As unemployment drops yet again, we are faced with the strongest candidate’s market in nearly 50 years. Your employees have more employment options than ever—not to mention freelance and contract work—at their disposal. Innovative employee perks and benefit programs are great for the media and press (Nissan recently launched a breast milk delivery service for moms who travel away from home), but these perk programs don’t always drive measurable retention and results.

According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, three million employees have left their jobs voluntarily every month since June 2017. This figure doesn’t count layoffs or any other types of involuntary terminations. This level of voluntary turnover speaks to the extent of the retention problem many organizations face. People leave their jobs for many reasons, and the better grasp you and your team have on those reasons, the better you’ll be able to keep great employees longer.

Related: How to Retain Employees in Today’s Employee Relationship Economy

Employee retention is a growing concern for HR and business leaders

According to research by Kronos and Future Workplace, 87 percent of HR leaders are aware of the importance of employee retention and consider it a primary concern. Despite that focus, progress for many organizations have been stymied by competing priorities and a lack of resources. In the study, HR leaders identified key burnout factors falling under talent management, employee development, and leadership that should be in their control, including poor management (30 percent), employees seeing no clear connection of their role to corporate strategy (29 percent), and a negative workplace culture (26 percent).

Research by Glassdoor shows that 35 percent of employees are so unsatisfied with their salary that they’re willing to start a job search over it. In a case where salary offers are equal (or close), the company with the strongest culture will nearly always win. Culture is an incredible retention driver, but only if you’re already keeping up with basic table stakes. If your organization is not willing or able to maintain salary parity, it can’t expect to compete for talent effectively. This is especially true in regards to employees with highly valuable skills.

Employee Retention Strategies to Implement Today

Given that so many factors cited by departing employees are within the purview of human resources, there are strategies your team can implement right away to reduce turnover and increase retention. Bonus: They’re all free.

Organizational leaders can make inroads in building engagement and driving retention among their teams by employing these three free retention strategies.

#1 Listening

Relationship expert John Gottman says the number one cause of rifts between romantic partners and team members is the lack of listening between them.

According to SHRM research, 38% of employees felt that when leaders dismiss their ideas without entertaining them, they tend to lack initiative. An active and committed employee base is one of the benefits of listening to your employees.

An active and committed employee base is one of the benefits of listening to your employees. @jmillermerrell #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart

Management, HR and department leaders who are willing to tap into their own creativity and initiative, have sparked greater efforts from the workforce. Active listening starts within your ranks, and when nurtured, will branch out to your employees.

Studies show that listening is critical to leadership effectiveness. So, why are so few leaders good at it? Many leaders seek to take command, direct conversations, talk too much, or worry about what they will say next in defense or rebuttal. Leaders also tend to react quickly, get distracted during a conversation, or fail to make the time to listen to others. 

Research also shows that active listening, combined with empathy or trying to understand others’ perspectives and points of view is the most effective form of listening.  Henry Ford once said that if there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put oneself in another person’s place and to see things from his or her point of view -as well as from one’s own. Which leads us to the next point...

#2 Empathy

Getting to know your team on a personal level is important. It helps build trust, which is directly correlated to performance. Meet with your team members twice a month one-on-one to build and foster the trust and empathy among both of you.

Additional research links several notable behaviors with empathy and empathic listening. The first behavior set involves recognizing all verbal and nonverbal cues, including tone, facial expressions, and other body language. Sensitive leaders pay attention to what others are not saying and probe a bit deeper. They also understand how others are feeling and acknowledge those feelings. And they’re sincere; they ask and they listen, they acknowledge concerns with concern, and follow up with action.

Follow-up is an important step to ensure that others understand that true listening has occurred. This assurance may come in the form of incorporating feedback and making changes, following through on promises made in meetings, summarizing the meeting through notes, or if the leader is not incorporating the feedback, explaining why he or she made other decisions. In short, we can find many ways to demonstrate that we have heard the messages and that they’re important to our jobs and our organization.

We often neglect to ask questions that we don’t want to know the answer to (or that we think we already know), but the simple act of empathy in asking an employee their opinion or about their feelings can make the difference between that employee sticking around or looking elsewhere. People want to know that they’re not just being listened to; they want to know that they’re being heard.

#3 Planned recognition

As humans we want to be rewarded and recognized for our work, but sometimes it is hard as a leader to remember to recognize your team members and peers. Plan for that recognition but don’t make it blatantly obviously by adding a recurring appointment to your calendar to recognize one of your teammates for their hard work.

Many companies encourage their employees’ opinions through contests, rewards, and bonus structures. When employee ideas are heard and encouraged, the company can stand to positively impact the bottom-line, while simultaneously engaging the employee.

When employee ideas are heard and encouraged, the company can stand to positively impact the bottom-line, while simultaneously engaging the employee. @jmillermerrell #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart

Some employers make the mistake of moving forward with plans, like benefits programs, and bonus structures, without engaging their employees first. Listening to employees’ concerns can help you develop retention strategies that focus on boosting employee morale. With a solid program in place, one that encourages active listening of employee concerns, you can have a positive impact on your retention percentage.

Retention was the number one challenge identified by HR professionals in 2016, just as it was in 2015, according to survey findings from the Society for Human Resource Management and Globoforce. As organizations step up their efforts to hold on to their top talent, the survey shows that employee recognition strategies are evolving in an attempt to keep pace.

Your authentic employer brand is key to authentic employee recognition. In the same survey, most HR professionals said their company’s recognition practices had a positive effect not only on retention but also on engagement, culture and employee happiness. When recognition programs were linked to organizational values—when they reinforced the outcomes and behaviors most associated with the company’s guiding beliefs—the programs were more likely to lead to a higher perceived return on investment among employees.

Related: 4 Ways to Live Your Corporate Values and Keep Your Brand Alive

Some organizations require a person who nominates a worker for an award to provide an explanation of how the employee’s actions demonstrated corporate values. In addition, well-aligned efforts were also associated with instilling and reinforcing corporate principles, maintaining a strong employer brand, and meeting learning and development goals.

Retention is not likely to get less challenging anytime soon, nor is the candidate’s market going to loosen. Rather than competing on unique perks or temporary media attention for them, the human factor is one thing that will not change. Employees want to be treated like human beings; not human line items. It’s imperative that top performers be top-of-mind for employers who want to reduce turnover, particularly in highly competitive industries like healthcare and technology.


Jessica Miller-Merrell is a workplace change agent and author focused on human resources and talent acquisition. She lives in Austin, TX and is recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer. She's the founder of Workology. 

12 June 2018

speak to an expert.

find out what we can do for your organization and employees.

contact us