the war for talent.

Examples of the strategies of enlightened employers offer models to follow and may stimulate some refreshing ideas for you.

If you're like most employers responding to opinion surveys today, finding and keeping competent workers is your major challenge. Employee turnover is costly, causing workforce instability, reduced efficiency, lower effectiveness, and negative impact on the bottom line.

While everyone agrees that turnover is a problem, there seems to be a reluctance to invest resources to retain top talent. Part of this hesitancy comes from a sense that counter-turnover efforts really don't make a difference; people leave anyway.

Ignoring employee turnover won't make it go away. The risk of doing nothing is great. The loss of customers, supplier confidence, investor support, and employee morale can be very expensive.

Can you put a value on these costs? What does it cost when you lose a valued customer because you can no longer provide the level of service, expertise, or reliability demanded in today's competitive market?

Some business leaders are reluctant to invest very much in building retention because they fear it might be disproportionately expensive to keep people. However, an increasing number of employers are finding ways, usually inexpensive, to hold the interest--and the loyalty--of their people.

As employee retention specialists for over a decade (Roger wrote the seminal book in the field, Keeping Good People, in 1990), we have collected a treasure chest of best practices. We share them with you here in hopes that you will learn and be inspired to make a difference in your organization.

In our research, we have found many companies that do some unique things to attract, optimize, and hold their valued employees. Others engage in more common practices, but do them well. Some approaches may seem a bit out of the ordinary, but that's what helps position those companies as Employers of Choice.

To be chosen by the employees you want is a worthy objective, especially when your competitors are eager to hire the same people.

Your Laundry's Ready

Wilton Conner Packaging Company, Charlotte, North Carolina, enjoys .5 percent turnover. Yes, that's half of one percent. In addition to having a caring, enthusiastic CEO who rides around his 1,000,000 square foot plant on a bicycle, the company's 634 employees enjoy some unique benefits that inspire them to stay.

Wilton Conner employs laundresses who work in a fully-equipped facility attached to the plant. Workers bring in their dirty clothes in the morning. While they are working, their clothes are washed, dried, folded, and packaged to take home at the end of the day--for a dollar a load.

Some of those employees commute back and forth to work in company-provided vans. When the maintenance employees aren't busy at the plant, they hop in a company truck and travel to employees' homes where they perform minor repairs for the cost of materials only. No more worries about leaky toilets, squeaky doors, or broken windows.

Celebrating Special Occasions

Each of us has a birthday to celebrate--once a year, every year. We also celebrate important events like wedding anniversaries, the date we joined the company, and children's birthdays. These dates are important to us. If we get a card, a phone call, a letter, flowers or even a gift from a company executive to celebrate the occasion with us, it's special. And it matters.

Mary Kay Ash, the charismatic founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics in Dallas, Texas, knows that her people appreciate her attention to special occasions. They tell her so. She personally signs each and every birthday and anniversary card sent to her employees. She also recognizes other special occasions.

New babies receive little silver banks in the shape of ducks. She acknowledges weddings with silver bowls. Employees receive free lunches (for two) or free movie tickets on their birthdays. Plus, employees receive a $100 savings bond for every five years of service.

A Paid Vacation, Plus Expenses

Motek, a software company in Beverly Hills, California, understands the value of a good vacation. Each year, the CEO, Ann Price, gives each of her employees one month off--with pay. Price also gives each employee $5,000, but there is a catch. That $5,000 must be used for airlines, cruises, hotels, and other travel expenses.

The $5,000 is earned by employees week by week. For each week they work, $100 goes into their vacation fund. Employees are expected to take this time off to rest and rejuvenate. With $5,000 and thirty days to spend, they're able to enjoy much more substantial vacations.

Forced vacation? Payoffs to spend time away from the office? It may sound crazy, but it works. Price reports that having employees who feel fresh and relaxed create a better office environment, produce better quality work, and are happier people. The stable workforce has built a camaraderie that supports high productivity and customer satisfaction.

If employees leave the company, they lose their vacation fund, but if they stay, it's a wonderful benefit. It's easy to understand why there is practically no turnover at Motek.

Note: Motek has been recognized as an Employer of ChoiceSM. See www.employerofchoice.net.

Oh, one other thing. Motek also provides lunch for all employees.on payday and the day before payday.

Overcoming the Sleepies

People get sleepy at work, with potential negative impacts on productivity and safety. What can we do to help alleviate this problem? Some companies have installed nap rooms at work, while others encourage nutrition to boost higher energy levels.

