Last reviewed 18 April 2018

Bob Patchett gives practical advice on how to identify and keep hold of your most productive employees.

Who are your most valuable employees? They are of course the people you can least afford to lose because, for example, they are in key jobs, or outperform others in similar work, or turn their hand to anything that needs doing without complaint. But the question still stands — do you really know who they are? If not, you need to find out because, if they leave, you will notice a drop in overall productivity that is likely to continue indefinitely if you fail to replace them with someone of equal calibre. Even if you do replace them successfully, you will experience short-term disruption while you recruit and get the new employee up to speed. Your problem will be greater if your salary structure, albeit fair, is not attractive to the sort of people you need but who are comfortable in their present employment. So:

  • identify these key employees

  • consider how their departure is likely to affect your operations.

But why are your best people the ones more likely to leave you?

Two reasons. First, because they are particularly good at their work and are more likely to beat mediocre candidates in job interviews. And second, they are more likely to be ambitious. Ambition, however, comes in different forms. Being particularly competent, they are likely to want to sell their capabilities to the highest bidder and are able to do so by applying for better paid jobs. They may be anxious to develop their competencies by experiencing more challenging work. Or they may enjoy the personal satisfaction and respect gained from finding better ways of doing things.

So what might encourage them to leave you?

Some reasons for people leaving are outside your control. They may for example be happy working for you but dislike living in the area, or their partners may find good jobs in another town or may miss their family who live miles away, and some may feel a need to work in a much larger or smaller organisation. A larger salary may be a factor, but is rarely the only one. Nevertheless, if a person is leaving for a salary that you cannot match, either because the job is not worth that much to you or matching it would disrupt your pay structure, there is probably nothing realistically that you can do. However, other factors may well be within your control. So ask yourself — indeed investigate to find out — whether any of these key people seem bored, have lost their performance edge, are known to be applying for other jobs, voice complaints to their colleagues or, having developed some part of your operations, have now settled into a routine. If so, you have identified problems and problems are a prompt for action.

What can you do to stop them leaving?

Take a look at the job of each of your most valuable staff, adopting a mindset that he or she may give notice to leave in a few weeks’ time. What is wrong with the job? Perhaps nothing. But could the work be made more attractive? Try hard at this. What sort of person are you looking at. Does he or she seem to respond to a challenge; or enjoy resolving difficult problems; or stray into areas beyond the defined job parameters? If the answer to any of these is “yes”, then you have the makings of a solution. Is there some way that this part of the business might be improved? If so, give the idea to that employee. Ask him or her to investigate, report and make recommendations for reducing cost, making the product more attractive, increasing the effectiveness of the department or function, or whatever. Maybe you could put the person in charge of a cross-function working party to develop some part of the business. If the employee has shown evidence of broad thinking, consider telling him or her to finish work each Friday lunchtime and spend the afternoon on blue-sky thinking, dreaming up new products, improvements to present ones, anything in fact that might make the organisation better. Give an assurance that finding something innovative is not compulsory, and either one of you can call an end to the exercise at any time.

Consider also that having an interesting job is not the only reason people enjoy coming to work. Most like the companionship of colleagues. All like to feel valued. So show an interest in their work, compliment them, discuss their outside work interests and certainly ask after their families, and above all spend a little time listening to them. You will make them feel valued as people, not units of labour, and this warm relationship is likely to encourage them to tell you if something about work is bothering them. So you should do the following.

  • Look at each job:

    • How can you make it more interesting for the holder?

    • What seems to motivate the person?

    • How can you make the job more challenging?

    • Can you offer challenges outside the job?

  • Treat the employee as you would a member of your family.

Is there expert help available?

Indeed there is — the same people you are concerned about. Have a regular meeting with each of them. By all means discuss their strengths and weaknesses and how they can work to deal with the latter. Show that you are not critical of any mistakes they have made, but see them as opportunities for both of you to learn. But especially ask how they feel about the job, how they see themselves developing and what they feel you might be able to do to help. Explain that you are anxious to keep them and wish to know how you can do that. You may feel you know how to treat employees, but it is just — of course, only just — possible that you are wrong. Therefore:

  • meet your key employees regularly

  • discuss their work and their personal development

  • ask how you can make them want to remain with you.

But what should you do if one gives notice?

Show sorrow, and certainly not anger, suggestions of disloyalty, or even disappointment. Show that you understand why the person wishes to leave. Have one shot, if appropriate, to see if there is anything you can do to reverse the decision, but otherwise accept it with good grace, wish the person well and make clear that you would always consider re-engagement at any time in the future. Indeed, a shrewd move would be for the CEO or head of department to speak to the employee, thank him or her for the work done and give the person a private phone number to ring if ever he or she might contemplate returning. This is a powerful and useful technique if applied with obvious sincerity. So, when a notice letter lands on your desk:

  • don’t panic

  • don’t criticise the decision

  • wish the person good luck in the new job

  • make clear how to go about discussing a return.

And last thoughts

Take care that, in treating your key people well, you do not discourage the less valuable. But are not all employees valuable? If so, why not treat them all as outlined above?