The Top 12 Retention Tools That Produce Immediate Results

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Apr 29, 2019

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. This is No. 8 of the 708 articles. You can find the complete list here.


During this time when almost every firm is facing record turnover, it’s important to realize that research has shown that between half and three-quarters of all turnover is preventable. But in order to reduce turnover, the decisions on the appropriate retention actions must be made as close to the employee as possible. That means an individual’s manager must take ownership of the retention problem and administer the retention tools that will prevent them from leaving.

So, if you’re responsible for advising managers on which of the available effective retention tools produce results immediately, consider the following, which are all intuitive, low-cost and easy to implement. Managers should consider adopting one or more of the following top retention tools when faced with impending turnover issues. Fortunately, each of tools can be implemented without any formal training required. The retention tools with the highest demonstrated impact on top employee turnover are listed first.

1. Conduct pre-exit “stay interviews” that identify the factors that tie the individual to the firm instead of waiting until an employee considers another external offer. It pays to be proactive and to ask them directly in a one-on-one interview with their manager, “Why do you stay?” This “stay interview” should focus on the positive factors that keep the employee at your firm. By identifying what keeps this individual in the job and at the firm, you can then act to reinforce each of those stay factors. The first stay interview should be held when they start a new position. But follow-up interviews should be held at least every two years and more often when an individual has a high risk of leaving.

2. Walk them downstream to see the impact of their work. One of the reasons employees give for staying in a job is that they feel they and their job “makes a difference.” Telling them their job matters is good, but it is better to demonstrate to them their job makes a difference by showing the impact of their job on the total product and on the end-user. As part of the “walk them downstream” effort, take them to visit the customer to see how their product or service has a final impact. For example, if you’re producing medical equipment, let the employee see some of the patients who have been helped by the product they contributed to making. Also, continually provide them with information that allows the employee to understand the importance of their work, and helps them feel they are doing the best work of their life. If making the product meets sustainability standards, make them aware of that also.

3. Ask targeted employees to alert you when they begin to look. Sometimes employees are willing to warn you when they begin a job search. Meet with each retention target and let them know how important they are to the work and the team and tell them how important it is that they stay. Then in a one-on-one discussion, the manager should ask their key people to agree to a “professional understanding” in which they agree to instantly let you know when they are frustrated, when they have returned any recruiter’s phone call or when they have begun a job search. Over half of your employees will generally agree to warn you and this heads up gives you at least a little time to address their retention issues.

4. Post-exit interviews are superior for finding the real causes of turnover. Standard exit interviews usually produce false answers because they occur on their final day when exiting employees most need a positive reference. And that fear of the negative consequences from “being completely honest” during exit interviews often causes departing employees to give false answers 40% of the time. A superior alternative is post-exit interviews (PEI) where the exit interview is delayed 3-6 months after the employee has exited. A phone interview with a third party is the most effective approach. You can improve your response rates and the authenticity of your answers if you make sure that interviewees are aware there is a formal process for acting on the provided information.

5. Identify what motivates the employees targeted for retention. Employees that are continually excited are not only productive, but they stay longer. Start identifying employee motivators by developing a survey to ask newly hired employees during onboarding, “What specific things have you found that increase your motivation?” However, motivation factors of individuals change over time. Provide each targeted employee with a yearly survey listing the most common motivation factors, and have them rank the top five in both monetary and non-monetary categories. The manager should then develop a plan to ensure that when a targeted employee is asked to judge their level of motivation, they put it at 9 or 10 out of 10.

6. Develop a “more of / less of” list covering job-related factors in addition to understanding their mental motivators. It makes sense also to determine which of their job duties and responsibilities excite them, and which ones they dread doing. So at least once a year, managers should utilize an interview or survey to identify the segments of their job that they really enjoy doing (that they want “more of”). Some of the typical “more of” factors that innovators often want include:

  • better equipment
  • support help
  • opportunities to work with other innovators
  •  improved executive access
  • the opportunity to work alongside a favored teammate.

In addition to these excitement factors, you should also identify and try to minimize the “less of” related work elements that bore, frustrate, stress or that they consider being a waste of their time. Typical “less of” factors are any direct work responsibilities they no longer enjoy doing. Those “less of factors” often include meetings, paperwork, back-to-back travel, and administrative work. Managers should also develop a set of measures, benchmarks, and tickler reminders to ensure that for your target employees, the ratio of exciting duties to dull ones never gets out of balance so that key employees spend most of their time doing their favorite tasks and “what they do best.”

