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Not Retention, Engagement

(December 11, 2003) - When we think of retention, we think of water. The next time someone mentions having a retention problem, ask "Are you bloated?"

It's a very bad name for a very good idea. The very word retention makes it seem like the organization is the sole actor in resolving the problem of "getting the right people to continue to work at our organization". The company retains or it doesn't. The employees are the passive recipients of retention programs.

Even in the current murky environment, employees decide to stay or leave. As long as the cause for termination isn't downsizing, performance or some other business reason, the employee has at least an equal part in the decision to remain. As the unemployment rate falls, their share in that decision grows.

Although there are certainly a small number of employers who cling to the idea that the relationship is one-sided, most real players acknowledge the change that has happened in the firm's relationship with its members. In the 21st Century, loyalty is a choice, not an obligation of the employment contract.

We think a better term would be "engagement". The goal of effective 'retention programs' is to improve the bond between employees and the firm; to increase the likelihood that they will stay; to decrease the likelihood that they might leave.

In order to accomplish these objective, the company has to perform several tasks:

  • demonstrate the alignment between individual goals and organizational success;
  • create a motivational environment that rewards the investment of passion and focus from employees;
  • make the benefit of staying higher than the cost of leaving;
  • show the employee how to increase the value of their contribution;
  • accept and reward passion and commitment when they are demonstrated.

It's surprising how little of the efforts described as "Retention" focus on the actual work that people do. An "Engagement" Program would start at the level of the actual work and improve the organization by making workers more effective. Hassle reduction and the introduction of useful tools into the environment are the essential keys to success.

John Sumser

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