Retention Challenge 2016: What Can Learning Professionals Do?

A column by Diane Stafford, 2016 Workplace Trends: Churn Up, Pay Flat, which I saw posted to the Website of the Seattle Times, guesses that employee retention will be a challenge in 2016.

Many Baby Boomers (though not my boss, unfortunately) likely will be retiring this year, and Stafford also guesses that many Millennials will be fickle and look for work elsewhere faster than their employers thought they would.

What can your company do to retain employees? More importantly, what can trainers do to help improve your company’s employee retention?

One of the reasons employees leave a company—maybe even the top reason—is dissatisfaction with managers. In your new manager training and leadership development, how can you teach not just efficient and effective management, but the kind of management that makes it easy for employees to stay long-term with your company?

I read, and blogged over the summer, about an article in The New York Times about the management culture at Amazon. I was horrified. That’s a prime example of a company that’s doing very well, despite having employee retention problems. It makes you wonder how much better it could be doing if it had a long-term, consistent workforce. Most companies are not doing as well as Amazon, so while a large company like that can withstand the costs and stress of frequent turnover, your company probably can’t. Or at least it can’t without experiencing a greater impact to the bottom line.

I wrote about time management in my last blog, and that’s a great place to start in training managers in the skills they need to be tolerable bosses. Not just time management in getting their own tasks done, but also in setting deadlines with employees, and helping employees prioritize their workloads. In the management seminars you offer, you could give participants a hypothetical list of assignments for them and their work group, and then ask each of them to explain exactly how they would go about getting it all done, including how they would help their work group members complete the needed tasks. Then, to follow up, a Learning professional could sit in on one of the manager’s meetings with employees, in which ongoing, or old, assignments are checked up on and new assignments are given. The trainer then could offer the manager feedback on how he or she is doing.

Allowing employees to review their managers anonymously, and with guaranteed protection not to be punished by the manager, also could be helpful. It’s harder to do this when your work group consists of just one or two employees because the individuals then feel they can’t have anonymity in their critique. But it’s important to have a party outside the manager’s boss hear about what the manager’s employees think of her management style. Often the manager and her boss have become friends, or at least allies, so it can be hard for the manager’s boss to give an entirely frank review. Or, at the very least, the manager’s boss offers just one perspective on the manager’s performance. The manager’s employees probably have an entirely different perspective to offer. It’s worth hearing.

Along with unrealistic, or poorly managed, workloads, employees are eager to leave managers who are ungenerous. Ungenerous managers are mainly interested in preserving and bolstering their own position. They hoard all plum assignments, such as interesting conferences or events or exciting projects, for themselves, while relegating their employees to the grunt work. They also tend to shut their employees out of meetings, choosing instead to present their employees’ ideas and work themselves. They don’t want their bosses to have too much exposure to the high-performing employees who work under them. They don’t want their bosses to know that some of the employees working under them are more efficient, and have great ideas of their own, and require only half, or a quarter, of the salary the manager is being paid.

Department heads should be taught not to be too deferential to hierarchy in communicating with employees. If an employee sends her ideas or observations to a department head, or her manager’s boss, it’s not OK for the manager’s boss to just communicate back to the employee through the manager. It’s important for employees to see that they are acknowledged in a first-hand way by whomever they send the e-mail to, even if that person is not their direct manager.

In addition to enabling employees to share their perspective of their manager with Learning professionals, you can make managers’ career progress partly dependent on how well the employees they supervise advance in their careers—how long they stay with the company, and what kind of development growth, in terms of new assignments and demonstrated new skills, they experience.

Your managers are important players at your company, deserving of your appreciation and support, but you should track how well each of them retains employees, and how each of the employees under their long-term supervision is developing.

Does your company plan to ramp up retention efforts in 2016? What kinds of retention improvements do you seek to make this year?


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