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10 Ways to Reduce Employee Turnover

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We all know it costs thousands of dollars -- if not tens of thousands -- when an employee quits. There are recruiting expenses, your own time as you screen and interview candidates, lost productivity as someone gets up to speed, and the abiding fear that the new hire "won't take" and you'll have to repeat the Sisyphean process yet again.

So you want to keep your good employees happy. But how? Raises, time off and promotions are the currency we usually think about. But they are limited resources - -and, importantly, they often aren't the most critical motivators. Here are 10 ways to take control of your organization's culture, create a place where employees want to work, and save time and money in the process.

1) Don't Waste Their Time. You're the one paying them, so it's not a problem if they have to cool their heels a little, right? Wrong. People want to believe they're doing something meaningful and making a difference, regardless of whether you're curing AIDS in Africa or making widgets. Something as small as habitually keeping employees waiting while you finish up phone calls -- or as large as regular meetings that no one knows the purpose of -- can pummel employee morale and send the message that their time doesn't really matter.

2) Stop the Email Madness. Leadership comes from the top. Does your organization have a "CYA" culture of employees CCing each other on every minute development? Or sending a barrage of back-and-forth electronic missives when a face-to-face meeting would be quicker and more productive? Or emailing consistently late at night or over the weekend, to earn the coveted timestamp that proves their dedication to the company? Let's get real: it's an email arms race to prove who's the hardest worker. Put a stop to it. Declare a policy of "no unnecessary emails" and discourage writing at odd hours. They may be afraid to say it, but they'll be glad you did.

3) End the Pity Party. In some organizations, employees brag about who worked the longest, who stayed the latest, or who made the most sacrifices for the company. It's a bizarre blend of workplace machismo and a pathetic cry for sympathy. Don't encourage it, and don't let them get away with it, because this culture only breeds resentment over the long term. Talk with them about ways they can work more efficiently or reprioritize. This is not a competition you want them engaging in.

4) Help Them Prioritize. Though it would be lovely, your employees can't be expected to read your mind. If you gave them a "priority assignment" on Tuesday and plopped another one in their laps on Wednesday, where should they spend their time? Don't make them choose -- and run the risk of having them guess wrong. It's your responsibility, every time you hand over a new project, to ask them what's already on their plate and help them prioritize. Encourage them to question you outright if, for some reason, you falter in your duties.

5) Get Real About Expectations. No investment bank promises "great work-life balance." You know what they're selling, and it's not just IPOs. It's a chance for employees to work insanely hard and, in return, to make more money than Croesus. Is your staff working as hard as investment bankers? If they're not being remunerated in a similar fashion, be very clear about your promises. Did they know what they were signing up for (were you honest)? Is the payoff (a chance to eliminate malaria, or stock options that will one day put Sergey Brin and Larry Page to shame) really worth it? If not, they're going to leave your company sooner rather than later.

6) Try the Rhythm Method. Every company has its seasons. Accounting firms are hell on earth from January through April -- and their staffers justifiably expect a slower pace the rest of the year. The newsrooms of daily newspapers (what few we have left) are sleepy in the mornings, as the journos are getting caffeinated, and become progressively more frenzied as late afternoon deadlines approach. If your firm is a 9-5 kind of place, fine. But if you expect bursts of activity from your employees -- late nights, weekend work, and the like -- make sure they understand the rhythms and when they can look forward to a calmer time. People can get through most anything -- if they have a deadline to look forward to.

7) Help Them Develop a Growth Plan. Looking out for your employees' interests -- not just your own, or the company's -- breeds loyalty. Take the time to get to know their aspirations. If their long-term goals require new skills (the ability to speak Spanish, experience with event planning or web design, public speaking aptitude), give them relevant assignments or pay for classes as a reward. Seeing your company as a place where they can grow in their careers means you're not just a short-term stopover on their professional trajectory.

8) Help Them Master Time Management. I know--it seems like you shouldn't have to. But conquering time management is critical to any future workplace success. And, even if you've already helped your charge prioritize, they still may not have the experience yet to figure out how to put the pieces together. So if assignments are late or slipping through the cracks, or if they can't get to the office on time in the mornings, sit down and help them map out their days. Literally. It's worth a try before you have to fire them for being incompetent.

9) Don't Surprise Them. The surest ticket to happiness, according to the "positive psychologists" who study human well-being? Autonomy. It's in limited supply, of course, if you're an employee (and have to answer to a boss). But you can do your part by keeping your employees apprised of decisions early, involving them in the decision-making process where appropriate (they may even have some good ideas), and walking them through your thought process so they understand where you're coming from. No one wants to be a drone, executing commands with no understanding of the broader context. And no one wants to be kept in the dark, constantly reacting to new developments that are thrown at them. Keeping your employees involved and informed is a fundamental investment in their satisfaction.

10) Surprise Them (The Good Kind). We humans adjust pretty quickly to expectations. Our friends the investment bankers expect their year-end bonuses -- they're barely considered bonuses, but rather a lump form of salary. You expect a birthday present from your parents or your spouse. But think about how exciting and how meaningful it is when you get a present completely out of the blue. That's why "rekindling romance" books suggest it all the time. So consider doing the same for your employees. Instead of the same old "holiday party" or year-end bonus, think about what you can do throughout the year, as a surprise, to bolster morale. Just finished an important but time-consuming project? Throw an in-house ice cream sundae party. Sense that summer doldrums are enveloping your staff? Call an emergency meeting for the next day -- and then announce they can have the afternoon off. Rewards often mean more when they're unexpected.

You can never eliminate employee turnover. There will always be someone who wants to move to Zambia or become a stay-at-home parent or go write their Great American Novel. Providing geographical flexibility/telecommuting, paying for employees to take graduate classes, and paying above-market salaries are all good (though sometimes substantial) investments in lowering attrition. But the above 10 techniques -- all low-cost or no-cost -- can also make a major difference.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.