Other organizations recognize that physical activity can also wake people up and re-energize them. A few firms are even sponsoring scheduled recesses with intramural games.

Gymboree, Burlingame, California, operates/franchises more than 400 interactive parent/child play programs worldwide. Corporate leaders realized that there might be an interesting synergy between their products and their desire to keep their employees happy and fresh.

Applying the company's "celebrate childhood" philosophy Gymboree began a once-a-week program of "corporate recess." Every Thursday at 3 pm, a bell sounds over the public address system. Recess lasts for 20 minutes. Their campus sports a lake with a walking area, and hopscotch is available.

The purpose is to get employees to spend a few minutes together outside of the work environment catching up with one another, getting some fresh air and exercise, and further creating a sense of teamness.

There's more: each Wednesday at 3 pm, Gymboree provides snack time for its employees. This break also lasts for about 20 minutes, during which time workers come together in a central location to munch on snacks that range from chips and salsa to cookies and milk.

Making a Difference

DataTel, Inc., a software developer in Fairfax, Virginia, sells a fully integrated enterprise resource management system that supports every aspect of college and university operations. The 350-employee company enjoys a 13 percent turnover rate in the middle of the suburban Virginia hi-tech corridor.

An integral part of DataTel's culture is giving back to the community. Employees consistently report that they want to really affect change in their lives and in the lives of those around them, and the company has responded. Every May 1, the company's Founder's Day, employees, family, and friends participate in a community service day.

Projects on these days have been widely varied. Employees and friends have remodeled a house, rebuilt trails at a local park, helped with track and field events for Special Olympics, and helped make a child's wish come true through the Make a Wish Foundation.

Some employees even mentor and tutor students at a local elementary school. Through their DataTel Scholars Foundation, another charitable avenue open to employees, the company has awarded over $1.2 million to over 1000 students who are enrolled at their client sites.

Employee participation in the various community service activities is recognized by awarding badges that look like lapel pins, each with a symbol representing a particular event or activity. Outside each employee's office or cubicle is a small bulletin-board with a display of the symbols earned by that employee.

When Disaster Strikes

When disaster strikes, corporations can be angels for those who have suffered. Some companies will just give because they think it's the right thing to do. Others will concentrate their giving in communities where they have facilities or employees. Some concentrate on really taking care of their own employees and their families, reaching out as a corporate family.

When Hurricane Floyd caused unprecedented damage and personal loss in North Carolina--mostly from flooding, corporations sprang to the rescue. Boddie-Noell, an operator of over 350 Hardee's Restaurants and other ventures, is based in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, one of the areas hardest hit by the storm.

The company's attention was immediately focused on their people and their communities. During the initial recovery period, the company arranged for two truckloads of critically needed drinking water to be distributed in their home area of Nash and Edgecombe counties.

Next, the attention turned to relief efforts. Company restaurants outside the affected area collected food, clothing, and supplies for affected co-workers and others in their communities. All the stores got involved in fundraising that produced over $100,000 for flood victims.

The company then focused on the 18 employees whose families were displaced by Hurricane Floyd. A home office team member assumed responsibility for follow-through with each family, with care continuing long after the storm was gone. One effort focused on making sure that every child in a displaced family still had a great Christmas.

The company's culture was reflected in the corporate and employee response to care for any employee who needed help with an outpouring of love and warmth.

Emergency Childcare

A major challenge for employees today, particularly for working mothers, is childcare. More and more employers are finding ways to provide childcare on-premises or nearby. Some companies pay the total costs, others subsidize the expense.

Backup childcare and emergency childcare are among the most rapidly growing family benefits available, and they're among the most cost effective. The costs associated with an employee missing a day of work are far outweighed by the price of a day of daycare.

Employers contract with a childcare provider to deliver backup childcare, in case of weather emergencies. BankBoston employees certainly appreciate the gesture in their climate, where a few snow days each year are all but guaranteed. The company benefits since fewer employees are forced to take half-days and full days off, in order to care for kids who are home from school.

The number of BankBoston employees registered to use the company's Snowy Day program is growing each year. More than 400 employees are signed up to take their children to a safe respite on snow days when schools close. The program is offered at seven BankBoston locations in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut and is free to all 16,000 employees.

