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Turn Your Organization into a "Talent Magnet"

Although most business owners and CEOs say they realize the critical role attracting and retaining high quality employees plays in their company’s success, a recent survey by Kepner-Tregoe of Princeton, New Jersey, seems to demonstrate what many employees experience firsthand—many employers don’t “walk the talk.” In their survey of 1,290 employees, Kepner-Tregoe found that 64% of workers stated that top management doesn’t initiate programs to reduce turnover.

When management does address this issue, it often focuses its attraction and retention efforts on financial factors: competitive pay and a good benefits package. Although important, these are not enough to attract and retain the best of the best. In fact, the Kepner-Tregoe study revealed that 40% of employees felt that increased salaries and financial rewards were ineffective in reducing turnover. In Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” survey, not a single employee mentioned money as a reason why they loved the place they worked. If competitive salary and a generous compensation package aren’t enough, what does make a company the kind of place that draws great people to it, and makes them want to stay? In short, what makes a company a Talent Magnet?

Talent Magnet organizations attract and retain great employees because they satisfy the key human needs that influence performance and loyalty. In this article, we will identify several core human needs that affect how people feel about a company and how Talent Magnet organizations address these. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive but rather a place for HR managers to begin the conversation with their fellow managers about how they can co-create a "Talent Magnet Organization."

What are employees looking for?
  • Pride in where they work and what they do.  The people employers want most—those who do an outstanding job and take pride in their work—want to be proud of the company they work for. Companies that produce mediocre products or provide poor service have difficulty attracting and retaining excellent workers, regardless of how generous their benefits and compensation package. Conversely, companies that offer the highest quality products and service are far more likely to attract and retain the “best of the best.” Employee pride also comes from observing management making decisions that show a clear understanding of what is going on “in the trenches.” When management tolerates shoddy decision-making and mediocre practices, pride is damaged. When an organization embodies excellence, it creates a self-reinforcing, winning success cycle—a great company that attracts the kind of people who make it possible for the company to remain great.

  • Meaning and purpose.  Meaningful work makes workers feel alive in a way a generous benefits package cannot. In the words of Studs Terkel, author of Working, employees “search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

How do Talent Magnet organizations address this issue?

  1. They embody a mission and a vision that captures the hearts and souls of their work force.
  2. They continuously communicate their mission and vision to their people.
  3. They communicate the important role each employee has in making the vision a reality.
  4. They give employees the tools and freedom to make a difference in the company.
  5. They let employees hear “the voice of the customer” to help them stay connected to the bigger picture. For example, Medtronics, a medical products company in Minneapolis, helps its employees hear the voice of the customer and stay connected to the big picture by flying in patients whose lives were saved by Medtronics products, along with their families and doctors, to the company’s annual holiday party, and letting employees hear their stories.
  • Appreciation.  Research shows that appreciation is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, employee motivator. And, it is simple and inexpensive. How do you show appreciation? It can be as simple as saying "Thanks for doing a great job," when handing out paychecks, as does Meredith Burgess of Burgess Advertising, a Portland, Maine firm known for having far greater employee and client retention than is typical for an industry characterized by rapid turnover and fickle relationships.

    Doug Levin, CEO of Fresh Samantha, the natural fruit juice phenomenon from Maine, solicits information from managers every week about who has done a great job, gone the extra mile or has done some other outstanding “Juicehead” action, and sends them “thank you” notes. At Oakhurst Dairy, of Portland, Maine, co-owners Bill and Stan Bennett are always on the lookout for employees going the extra mile; they  then make sure those employees get a gift certificate to dinner, the movies or some other small token of appreciation. It’s not the “prize” that matters as much as the underlying message: “We don’t take you for granted; we notice the good things you do.” In fact, management at Talent Magnet companies is careful not to confuse prizes, awards and Employee Appreciation Days with genuine, ongoing, person-to-person displays of appreciation. The former can create cynicism and decrease motivation; the latter taps into one of the most powerful human needs and motivators.

  • Opportunities to learn and grow.  When work allows employees to use their minds, acquire new skills and face situations that invite them to grow, they come alive. Talent Magnet organizations provide their employees with ongoing learning opportunities. They do this not only through formal training but through cross-training and assigning employees projects and responsibilities that cause them to stretch. Even for production work that might not be considered “knowledge work,” innovative companies like Hussey Seating of South Berwick, Maine, design jobs so front-line employees get to bring their brains as well as their brawn to work. Using a team model, production workers at Hussey Seating are actively engaged in decision making and process improvement initiatives.

    While management at non-Talent Magnet organizations view training as a luxury they either can’t afford, or don’t have the time for, management at Talent Magnet organizations see it as investment in attracting, retaining and growing a world-class workforce.

