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Retaining Star Players

How to keep your best employees.

You've done a great job of hiring the right employee, and you have spent a significant amount of time and money in training. Now, one or two years into the job, however, your up-and-coming star employee decides to leave your company to work for someone else.

One common misconception among employers is that the most important aspect of any top employee's job is making the most money possible. If you believe that, however, you will constantly find yourself paying more and more money to your top employees in an effort to fend off the next suitor trying to hire them away.

In fact, most employee job-satisfaction surveys rank compensation around third or fourth among the most-important things. Well, if throwing money around isn't the answer, how then do you retain your best people?

Your business, their future
In the aforementioned surveys, the most important factor in determining an employee's job satisfaction typically is that employee's ability to see a favorable career path in their future.

Plotting out this sort of career path for each top performer, however, will require an extra effort on your part. Spend time with your employees to discuss their future with your business. Ask them where they see themselves in 2 or 3 years. What about their plans in 5 to 10 years? Don't assume that they share the same vision for their future with your company that you do.

Discussing their future can help you in a couple of ways. First of all, some of your best employees may not realize that you actually have them in your future plans. They may assume that management positions are already set, and for them to continue to progress in their career they will have to eventually find another job. Here's your opportunity to acknowledge how much you value their worth to the company.

On the other hand, some of your stars may have definite plans to do other things in their life"?things that have nothing to do with your business. Your company may be just a short stop along the way. In this situation (and if they choose to share this with you), you may opt to avoid expending valuable time and money training that employee for a future position.

In both cases, what's key is sharing your future plans with your top personnel, and discussing how each of them fit into those plans"?now, and in the future.

Beyond the money
Providing employee benefits above and beyond salary is another key to retaining your best people. For example, one of the most effective benefits you can offer to your employees is some sort of retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or a Keogh plan. Another benefit you may wish to evaluate is your vacation or personal time off (PTO) policies. While additional vacation time allotted to your employees certainly should be considered a cost to your company, it often can be an easy benefit to add to without costing you out-of-pocket cash (as does a bonus or salary increase).

An additional incentive for key personnel: a profit-sharing plan. Profit-sharing plans can be creatively constructed so that certain profitability benchmarks must be achieved before money is distributed. If your top employees perform to those standards, it becomes a win-win situation"?they make more money, as do you.

Creating a positive work environment can also make a big difference in retaining your top employees. Regardless of how much they're paid, your people must be happy in the work place. As a manager, one of your most important jobs is fostering a setting in which your employees will look forward to coming to work. Let's face it"?this is where they spend a significant part of their day.

Evaluating replacement costs To retain your best employees, you must offer competitive compensation within the marketplace. You can build the best programs, provide ample opportunities for your employees to progress in their career, offer great benefits, and cultivate wonderful work surroundings"?but if you don't pay your top people a competitive wage, you will eventually lose them.

Be careful not to take them for granted, even if they're very happy. While you may not have to pay them the highest rate on the market, you had best make sure that you are compensating them fairly. Ask yourself this question every once in awhile: "What would it cost me to replace this person?"

Finally, keep in mind that while the competitive marketplace for graphics is a narrow band, the competitive market for employees cuts a broader swath. The best and brightest will not only be sought after by your competitors"?you are competing with every other business out there as well.

Marty McGhie (marty@ferraricolor.com) is VP finance/ operations of Ferrari Color, a digital-imaging center with Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Sacramento locations.

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