Five Simple Ways to Retain Top Talent on a Shoestring Budget

I love small and medium sized HR shops for a number of reasons, but none more than for the simple fact, smaller sized HR shops have to be creative.

My Grandma grew up during the Great Depression and got real used to have nothing, so like many people during that time in history, they worked their butts off, made do with what they had, and came up with some really creative ways to get things done.

In retirement she loved eating out at restaurants, probably because she was forced to cook all those years because she couldn’t afford to go out, but in retirement she didn’t really have the money to do this as much as she wants. To solve this problem (Great Depression people are real problem solvers!) she tinkered at home, cooking the dishes she liked the most from her favorite restaurants until you couldn’t really tell the difference between hers and the restaurant.

Small HR shops are creative like Grandma

I remember showing up at her place late one night with my younger brother and he was hungry, and Grandma couldn’t wait to feed “boys” (she lived for that), and she asked him what he was hungry for (he was 12 at the time) – he told her “nachos.”

Now, I was pretty sure she had no idea what nachos were, but she went to work and about 20 minutes later she came out with a plate of nachos stacked so high with melted cheese and ground beef and salsa and sour cream, that you would have thought she drove down to your favorite sports bar and brought it back!  Some 15 years later, my little brother still talks about those nachos.

Creativity and small HR shops remind me of Grandma.

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Having worked in big HR shops, the one thing that frustrated me most was sitting around in large meetings trying to figure out how to “fix” retention – and listening to all the ways and how much money it was going to cost. In the end I always came back to this: if we just take all this money we are going to spend on the “fix” and just go out and hand it to the employees, we probably won’t have a retention problem – but large HR shop folks don’t like to hear that!

So for you small HR shop folks out there, with little or no money to spend on increasing your retention, I came up with a few ideas you might want to try before you go spend all that money on that recognition software and anniversary awards.

Five “no money” ways to retain talent

Here are some “No Money Retention Fixes”:

  1. Fire the manager with the lowest retention. You have the data, you know who is turning people over, and your organization needs to send a message that managers, not HR, not the CEO, are responsible for retaining talent. This has to be the first step – your leaders have to have a clear understanding it is their job to retain, their employees – and they’ll be held accountable for it.
  2. Measure it by Department, and post it publicly for all to see. No, don’t just share it in meetings, just put it up in the lobby, down the halls, everywhere. Then just wait; it will almost change overnight because no one likes to be at the bottom of any list and have everyone know it.
  3. Fire your worst performers – then use that money to compensate your best employees more. It’s a wash – your worst employees aren’t helping your productivity anyway, and your best will appreciate the increase, appreciate you noticing the bad people who were taking away from the team, and, they’ll give you more discretionary effort. The result: same cost (actually less if you factor in benefits, taxes, etc.) more productivity, and a little less headcount.
  4. Have your senior leadership talk about retention publicly, constantly. That which gets measured will get changed, and that which gets measured and has the eye of senior leadership will get changed much quicker!
  5. Institute a “Save Strategy” for employees who want to leave. Save Strategy? If an employee puts in their notice, have them go meet with your CEO and explain why they are leaving. You’ll be amazed at the results and how many people will change their minds. Some people just want to know you care – and sitting down for some one-on-one with the CEO shows that a whole bunch.

This was originally published on The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


8 Comments on “Five Simple Ways to Retain Top Talent on a Shoestring Budget

  1. Bow down. Tim, this is a great and totally spot on article. It’s really sad how little common sense enters into the equation at some levels. I wanted to make sure that I said this, instead of tweeting or Fbing the article, which I will also do. Responsibility? Accountability? Backing HR up at all levels of the company? Why…it’s almost like if you followed these rules, you’d be DOING YOUR JOB! 🙂

  2. Tim, I have to say that while on the surface, your Five Ways to Retain Top Talent seem like good ideas, I wonder what they actually accomplish? Is this not creating a punishment system for the managers/leaders who have the worst results instead of identifying the root causes of why the organization’s top talent is not staying? Yes, there should be some repercussions for continued poor performance, but creating a climate of fear among the organization’s leaders could do more harm than good.
    Instead, I would propose it be more advantageous to look into the organization’s hiring practices. Are they hiring for fit or just hiring a skill set? Once they have hired for fit, how are they onboarding and managing the new employees first 90 days? Are they ensuring ther new employee is being accepted into the organization and finding his/her way through the political landmines and established practices? Once the new employee is seasoned, is the organization re-recruiting their team? Or do they just take them for granted? Is the organization providing managers with the skills necessary to lead people effectively? Is there trust between the employees and the managers? Do the employees and middle managers have a voice? Does the organization’s leadership know what the employees concerns are and are they taking action to provide an environment where their people can do their best work?
    In this day and age, I would find it difficult to believe that any manager or leader does not believe that there is need to retain their top talent. We have all read the studies about the upcoming skilled labor shortage. We have all had the misfortune to lose a top performer. But merely talking about the need to retain talent, is very different from having the culture, climate and practices in place to ensure your top talent continues to choose you as their employer of choice.
    Is there a place and time to turn your worst performing manager and employee? Absolutely. Is there a need to talk about retention publically? Absolutely. But don’t get fooled into thinking that either will lead to the results an organizaation is driving to achieve. Retaining talent is hard work. But you’re right, it is not about how much money you spend that will determine what talent you retain or lose. It is about the organization’s actions.

    1. Bob –

      What’s insane about dealing with bad managers, low performers, measuring and communicating your retention numbers and telling your employees that you want them to stay? Oh, that’s right – it’s hard to bill for that advice as a consultant…

  3. I would argue that most top talent doesn’t want to work in a “fear” culture, which IMHO is what would result from these suggestions. Also these suggestions seem to align better to a “peformance” organization, which is not the right culture for all businessess. While I won’t debate you couldn’t sell organization leadership on these suggestions, good luck installing and seeing bottom-line results with this at Hallmark or the local tri-state, family owned business for example.

    I could argue every one of the suggestions are far from being “no-money” either. Firing employees brings cost in severance and securing the exhiled employees replacement (not to mention, replacing management talent on any level is even more costly and difficult). Analytics, good analytics that is mined/dynamic/actionable at least, costs time and money. Again firing isn’t free, so redistributing that “savings” is a false gain. Leadership should talk about retention, but we all know the reality of having a “healthy” attrition rate. CEO’s, even at the 50 employee company level, probably don’t have the time to do 1 on 1 please stay meetings (unless it’s a top sales or leadership role). CEO’s time is the most valuable in organization and HR relies on the CEO to retain employees, then it’s time to get some new HR staffers or consultants.

    Retaining employees is a difficult and extremely situational predicament. While the suggestions are valid and likely to be extremely effective in the right culture and situational context, I would never recommend them as a blanket fix.

  4. You know what guys – retaining employees isn’t that difficult – but I get if you’re in a consulting role trying to sell that service – you need to make it sound like increasing retention is similar to launching the Space Shuttle.

    In the end – that what gets measured, and gets measured publicly – get’s changed. Say what you want, but accountability still works in most organizations today. It’s not about fear and it’s not about spending more money on training and processes. It comes down to doing the basics of HR well.

    People want to work for organizations that don’t suck. That means get rid of your crappy managers and low performers, hold people accountable to the same stuff, across the board – and in the end let your employees know that you really value them – and mean it.

    This isn’t some difficult and hard to figure out formula – it’s common sense.

  5. This article makes a lot of common sense. I think we need more of this when making decisions that need to be cost effective.

    Sandra M

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