Keeping Your Employee From Leaving: Some Tips for Difficult Times

I sense fear in the marketplace. Several clients have told me they are concerned that their best people are thinking about leaving and will probably do so as soon as the economy improves. This is a shame, and it can be avoided. If you are a recruiter or an HR professional in a large company, you have most likely tried to be proactive and prevent significant turnover from occurring by offering bonuses, or words of praise, or flexible hours, all the while assuring the best employees of their value. Yet this is not enough. I was speaking with an engineer last week who has survived all the downsizing of the past year, but who nonetheless is very unhappy. He is well paid, and grateful for that, but he feels that senior management has been less than candid about the economy and the financial status of the firm, and he is not happy about the way his (or others’) performance is evaluated. In our conversation, he inadvertently outlined several ways his company could keep him ó if only they understood! Here are some of his thoughts on hanging on to employees, as well as a few of mine:

  1. Offer the opportunity to move within the company easily. This means with minimal bureaucracy and without time constrictions. One of my engineer friend’s major reasons for thinking about leaving was his perception that there was little opportunity within the company. He had been working in the same function for four years and was bored. The slow economy had reduced the challenges and excitement of the earlier years, and he did not see any place to move to within the company, unless he acquired new skills.
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  3. Create rotational programs. One of the most effective ways to institutionalize internal movement is to develop a rotational program. Letting people freely apply for a variety of rotational opportunities reduces this itch to move that many feel after a year or two. These programs are also excellent ways to take “B” players ó good employees who could do more ó and give them a chance to find something that motivates them more than their current job. Many “B” players are “A” players in the wrong position. In this engineer’s case, he wanted a challenge that he clearly was not getting. A rotational program in a slow economy can be a positive way to grow some of your best people.
  4. Educate employees all the time and put them on teams. My engineer friend was more than happy to learn new skills, but the company had a freeze on development and training because of the slow economy. What a shame to limit development just when people have the time to devote to getting new skills and knowledge! A smart organization would spend more when things are slow and broaden the overall employee skill base. One way to keep these kinds of costs down is to assign people to various project or cross-functional teams where they can learn from experts while they are doing useful work. Combine this with some thoughtful mentoring and you have created a very useful development tool.
  5. Help every employee build an internal social network. This employee was clearly devoted to his fellow employees and felt a strong attachment to them. In fact, it was one thing that was keeping him from immediately and actively looking for another position. We all know how powerful networks are. Companies that actively promote employee interaction and teamwork have less discontent and less turnover than those that keep employees apart or at odds. Isn’t it also true that one way to build these networks is to allow employees to transfer easily and to work on cross-functional teams?
  6. Provide a mentor. Mentoring is something the Gen Y folks (18-to-25-year-olds) are particularly looking for, but it is also something that older employees appreciate as well. Leadership to a Gen Y’er means mentoring, not giving out orders or directing the work. One way to understand their attitude is to think about apprenticeship. In such as arrangement, the apprentice learns at the knee, so to speak, of an expert. He or she is given small tasks to complete and, when those are done well, more complicated things to undertake. In this way skills are built as well as a relationship. Mentoring is not the same as coaching, which is often focused on self-improvement and on overcoming weaknesses. Mentoring is more appropriately thought of as a way to teach. If our unhappy engineer had a real mentor he would find himself challenged and would more likely want to stay and continue to build the relationship.
  7. Communicate frankly and frequently. Forgotten in this time of national fear is the even greater need to be honest ó not just in financial reporting, but also in our relationships with employees. Senior management must be as candid as possible, even if it hurts. There is too much known information available on the Internet and from analysts to cover much up. If business is bad, let employees know, and set up ways for employees to see the CEO and other top managers in communication meetings so that they can ask their questions and vent their concerns. Fear and secrecy are bad elements; HR must be very conscious of reducing these to a minimum.

People are frustrated, sometimes angry at how their organization handled layoffs, and often, perhaps, a bit bored. When these elements are present, turnover is almost certain to rise, even in a bad economy. Many who have some savings decide that this is a good time to relax and look for something else when things get better. But losing good employees (isn’t that pretty much all you have left?) at this juncture is a sad event, and one that will make your organization’s return to a better economy more difficult. Work hard at retention and make sure managers are being flexible and creative in these tough times.

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


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