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Retention Strategies

Retention Strategies

Finding good employees is never easy, even in this apparently “candidate-rich” economic climate, but retaining them is even harder today, mainly because these valuable individuals often have a wide range of alternative employment options open to them, and will take one of these up if they do not feel happy in their current role.  For this reason, organizations will benefit from a well-crafted retention strategy. In this article we will look at a few options and ideas on how such a strategy might be developed.

Before any strategy is evolved (for retention or anything else) we need to know where we are now or what is often called the “As is” stage before we start to design how things might be changed in the future. In relation to retention this essentially means appreciating at what frequency, and even more importantly why employees leave. Once we have a good idea about this, we can start to develop a strategy to get them to stay (or at least stay for longer when we wish them to do so).

Although we cannot speculate as to why employees leave particular companies or teams, there are some common reasons that are often cited:

  • Doesn’t get along with, get support from or even perhaps like his/her supervisor/manager
  • Doesn’t feel personally valued in the team
  • Negative organizational culture, or poor morale
  • Work assigned is uninteresting, mundane or even boring
  • Insufficient opportunity for advancement.
  • Perceived inadequate compensation.

Apart from the last of the above (the “hard” issue of pay and benefits) all of the other reasons for leaving are very “soft” or people-side issues. What this means is that, in general, most individuals want a fair boss who they can respect, a positive culture in which they can feel valued and both grow and learn, and opportunities to grow in their careers and have interesting and challenging tasks and projects in the meantime. Any retention strategy, based on this kind of analysis, should therefore ideally be designed to deliver these outcomes.

Evolving a retention strategy

A retention strategy will clearly be unique to an organization and will take account of its industry, size, structure, role in the supplier-to-customer chain, etc. However, there are some facets which are common across almost all organizations, which we’ll explore now:

1. Hiring “Retainable” Employees

Although we start by wanting to retain the best of our current crop of employees, it is important to remember that most organizations continue to hire people to both replace leavers and to fill new positions. It is therefore important to review current recruitment and selection practices to ensure that every individual who is hired in the future is as “retainable” as possible. In other words, we need to ensure that apart from the basic skills necessary to perform in the role in question, the newly hired person should also be a good fit for the team in question, has a good attitude and will fit in to the organizational culture.  If there is any doubt about what a “good fit” is, one relatively easy step that can be taken is to look at the best employees who have been with the organization for a long time and then look at what is common about them that made them stay.

2. The Working Climate or Culture

A foundational factor in better retention is the relative quality or health of organizational culture (into which good talent can be recruited and nurtured).

Climate or culture is sometimes seen as rather amorphous and slow to change aspect of working life in an organization. However, it can be re-shaped with some attention paid to:

  • Values
  • Policies, procedures, standards and operating guidelines
  • The physical workplace

Attention to changing any one or more of these organizational features can shift a culture considerably and make a workplace more or less attractive for people to work within.

Clearly, the main goal is to improve the organizational culture and although it is by no means a definitive list, the following are some ways in which this may be done:

  • Clarify and then widely communicate the overall vision and mission for the organization.
  • Determine organizational and individual values to help bring about greater alignment.
  • Make customer needs and expectations familiar to all employees on an ongoing basis.
  • Cultivate a feeling of teamwork and even family.
  • Promote integrity, fairness and honesty at all levels (and reward it whenever necessary).
  • Drive out mediocrity and less than acceptable performance (the “one bad apple” theory).
  • Seek to make work tasks and projects enjoyable and valuable.

In addition to the above, an organization wanting to improve its’ culture should aim to cultivate a climate of openness in which information is shared widely up, down an across the organization to help people and teams succeed.  This should include good and bad news and consistently treating people as mature adults. This helps people to appreciate the context in which they are working and how they may have to change the way things are currently done to contribute to overall organizational success.

To determine whether or not a current climate is healthy, organizations can ask questions such as:

  • Do people appreciate how the organization is performing, both overall (by a range of measures including financial) and in specific departments such as sales, operations or the staff functions?
  • Is the organization and are its managers open enough to give and receive information, or is there a climate of closely guarded data and even secrecy in places?
  • Does the organization and do its managers offer feedback on a regular “just-in-time” basis to individuals?
  • Do teams at all levels actively share information with each other to the benefit of the entire organization?

3. Individual/Team Relationships

Developing relationship strategies towards individuals and teams are mainly about how people are generally treated by the organizations’ managers and leaders. However, interpersonal and inter-team treatment is also important to consider.

Developing better relationship strategies can be described in parts:

A)  Recognize that leaders, managers or supervisors at all levels are the primary determinant of good relationships, with individuals and between teams. This population will greatly benefit from access to communication and interpersonal skill development.  If your leaders can evolve and deepen their knowledge and skills to work with diverse people in empathetic and sensitive ways, it will naturally have a significant impact on the organization’s ability to retain them.

B)  Offer personal and interpersonal training and development opportunities to all employees. This helps individuals to evolve more effective ways to interact with each other and ultimately to build stronger group relationships (both within a team and between different teams)

C)  Determine why individuals want to work for your organization. Some may not want to of course, but even these people will have useful opinions and those that do want to stay will help the managers of the organization to accentuate the positives that people like and start to lessen or design out the aspects that are unwanted or unattractive.

D)  Regularly invite employee opinions on what could be better in the team or the organization as a whole. This can be done formally (through opinion surveys or structured feedback sessions) or informally by asking managers to talk with individuals. The key is to genuinely ask for input and listen/be open to the feedback (and act upon the best of it of course).

