Keeping the Best When Times are Tough

Even though there are layoffs announced every day, organizations I am speaking with still need to keep the people who generate sales, create new products, or have the intellectual capital the organization needs to continue functioning. Good people know that even in these difficult economic times, they can find another position. They are most likely being actively recruited without your knowledge.

I had lunch a few days ago with a recruiting leader who expressed his concern over the spike in turnover among the most critical segment of his company’s workforce. After we chatted for a while it became clear to me that this organization was not doing very much to encourage these people to stay. According to him, even though the company was doing well financially and expected to meet its sales goals for at least the first quarter, many employees were just waiting to be laid off. No information was being shared, and executives huddled in their offices all day.

Employment is about relationships, and the strongest relationships are built on trust, respect, and open communication. When things are difficult, it is more important than ever to make sure your management team is present, is as upbeat as it can be, and that every member of the executive staff is visible and concerned about every employee.

To maintain the employment relationship, employers have a huge responsibility. First of all they need to clearly know who their best employees are, keep them informed, help them maintain and develop skills, and encourage them to build networks and internal relationships.

None of these things costs much when compared to the cost of recruiting and developing new employees, and none of them are really very hard to do. But, to put them into place does require a change of mindset and a willingness to break (or at least stretch) the usual policies and rules that exist in many organizations. Good HR and good recruiting is all about treating people fairly — not necessarily the same.

Here are four ways to build and maintain loyalty and a strong employee-employer relationship.

First of all, keep employees informed. Silence is the greatest enemy 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. No one expects assurances or guarantees; what they hope for is an understanding of trends — are things better, the same or worse? Are customers leaving? How is sales volume?

In this age of open Internet discussions and the transparency of information, employees may now more about your organization’s profitability, sales, or potential than you do. That’s why keeping anything from them is very hazardous and, if employees discover that they have been lied to or not informed, they can quickly lose their motivation and start looking for new opportunities.

Secondly, have a fair and clear performance management system. Let employees know where they stand and how they are performing. Be clear about performance and layoff criteria and explain the reason why certain people or types of employees were laid off and why others weren’t. Be clear about what weight individual performance had in decisions about people, and what weight was placed on circumstances such as a function being changed or eliminated. I know that sharing this information is discouraged for legal and other reasons, but it is more and more important to share what you can given the changed expectations and lower tolerance that employees have today.

Offer your best employees an opportunity to move within the company to jobs that may fit their skills and interests better, if that is possible. It is also a good idea to keep the bureaucracy to a minimum and remove time constraints. A major reason for employee unease and anger is insecurity over how their performance will be assessed. Very few employees have strategic performance objectives or spend time periodically reviewing their achievements with their boss.

Many employees, unfortunately, 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.

Relationships thrive on the exchange of information, and two-way communication between employer and employees is as critical as is performance management.

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Help every employee build a social network. Employees make friends and build relationships that can be strengthened or damaged during stressful times. Many employees stay at an organization because of who they get to work with, and many leave for the same reasons. We all know how powerful social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and even Twitter have become, and companies can use these networks to promote employee interaction and teamwork.

Good organizations can even develop networks for those who have been laid off so that they can help each other and retain the connections they had when employed. By making these kinds of assets available, organizations not only improve their own reputation and brand and help former employees, but also reinforce the loyalty and motivation of employees who are still working.

Encourage internal blogging, the use of virtual communications tools like SMS or IM, and the use of video conferencing to strengthen networks and extend them globally. Knowledge is a powerful retention tool and naivety and ignorance can best be combated by sharing of ideas and experiences between people from many different firms.

Educate employees all the time. In bad times, employees have time to soak up new information. Education and development are the cheapest retention tools in your arsenal. Locking 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 of them will be better-educated and hopefully more productive employees. This is a big plus for large organizations, and you should be capitalizing on this right now.

But development can also occur through on-the-job development and through many informal networks and conversations. Every employer should encourage employees to share knowledge using social networks or communities of practice, and employers should reward managers who encourage their employees to take classes or take on new responsibilities.

Many employees who leave organizations are simply looking for a bigger challenge or the opportunity to use new skills or degree. Smart organizations will encourage this and motivate managers to source and hire internally whenever possible and even if it will require a bit of training.

None of this is new or unique. Much of retention in good and bad times is treating employees fairly and as mature adults. Sharing information and being transparent is the best thing any of us can do.

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


6 Comments on “Keeping the Best When Times are Tough

  1. Kevin – all good ideas. Another to think about is investing to make sure internal transfers go smoothly. More and more companies are realizing the benefits of investing in onboarding to accommodate, assimilate and accelerate new employees. The best companies know that investing behind internal transfers of their best people has similar if not greater benefits. They help internal transfers get a head start before their new start, control their message and build their new team.

    George Bradt
    PrimeGenesis Executive Onboarding and Transition Acceleration
    Author of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan and Onboarding – how to get your new employees up to speed in half the time

  2. Kevin,
    Another terrific article, stating what so many of us know and what so few put into practice.

    Another thing we can do is give our best people the most challenging assignments. When organizations are trimming, very often the most talented and valuable employees get asked to pick up some of the lesser prized responsibilities. Keep giving your best people the best work to keep them engaged and energized. They won’t be offended by the challenges, they’ll feel energized and valued. This is how to retain your best people. Give them work they enjoy and that they feel is appropriate for their level.
    Thanks, Ron

  3. Kevin,

    I really like George’s comment on how we shoud utilize the same diligence with internal transfers. Making the movement between lines of business and divisons easier seems to be an area that many organizations can do a better job at.

    Ronald’s comment on special assignments is spot-on as well! If one really thinks about it…Everyone wants to feel valued; perhaps to feel they are compensated and appreciated slightly more than they secretly believe they are worth.

    Thank you, Jerry

  4. Hi Kevin,

    A great practical article Kevin, thank you. I agree that it is so important for businesses – particularly those medium and larger size businesses that are often in a better financial position to retain staff when times get tough, to actually take a longer term view.

    Not only is recruitment frequently approached in a reactive manner with a short term goal, the same applies for retention. When businesses see it is getting tough, the simplistic way to deal with it is to shed people. Often these businesses don’t know who they need to be keeping in the short term and the longer term to help them turn the business around. Without a workforce plan, and formal practises in place to monitor performance and know who is generating what value for a business, it can often be a case of perception about who they need to keep and who to shed. If there is no clear case for either they should be thinking twice about how they are operating.

    There are not enough companies who manage the retrenchment process well, which in unfortunate for those who are exited without any dignity and those who are left working in s state of constant unease and no doubt planning their escape!

    I am also a great advocate for all businesses who retrench staff to offer some sort of outplacement or career coaching support. Some consultancies here such as Bravo Consulting work with those employees who have been retrenched and those who remain with the company, which I think it just brilliant to ensure your staff can discuss how they are feeling, talk about where their job sits or may be heading and to actually keep moral and productivity.

    On Six Figures we have some complimentary resources around succession planning and career coaching for HR

    Kelly Magowan
    CEO, Six Figures

  5. how do you keep you best….when the mediocre with long tenure are retained….Most companies do a very poor job of rewarding talent…There were some well know successful American Companies that laid off people in December 2008. These companies were in fact profitable…however decided to hire in Asia……ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS…I would never suggest anyone to recommend people to these companies that fired great people for the sake of a attractive Balance Sheet.

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