  • Respect.  Managers at Talent Magnet organizations realize that every management action, response or communication conveys a message about how much management respects—or doesn’t respect—its employees. They realize that simple demonstrations of respect, like not requiring employees to ask permission for every minor decision, or saying “Would you...” rather than “You should...” or “You need to...,” when assigning tasks, makes a big difference in employees’ attitudes. Management shows respect by soliciting input from people on the front line. When Keane Inc.’s co-presidents Brian and John Keane Jr. go out into the field and ask their people, “What do you recommend we do about this situation?”, they send a clear message of personal and professional respect and reinforce Keane’s reputation as a great place to work. Asking for employee input about the organization and its management practices—and then responding to the feedback—is another sign of respect.

    Respect is also shown by recognizing that employees have a life outside of work. It’s demonstrated by not piling on so much that work employees don’t have a life and not requiring them to beg for flexible scheduling so they can meet their other life responsibilities. At Tom’s of Maine, employees recently requested that they be permitted to leave early on Friday during the summer. Management agreed to the request and productivity has not decreased. Tom’s management also maintains a flexible attitude concerning their workers’ child care challenges, resulting in employees who can focus on doing a great job, rather than on how they are going to juggle work and home responsibilities.

This isn’t rocket science...So how come so few companies do these things?

These needs are so basic, so obvious, yet so often not met by companies. HR managers need to be aware of some of the reasons why companies fail to recognize and address these employee needs:

  • Time Pressure.  Managers often incorrectly believe they don’t have time to work on the “soft issues” related to the human side of business. Obviously, a lack of understanding about the impact these issues have on the bottom line contributes to their being relegated to the “nice to do if we had more time” list.

  • Lack of Awareness. When people are promoted to the managerial level because of their technical prowess but lack effective interpersonal skills or an understanding of human nature, they are more likely to dismiss the human side of attraction and retention as “touchy feely” or just plain irrelevant.

  • Arrogance. Assuming customers are happy without asking them is a surefire way to lose customers and employees. Talent Magnet organizations don’t assume that what they are doing is working; they constantly engage in conversations with their workforce through employee satisfaction surveys, anonymous suggestion boxes, companywide meetings, focus groups and informal conversations. They work at creating a culture where honesty and openness is supported, so employees feel safe enough to voice their concerns.

  • "Quick Fix-itis.” Some managers believe that if they institute an Employee Appreciation Day or an Employee of the Month award, they can cross off “Implement Attraction and Retention Program” from their “to do” list. The unfortunate truth is that quick fixes and gimmicky approaches to attraction and retention aren’t effective—they can even have the opposite effect. Workers are quick to notice a disconnect between staged events and corporate proclamations and the day-to-day treatment they receive from their manager and the company as a whole.

How HR managers can help their organization become a Talent Magnet.

  • Use their own experience to identify what does and doesn’t work.
    When people compare their own positive and negative workplaces experiences they become aware of the huge impact organizational culture and management practices have on performance and loyalty. HR managers can help leadership identify management best practices that lead to high performance and employee loyalty by facilitating discussions among groups of managers, and then using this information, along with an employee survey, to assess what needs to be addressed.

  • Recognize the importance of management development.
    How employees feel about their organization is profoundly influenced by how they feel about their immediate superior. When people have a boss who is respectful, inspiring and appreciative, they find it easy to be loyal. So management development is a wise investment for any organization seeking to maximize its ability to attract and retain the best of the best.

  • Ask the tough questions.
    This is perhaps the most difficult step. Creating a Talent Magnet Organization requires courageous self-examination by management at all levels about how well it leads and about the kind of company it has created. This process of self-examination and engaging employees in honest conversation about how the company is run can yield critical information about what steps need to be taken to transform an organization into a Talent Magnet.

Here are a few questions to get the process started:

  1. How do our people feel about being here?
  2. Are we the kind of organization that inspires pride?
  3. Are the products and/or services that we bring to the marketplace, and the operational decisions we make, worthy of pride?
  4.  Do we have a compelling mission and vision—and do we “walk our talk”?
  5. Do we communicate our mission and vision to employees, and do we communicate how they contribute to it?
  6. Do we work with employees to design their jobs so they are as meaningful and intrinsically satisfying as possible?
  7. Do our employees feel appreciated?
  8. Do we believe that training is important, and are we acting accordingly?
  9. Do we provide opportunities for employees to grow by taking on more responsibility and developing new skills on the job, and could we provide more?
  10. Do employees feel respected?
  11. Are we open to feedback about how we manage, or do we assume that what we’re doing is right and its their job to adapt to us?
  12. If I worked for me, how would I feel about being here?
  13. Do we try to get the most work out of each employee, regardless of the toll it takes, both on them, and on the quality of their work?
  14. Do we show respect for employees life outside of work?
  15. Can employees discuss openly with management their work/life balance needs?
  16. Do we have a workplace environment where people generally have fun and enjoy each other’s company?
  17. Can people be open and honest about how they feel and what they think?

It takes more than a generous benefits package and competitive salaries to attract and retain talented employees. By listening to the voices of their customers—their employees—and honestly engaging in self-examination, management can create an organization that is a magnet for the best and the brightest employees.

Ask yourself: “Is your organization a Talent Magnet?”

This article originally appeared in Insights Magazine, a publication of the Northeast Human Resources Association (www.nehra.com).