Retaining Great Employees

04/22/2013 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013
  • Dr. Ricardo Azziz Regents' Professor, Augusta University (AU); former founding president, Georgia Regents University (now AU) and former founding CEO, Georgia Regents Health System

I previously wrote about recruiting new talent in order to ensure a strong and vibrant work force. The vital next step is retaining excellent employees once you have them on board.

Building a team is one of the principal roles and goals of leadership. This means, to a great degree, getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats.

The best way to do this is to set a good example. As a supervisor, clearly articulate your expectations, both in writing and in person. Explain exactly what is required to excel under your leadership and at your organization, set clear deadlines, then touch base regularly to ensure your expectations are being met. Inspire your employees with your own enthusiasm, positivity and competence. Offer ample positive feedback, but not gratuitously. Provide criticism fairly but firmly. Remember, improvement is the employee's responsibility.

Solicit your employees' feedback as well. Ask them to verbalize their expectations and career goals, and maintain clear and accessible lines of communication. Such interaction will create organic and dynamic information exchange. This is crucial, but it doesn't preclude the need to document your employee's performance. In addition to mandated performance appraisals, give regular feedback verbally and in writing, copying Human Resources.

Create a satisfying, enriching job experience by investing in training and education. Nothing is more frustrating than boredom or stagnation. Ensure that your employees continually have the opportunity to enhance their competencies and skills. This will not only improve their job performance, but will foster ongoing motivation and enthusiasm.

Insist on excellence, but understand that your employees are human. Avoid over-familiarity, but get to know them, conveying compassion and empathy as they fulfill their responsibilities. Remember, no one is perfect. Create an environment where people know they will be supported even when they falter, as long as they remain committed to improvement. Mistakes are inevitable, but competence is non-negotiable.

On-the-job conflicts are inevitable, but the best way to resolve them is to avoid them. Anticipate problems before they arise, and set the tone for an open, honest and principled working environment. But don't avoid confrontation if needed. Nip problems in the bud, and try not to over-react. Everyone has an occasional bad day.

Don't respond to complaints and requests immediately. If you're interacting in person, thank the employee for the information and promise to investigate. If you've received a complaint or request in writing, wait several days to respond if it's extremely negative and study your HR policies. Write responses as drafts to "get it out of your system," but don't send them until you've cooled off and can respond appropriately and productively. Sometimes the best action is no action at all. Silence can be golden in allowing emotions to settle.

If conflict arises between employees, suggest that all parties sit down together to discuss, compromise and resolve. Arbitrate if a resolution is not forthcoming, and avoid openly taking sides.
If an employee is under-performing, determine whether more training or career development would help. Skills aren't necessarily intuitive. Clearly identify problem areas and provide a performance improvement plan. Your ongoing communication and documentation will provide a clear road map to the employee's future.

Remember that 95 percent of employees are trying to do a good job. Don't assume laziness or indolence. More likely, the right employee is in the wrong job (a management error) or the wrong employee is in the right job (a hiring error). Then, either revise the job description and responsibilities or direct the employee to a better-suited job (i.e., get the right employee in the right seat).

Terminations are always difficult for both employer and employee. However, at times, the only way to ensure you have the right people on the bus and in the right seats is to get the wrong people off the bus. Fairness in hiring also means that you will expect the same high level of performance from all your employees. If some employees are allowed to under perform, this is unfair to their colleagues who are striving to excel. In addition to lowering morale, an under performing employee is an unhappy employee. Nobody wants to feel he is not of the greatest value.

We should always remember that a job is a privilege, not a right, and patronage is long gone. A leader's principal duty is to ensure the excellence and fit of his or her team. Under performing employees who do not respond successfully to counseling and corrective action will be better off in another position where their skill set and effort is better appreciated.