7. Keep an “overdue” list to maintain a sense of fairness. The feeling of being overdue for something is a perception based on what an employee thinks others are getting. Unfortunately, some employees may frequently feel they are being left behind or treated unfairly compared to others. When they feel they are “overdue” for something important in their work, they can feel unappreciated, and that could cause them to leave. Determine which employees are overdue for important job factors by measuring how long it has been since their last positive work event. Positive work events usually include promotions, transfers, new equipment, receiving praise, training, etc. Compare how long it has been for them against the average time between these work events. Use the “overdue list” as a tickler to remind yourself not to wait too long to offer work factors that motivate / excite the employee.

8. Periodically “re-recruit” your most desirable employees. Even when top employees are treated well, they are often startled when they periodically receive lavish praise when they are courted by outside recruiters. The best approach to keep their heads from being turned is to beat the external recruiters to the punch by having a “level up” or senior manager “re-recruit” these key employees at least once every two years. That means you should treat these employee targets as if you were recruiting them for the first time. Treat them as a new recruit. Then “redo their deal,” modifying their job to raise it to at least the level an external recruiter would likely offer them. The process of re-recruiting your key employees and focusing attention on them will likely excite them and reduce their chances of answering an external recruiter’s call. Periodically re-recruiting employees keeps them from feeling as if they have been forgotten. And, it increases the odds your internal re-recruit offer will be at least as good as any external offer.

9. Develop an individualized retention plan because every employee’s reasons for staying and leaving are unique. The employee’s manager, working with HR’s retention experts should put together a personalized retention plan for each targeted employee. The plan should first identify the potential issues likely to cause the employee to consider leaving and the factors that attract or excite and keep the employee here. The manager should then put together a plan to periodically implement the appropriate tools, or “retention levers” that are likely to have the highest impact. HR should distribute templates and  samples of customized retention plans to managers so that it is easier for them to develop individualized retention plans for their key employees.

10. Develop a “how to manage me best” profile. Even a great manager needs to understand the most effective or optimal ways of communicating, motivating, empowering, engaging, rewarding, making decisions and providing feedback to each individual employee. The best way to personalize or customize the way a manager manages key employees is to work with the employee to establish a profile covering the most effective ways they can be managed. And since they know themselves better than most others can, utilize the employee themselves to identify the most effective and least effective ways of managing them. This is best done when they start but their “best way to manage me plan” should be updated at least every two years. One approach is to ask them to assume they were their own new manager and ask them, “How would you change your current job and how you are managed to make the job perfect?” By shifting your management approach and style slightly to better fit the approach that maximizes their productivity and innovation they will likely stay longer and produce more.

11. Identify barriers to productivity. Highly productive employees are less likely to leave because they can see the results of their work. In addition, these better results usually mean more praise and rewards. If you want to increase individual and team productivity, the most effective way is usually by simply asking employees to identify barriers or roadblocks keeping them from being more productive. Start by simply asking individuals on your team: If they set a personal goal to increase productivity by 25%, “What are the “barriers” that would prevent them from reaching the target?” In most cases, implementing individual interviews, a simple survey or a focus group can identify and reduce these productivity barriers in a matter of months. In one particularly powerful case, after the barrier identification effort, productivity went up 200%.

12. Give them an individualized learning plan. One of the main motivators of top performers is continuous learning. So rather than leaving their learning to chance, why not work with key employees to develop individualized learning plans? That works because employees that are continually learning new things and growing seldom quit. Also consider giving them their own learning and development budget so they have more control over their own learning. The rapid learning has the added benefit of making them more productive and capable. Similar “growth plans” can also be developed to increase an employee’s level of challenge and internal exposure.

Final thoughts

Many in HR falsely assume that money or benefits are the keys to employee retention. However, if you delay your normal exit interviews for six months, and then asked the departed employee why they left, their delayed response almost always reveals it was because they were frustrated or that they were poorly managed. Up to 75% of the factors that frustrated them and caused them to begin looking were controlled by their manager. If your organization is having a turnover problem, my advice is to place the retention burden on individual managers. Because they are close to the problem, they can get immediately measurable results by using one or more of the above proven retention tools.

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