Times were tough – they still are. So you cut back on your training budget and you backed off your employee development programs because let’s face it, it was that or layoffs. Your employees understood – they all nodded their heads in the company meeting when your CEO said it was time for everyone to tighten their belts and work through this difficult year. No one resigned. No one even asked any questions.

But now they are sitting in their cubes reading the news and seeing the glimmers of recovery. They are starting to get calls from recruiters again. The grass is getting greener and not just because spring is coming.

Back in August Forbes.com published this article on preparing for the upturn but so far there has been little evidence that companies are making the changes they need to retain their high performers. So in case you’ve decided to take a wait and see attitude with respect to making sure your best workers are not eyeballing the exit, consider this quote from Richard Martin on the State of HR: From Recession to Recovery survey completed by Speechly Bircham and King’s College London HRM Learning Board:

Pressure is building and there are indicators throughout the survey findings that 2010 may see a huge release in pent-up discontent and a surge in employees looking to move on.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, voluntary turnover averaged between 20-23% between 2001 and 2006. If you assume that your high performers are also your highest flight risks, consider the impact of losing your top 20%, especially when most organizations are already coping with staffing shortages and limited resources.

So what can you do? Simple. Talk to your people. Today. Schedule a meeting with each member of your team and ask them these three questions:

  • How happy are you with your job right now?
  • Are there tools or training resources that you think would help you do your job more effectively and/or would lower your stress level?
  • Are you satisfied with your compensation?

I can see you rolling your eyes you know…  Most companies and managers don’t ask these questions because they don’t want to hear that their employees are unhappy and because they don’t have resources to offer training or compensation increases. Why ask the question if you can’t do anything about it? Here’s why:

  1. Just by asking the questions you are demonstrating your awareness that your employees have a choice. They have the option of taking their services elsewhere already, and by acknowledging that you are showing that you value them. A little appreciation goes a long way.
  2. How many times have you seen or been through the fire drill that occurs when a high performer gives their notice? Options that didn’t exist yesterday suddenly materialize. More money, flexibility, role changes, etc. This happens because managers and HR departments know that it costs money to replace employees – turnover is pricey. So why wait for the offer to let your best people know they matter?
  3. You might be surprised by how little it takes to make people happy. Sometimes it’s about a $500 training class or a little flexibility – a day a week working from home. While you might not be able to meet every request, at least you will have the details and maybe you can work them into the budget over time. People are far more willing to be patient if they know that what they want is on the schedule even if it’s not here yet.

Money is not the only metric by which people measure their job satisfaction.  Most employees, whether they do it consciously or not, have five factors that add up to their overall employment happiness quotient.  They are (in no particular order) opportunity to learn new things, opportunity to gain new responsibilities, stress, money and people.  So while you may not have the resources to make a big change to each person’s salary, you can certainly find ways to move the needle on the other four metrics.

The most powerful tool in your arsenal as you approach the task of retaining your high performers is your ability to listen.  So whether you are sitting in the boardroom or just the nicest cube in your row, if you manage people now is the time to find out whether they are happy in their chairs or perched on the edge of their seats.    Now is the time to develop and communicate an employee engagement strategy that focuses on retaining your high performers.   Now is the time to reinvest in the people that make your team great.


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