All of the above helps to build a sense of team or a larger organizational “family”.  In families, people have conflict and problems but they learn how to find solutions to them and work together effectively in difficult times.

4. Organizational support strategies

When individuals are confident that they have what they need (e.g. the assets, tools, equipment and funding) to do their assigned tasks and projects well, job performance can increase significantly and overall job satisfaction grows.

Offering appropriate support is best done by giving every individual the information he or she needs to get his or her job done efficiently. Hence, the better the information about what people should be doing and what support they will get, the more confident they will feel about getting good results.

There are a variety of ways in which organizational support can be given to individuals by a leader but here are just a few that may be worth considering:

  • Work to remove obstacles and barriers to getting a task done (and reduce frustration).
  • Select tasks which best fit individual skills and abilities and their capacity to use assigned resources.
  • Establish effective communication systems which allow for the two-way flow of information.
  • Clearly define task responsibilities and resources
  • Encourage individuals when they take reasonable risks and reward innovation.
  • Avoid micro-managing individuals and encourage and empower them to find their own answers.

5. Proving for Employee Growth/Careers

Most individuals want to develop new knowledge and skills in order to improve their value and contribution to the organization (and in the job marketplace) and build their resume over time. Organizations therefore need to take the time to learn about the different needs of individuals and how these needs (for skills and future job openings in particular) can be best met.

Well thought-through career planning is critical to success in this area and if done well, ensures that roles are filled intelligently and even strategically with the right people and not just the person whose turn it is next or who happens to be available or at a “loose end” right now.

In general, providing good opportunities for career growth for as many individuals as possible involves:

  • Inviting input on career aspirations
  • Providing open information on forward career options
  • Creating individual learning plans.
  • Encouraging individuals to adopt a continual learning approach/philosophy
  • Establishing more widespread coaching and possibly a mentoring program.

6. Dealing with Underperformance

If we have a culture of tolerating mediocre or poor performance, it is likely that many of the organizations’ better performers will start to be affected, and morale can suffer.

In most cases, mediocre or poor performance arises for a few clear reasons:

  • People are promoted into a role they weren’t quite ready for and lack the skills or knowledge to do the job. This is not a problem in the short term and with proper training and coaching may be overcome, but is a growing problem if the situation prevails and nothing changes-team members will soon become disgruntled.
  • Some people may be poor at dealing with other individuals and need training, coaching or even performance management to deal with it. In too many organizations these poor people-relating skills are left to cause lots of damage to others and performance drops or individuals leave.
  • Personal issues may be experienced by some people (divorce, health issues, financial issues, etc.), and can inhibit performance. In the short term, patience and support may help but it is important to ensure that there is not an associated negative impact on the wider team at the same time.

To aid overall retention, it is critical for organizational managers to stay vigilant for performance mediocrity and underperformance and ask questions such as “are individuals distracted or bored with their work?”, “are individuals under pressure or showing signs or stress?”, and “are performance standards slipping and other team members starting to notice or grumble?”

7. Employee Rewards

We know from considerable research that pay alone will not retain most employees. Instead, in order to successfully retain employees, we need to look at the whole reward structure and ensure that it is “fit-for-purpose”.

Many “leading edge” organizations use a variety of hard (monetary) and soft (non-monetary) employee compensation strategies. These include:

  • Base salary
  • Other tangible monetary benefits (good vacation pay, sick pay, healthcare, training, etc.).
  • Performance related pay and incentives (such as bonuses)
  • Stock/Share options.
  • Time off and sabbaticals
  • Attendance at special events and conferences
  • Childcare and/or eldercare.
  • Employee assistance programs.
  • Fitness/Other similar club memberships or subsidies.

It is important to remember however that not only is employee compensation only one small part of the retention strategy but it may well be one of the least important compared to the six other ones we have described above.


Developing a retention strategy is not a fixed formula and care needs to be taken to ensure that a specific approach is built on a solid foundation of data about current needs and aspirations and with components that are likely to make the greatest impact for a particular organization. However, there are some retention strategy categories described above that are well-worthy of review and consideration and some of these may well form part of an overall tailored approach.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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One Comment

  1. Carlos GomezAugust 6, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    I work with companies to implement strategies to attract and retain key talent, and to motivate directly and indirectly Key-Employees that fuel growth to stay. Culture is key, feeling appreciated and included is key yet many fail to see the obvious. People work for a financial reward, that is one of the most important metrics to address (after a nice office and friendly culture).

    the old strategies of stock options, employee stock purchase ability, and cash bonuses don’t work. People perceive stocks as empty promises most of the time, they are disappointed with a bonus after the high payroll tax attached to it and value things like:

    Paid continued education, Bonuses in the form of Paid Vacations, and high a very high appreciation on deferred compensation tied to the well being and protection of their family. Disability Income, Long Term Care, Cash Value Life or a supplemental non-qualified deferred compensation program.

    Just like continued education these are seen as an investment in the employee, and portable. Certifications, degrees, and personal planning and protection strategies will be retained even after leaving the company.

    These valuable strategies are also great ways to Vest a tenure for a Key-Employee and be structured around a vesting timeline for retention.

    Employees that feel welcome, appreciated, feel they work in a pleasing environment and perceive a high self worth because the company is willing to invest in them and the protection of their family will be more productive, dedicated, and hard pressed to even consider alternative opportunities.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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