Build Harmony and Foster Relationships to Keep the Best

Few of us really want to work for someone else. Many would rather have the freedom, independence, and potential earning power of the self-employed.

But for reasons of confidence, skill, companionship, security, and convention we work for others. When times are good and jobs are plentiful, we are easily enticed to greener grass. And when times are not-so-good, we hunker down and hope we can stay until those better times return.

Therefore, keeping people with skills, experience, and proven track records is never easy. With strong economies all around the world, high demand for skilled and experienced people, and with a shrinking pool of workers, it has become harder than any time I can remember to keep these good people.

Employment is a relationship. Specifically, it is a relationship between an individual with changing needs, increasing experience, growing knowledge, and intellectual capital.

Historically, the labor market has been a buyers’ market and the employee had to work hard to prove his or her worth and to build and maintain a satisfactory relationship with the employer. The successful employees (i.e., the ones who did not get laid off or fired) found a way to maintain harmony between themselves, their managers, and their work.

Now in this sellers’ market, the employer has to take the lead in building and maintaining the relationship. Employers have a huge responsibility to their stakeholders to do everything they can to keep the best people.

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First, they have to identify their best employees, talk to them often to keep them informed, help them maintain and develop skills, and encourage them to build internal and external networks and relationships. The employer now has the responsibility of finding and keeping the balance between productive-yet-engaged and content-yet-challenged employees.

These are hard, new skills for employers. Communicating, engaging, and challenging people does not cost much when compared to the cost of recruiting and developing new employees.

Here are those four requirements for building harmonious and lasting employee-employer relationships:

  1. Practice tough love. Have a performance management system that works. Let employees know where they stand and how they are performing. Offer the opportunity to move within the company to jobs that may fit their skills and interests better. And keep the bureaucracy to a minimum and remove time constrictions. A major reason for employee unease and anger is insecurity over how their performance will be assessed. Many employees have goals and objectives that are not strategic and that lead to fear and self-doubt. For example, a colleague told me about a recent layoff she was part of. While the employee who was being let go had an excellent performance rating, so did almost every other employee in the organization. The way performance was assessed provided no meaningful information to either the organization or the individual. Performance criteria have to be clear, quantitative, and meaningful. They also have to have consequences and rewards. No other system will work.
  2. Open up and be transparent in every area. Silence and secrets are the greatest enemies of retention. When management does not update the employees on the financial and business state of the company and when rumors can be counted by the minute, turnover goes up and productivity goes down. While some people (usually the “B” and “C” players) hunker down and hide, the best ones start looking. I can?t tell you how many excellent employees who are highly valued have left their employers because of business uncertainty, lack of open communication, and a sense that management was keeping secrets from them. No one expects assurances or guarantees; what they hope for is an understanding of trends and issues. For example, are things better, the same, or worse? Are customers leaving? How is sales volume? Relationships thrive on the exchange of information. Employees should also be expected to bring problems to management and there needs to be a way to share their ideas and thoughts about improvements or changes. The two-way communication between employer and employees is as critical as performance management.
  3. Provide skills and opportunity. Education and development are the cheapest retention tools in your arsenal. We are in a talent war and we need bold experiments to find the best ways to unlock the potential of our employees. Getting people into degree or certificate programs is almost a guarantee that they will remain with your firm until they complete the program. Most will be loyal and thankful. And all will be better-educated and hopefully more productive employees. This is a BIG plus for the large organizations and you should be capitalizing on this right now. But development can also occur through on-the-job development, rotations, and informal networks and conversations. Every employer should encourage employees to transfer to different positions frequently, as well as put in rewards for managers who let their people go and who try and develop their staff. Many employees who leave organizations are simply looking for a bigger challenge or the opportunity to use new skills or degrees. Smart organizations will encourage this and motivate managers to source and hire internally whenever possible, even if it will require a bit of training.
  4. Help every employee build a social network. Employees are frequently devoted to fellow employees and feel strong attachments to them. This is what keeps many people from job-hopping. We all know how powerful networks are, and companies that actively promote employee interaction and teamwork have less discontent and less turnover than those that keep employees apart or at odds. Start clubs and social groups within the company so that people can work and play together. Some companies form college clubs for new college grads that help them become oriented to the firm and meet other new hires. This tends to raise the level of commitment they have to the organization and reduces turnover. Internal networks are powerful binding devices. Encouraging internal blogging, the use of virtual communications tools like SMS or IM, and the use of video conferencing can strengthen networks and extend them globally.

Knowledge is a powerful retention tool, so combat naivety and ignorance by sharing ideas and experiences between people from many different firms.

Employee retention is about applying the Golden Rule: do to the employees what you want done to yourself. It is about creating harmony and reducing discord. It is 90% common sense.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


7 Comments on “Build Harmony and Foster Relationships to Keep the Best

  1. Truth be told, Kevin Wheeler?s articles range from being very good at worst to absolutely top of mind; the very best that one can possibly do. (Almost as good as my articles.)Today?s article is just that; stunningly brilliant, deeply insightful and a call to action.) Unfortunately, the sad aspect of his advice is that it will be implemented by so few that in terms of creating significant and/or meaningful change, there will be little to be seen. Until American leadership wakes up and hears the call, we will be doing the same uninformed things and being lead by the same in the dark leaders who worry more about their paychecks than their organizations future.

    I suspect leadership will wake up some day but it will be as the American auto industry woke up; far too late to make a real change and to this day, still marginalized by others that continue to crush us each and every year. I strongly consider that you pass on Kevin?s article to your CEO. Who knows, maybe one of them might actually read it between doing day trades.