At the corporate office in Boston, the Snowy Day program is held in a big, bright conference center on the 35th floor. While BankBoston provides the materials for activities, crafts, and games, as well as a VCR, television, and snacks, the actual oversight of the program is managed by Bright Horizons Family Solutions, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Help Me Learn

Employers, faced with employees with insufficient education to perform their jobs, are investing more in remedial education for their people. Others are engaged in teaching English as a Second Language, often with a culture component, for Hispanic employees--and their spouses.

The increasing prevalence of quality initiatives, the use of computers, and other processes that require literacy and numeracy skills have revealed that there is a significant proportion of workers who lack fundamental knowledge. Basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, for various reasons, eluded many students during their growing years.

For quite a while, schools were allowing these students to pass from grade to grade and even to graduate. These unfortunate people, as a result, are not adequately prepared; they don't possess the capacities to communicate and calculate that are so essential to success in today's more sophisticated world of work.

Ames Rubber, Hamburg, New Jersey, suspected that these deficits might be the case with a large number of its employees. The company initiated a new quality management program in 1987 and discovered a serious problem: Their fears were well-founded.

Ames' employees often didn't have the reading, writing, and math skills required to just participate in everyday work. Ames decided to require their entire workforce to take a reading and math test. Everyone from the CEO to the janitor took the test at the same time--in the same environment. Of the 400 employees who took the test, 185 only had skills in fourth- to sixth-grade levels.

To address the problem, Ames partnered with a local community college to develop a comprehensive training program in basic skills and English as a Second Language (ESL). Funding from the New Jersey Department of Labor paid the costs for materials and community college instructors; Ames paid for the employees' wages during class time. Classes were held once a week for 13 weeks. Those who needed further training were enrolled for another 13 weeks. The ESL classes are ongoing one-on-one tutoring sessions.

The program was such a success--both in terms of creating not only more productive employees, but happier employees as well--that it has become an integral part of the Ames culture. People appreciate the opportunity to learn, to improve themselves, and will stay with employers that help them grow.

Taking Care of People

There's an increasingly strong movement underway today to become--and stay--more physically fit. More people are concerned about nutrition, exercise, stress management and avoiding habits like smoking or consumption of alcoholic beverages. Employers, as they become sensitive to the needs and interests of their workers, are finding ways to support those employee initiatives.

In some cases, the employer actually initiates the higher attention to wellness, encouraging the employee to invest more time and attention in keeping his or her body in shape.

While not all employees buy into this wellness movement, those who do really appreciate the interest and support of their employers. That support comes in many forms, varying from company to company and even among groups of employees within companies.

The motivation of the employer varies as well, with some genuinely interested in responding to their people and some also seeking ways to better manage insurance premiums. Whatever the rationale, more employers are investing in wellness.

The Taylor Group, an applications service provider and solutions integrator in Bedford, New Hampshire, believes in taking care of its people--literally. Health benefits at Taylor are quite comprehensive.

Beyond what you'd think of as "normal" healthcare benefits--reimbursement for doctor's visits, dental, eye, etc.--Taylor reaches further for overall wellness. The organization believes that healthy employees are happy employees.

With annual flu shots, CPR training, tuition reimbursement for wellness classes, career development training, and a CD-ROM library, Taylor moves people care to an entirely new level. After the annual company meeting in February, massage therapists are available for the employees.

Physical examinations given to employees each year as part of the employer's benefit program can have far-reaching impacts. A Massachusetts company which gives employee physicals every year won the loyalty of an employee--and her co-workers--by insisting that all employees participate in an annual health screen.

The woman learned that the medical examiners discovered the early signs of kidney disease. Because the problem was diagnosed so early after the onset of the problem, medicine was prescribed that eliminated the problem before it got worse. She testifies that the company saved her life; she's likely to stay with that employer for a long time.

The List Goes On

Every day we learn about another company doing good things for its people. Those employers who want to earn the respect, gratitude, and loyalty of their people will continue to develop new ways to demonstrate their support of valued employees. Their initiatives will give them a competitive edge--in keeping current employees and in attracting others of the same caliber.

What will you do to build the dedication and longevity of your employees? There are no limits. As you create new approaches, we invite you to share them with us at roger@hermangroup.com.

For each one we add to our database, we will send you a copy of our book on workforce trends or a subscription to our weekly e-advisory, Retention Reminders. Our research is ongoing, so your contributions and questions are always welcome.

Roger and Joyce are Strategic Business Futurists concentrating on workforce and workplace issues. They are authors of a number of books in the field and are sought-after akers on trends and employee retention
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