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8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

Because people are a company’s most valuable asset, they should be treated that way. When you, as a top manager,treat them with the care and respect they deserve, you can greatly reduce the cost of continually replacing them and training new employees.

According to a November, 2005, U.S. Job Recovery and Retention Survey, more than 75 percent of employees say they are looking for a new job. So what can you do to reduce that percentage in your business?

“People don’t leave companies, they leave people,” says Seymie Wilkerson, area vice president at All Medical Personnel in Tampa. “Most people leave because of a bad relationship with their direct supervisors. Building good relationships with employees is critical for managers.”

Smart Business talked with Wilkerson for her insights into retaining the best talent.

What are some important reasons to retain the best talent?

Good, long-term employees are always in the best position to provide high-quality customer service. They also help their coworkers feel more secure, and secure employees are better employees.

Another advantage of long-term employees is that they can develop better relationships with customers, and their retained knowledge is going to impact every aspect of your business. The more employees you keep on board, the less it’s going to cost you to hire and train new people.

What are some key ways to retain good employees?

You must make employees feel invested from day one, starting with the hiring and orientation process. To accomplish this, you have to work with each individual employee to develop a career path for him or her. This lets them know the company values them, will invest in them, and has plans for them.

Let employees see the big picture. Make sure they know what is expected of them, and tell them how important their job is and how their performance relates to the company’s overall success.

Train all managers and supervisors, and — at the minimum — find out what training might help other employees and encourage them to go for it. When possible, provide the time and funding as well.

Finally, when employees do leave, conduct exit interviews. Find out what you might have done to keep them and then see how that applies to the rest of your team.

How important are salaries to retention?

Salaries are an important factor — but not the most important. Make sure that your salaries are competitive. At least average, but not necessarily the highest in town.

Benefits, working conditions, recognition, the knowledge of an individual’s importance to the company, and his or her belief in the company are more important than salary.

If your company is not recognized as the employer of choice in your community, strive for that status by:

  • providing wellness programs
  • providing ‘lunch-and-learns’
  • inviting area professionals to make presentations, perhaps on financial planning, diet programs, insurance plans or working with a bank.

How can a manager formally recognize outstanding performances?

First, make sure the lines of communication are open. Provide suggestion boxes or some other method to allow employees to have anonymous input. Openly encourage them to make suggestions, then let them know where their ideas stand.

If you implement the idea, recognize the employee. If, after completely analyzing an idea, you decide not to implement it, let the employee know why not.

Another way to show your appreciation is by recognizing birthdays and other special events. Find out what individual employees like and surprise them. Some like flowers, others don’t. Some like candy or fine dining. Different departments might be motivated by different things. Younger people might appreciate something family oriented. Older employees might prefer prescription plans or home health care plans.

One other idea is to create loyalty programs, like 100-percent paid health insurance after four or five years on the job.

In all your dealings with employees, it is important to be fair but flexible. Most of all, be creative.

What are some pitfalls to avoid?

One pitfall is ignoring good employees because too much time is spent with problem employees or on other issues. You can’t assume that a person who never complains doesn’t need attention. So spend time with everyone.

Finally, not keeping communication lines open is perhaps the worst offense of all. The lack of regular, positive feedback is a frequent reason why an employee decides to leave. The worst thing to do is guess at what an employee wants or needs, so get clarification whenever necessary.

SEYMIE WILKERSON is area vice president with All Medical Personnel in Tampa. All Medical Personnel won the Tampa Bay WorkForce Alliance Business Excellence Award for excellence in hiring practices in 2006. Reach her at (913) 289-4474 or seymiew@allmedstaffing.com.