    Howard Adamsky

  2. I totally agree and have done and seen all these points work very well, especially when I was a senior level Naval Officer, responsible for the performance evaluation, promotion and career development of my sailors, junior officers and civil sevice staff. Civilian companies would do very, very well to heed such wisdom and insight that really work. Just take the courage, time and effort as supervisors, managers and upper- level executives to implement all these points and all your employees and your organizations will be the winners.

    Great article and keep up the good and thoughtful advice and wisdom to make us all collectively better. ERE is one of my favorite and best sources of great advice, discussions and ideas. ERE keep up the fantastic job and service to make us all better recruiters.

  3. While some people (usually the ‘B’ and ‘C’ players) hunker down and hide, the best ones start looking…

    Would this mean that the top performers are becoming the active candidates and the B and C players the passive ones? A total revolution, isn’t it…

  4. I read the same article as my predecessors in discussion did. But I had a different experience of it.

    Says Dr. Wheeler:

    ‘Employment is a relationship. Specifically, it is a relationship between an individual with changing needs, increasing experience, growing knowledge, and intellectual capital. ‘

    Between and individual and whom? what?

    Dr. Wheeler outlines the frame for the ‘individual’….but where is/are the other party(ies) involved.

    How are they/those framed in the context of ’employment as relationship’?

    Not wanting to assume anything here, i stalled at the absence of any articulation of these important elements of the relationship.

    Why? Because a host of prescriptions are given for ’employers’ to carry out if they want to build harmony and good relationships.

    But without a presentation of the other side of the relationship(s) generic to employment, they ring a bit of a reactive note.

    By way of example, I was reminded of the non-transparent husband, who lavishes appeasements to a mate he is woefully underinformed about, while at the same time remaining woefully underinformed about himself.

    So he continues to use rhetorical devices along with the appeasements *just so his mate won’t leave him*

    The prescriptions given by Dr. Wheeler merely beg the question:

    What, in the company’s DNA, is there to make these presecriptions come to life, ie have measureable objective and subjective impact in the work life of the employee, and intrinsic value within the employment culture so as to attract new talent?

    For example, Dr. Wheeler writes about providing ‘skills and opportunity’ the following:

    ‘We are in a talent war and we need bold experiments to find the best ways to unlock the potential of our employees.’

    Yes. Agreed. To those who want total victory, this is a given.

    But the fact that this is hardly the trend in businesses large and small (the self-congratulatory ones notwithstanding), means that something is being conserved by the predominant absence of ‘bold’ experimentation.

    A long-time advisor of mine in all things ‘investments’ says two things that apply here:

    1) The trend is your friend; and,

    2) Trends continue until they end.

    So, the question remains….

    what is it in the aggregate union of human personalities, which constitutes the nebulous ’employer’, that conserves the status quo (‘in relationship’) and presents employees with perhaps much less than what their ‘changing needs, increasing experience, growing knowledge, and intellectual capital’ would measure, in balance, as favorable?

    MOST BUSINESSES, (i have been inside many hundreds inside and out of the F-5000, over the last 30 years as a trainer and consultant, and as a trainer of the rank and file who enter corporations as a university based trainer) *FAIL* in the area of using the AFFECTIVE side of their talent to do the leadership training and development necessary to answer questions such as the one i’ve posed in this diatribe.

    Three key questions are necessary for ranking leaders in any organization if they are to have NON-REACTIVE employment relationships with their employees:

    1) Who are *WE*?

    2) What do *WE* do?

    3) Why do *WE* do what we do?

    These are not the same questions as when these are implied in the skull wrenching topic of ‘MISSION’ and ‘GOALS’.

    In the right circumstances, with correct facilitation, the aggregate of personalities which constitute the essence of ‘the employer’, and the affect this aggregate carries in the relationship with employees, will be better understood.

    When these are better understood by the organization’s ‘players at the top and within the rank and file’, prescriptions will bring into focus the state of this ’employment’ relationship….from bottom to top.

  5. Great article, and great comments. I agree that current leadership fails to recognize the urgency in the need to change. I also believe that the lower level managers that recognize the trend need courage to make it happen.

    Today’s climate calls for a new paradigm in business success. Companies must realize that the company mission must remain true, however, the energy and effort must be more directed toward becoming an ‘Employer of Choice.’ Find Great People, and leave customer acquisition to them. The companies that focus their attention on Becoming Employer of Choice will prosper with less recruiting costs, less turnover expense, and more profits, productivity, and engagement. (And oh by the way, Sales will soon follow).

    Employee success doesn’t come from work experience, or degree – It comes from engagement. It comes from Job Matching, and company culture. It comes being involved in exciting ‘projects.’

  6. Thanks Kevin, I always enjoy your articles as they are clear and well written and this one follows that trend. The one thing that I would say more explicitly as part of point 3 is that an employee is much more likely to stay in an organisation when they are doing a job with accountabilities and responsibilities that both engage and energize them.

    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book Good Business about the importance of matching high skill with high challenge to create flow for an employee. Google is a world class example of focusing on, not just the four things Kevin talks about in his article, but specifically matching people skills to work challenges.

    Ross Clennett

  7. Thanks Kevin for summarizing current retention thinking so nicely.
    I urge everyone to pick up a copy of the March 2007 Harvard Business Review and read two related articles: ‘What It Means to Work Here’ by Tamara J. Erickson and Lynda Gratton and ‘Maximizing Your Return On People’ by Laurie Bassi and Daniel McMurrer.

    Alex de Soto

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