Retention: Build a Culture They Won’t Want to Leave

The employee shortage in the U.S. isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon. With millions of jobs to fill and not enough employees to fill them, organizations are scrambling to find—and retain—the right talent. And one of those things is much easier than the other: retention.

If you already have valuable employees, there is almost no better place to allocate your time, effort and money than to an employee retention program. When your best employees stay (and they likely have plenty of options nowadays), you can keep your organization running smoothly. Projects don’t end up thrown off-track because someone leaves. Institutional knowledge stays with the organization, instead of leaving along with the individual. You don’t end up hiring a less-than-ideal candidate because you’re in a rush to backfill a position.

It’s fair to say that most organizations don’t have a formal employee retention program. The organizations “think they treat people pretty well” and hope for the best. But oftentimes, the assumptions and the reality “on the ground” don’t quite match up. And that is a culture issue. An organization that has a culture of open and honest questioning, communication and feedback is one where executives and higher-ups are in tune with employees at every level, not shying away from the reality but leaning into it and always working to improve.

It All Begins with Culture

Company culture is the foundation of any employee retention effort. If your culture is either not well established, or worse, problematic, it will eventually show itself in your employee retention rate. First, an unestablished or floundering culture will prevent you from hiring employees that are a good fit—a mismatch between the employee and the culture. Second, a problematic culture usually results in tension between what the employee thinks it should be and what it actually is. Either way, culture issues will eventually affect employees in their day-to-day work experience, upping the risk of attrition.

Why Are Employees Leaving?

The first step in building a culture employees won’t want to leave is to gain an understanding of why employees are leaving or have left in the past. This can be tough because employees are not always honest about why they’re leaving. For example, when asked, they use the catch-all of “a better opportunity came around.” That may be true, but it also leaves out what made that opportunity seem so much better than what they experienced at your organization.

Hopefully your organization conducts exit interviews that encourage open and honest feedback. If not, now is the time to start. You may end up noticing patterns. For example, turnover may be higher on a certain team. Or outgoing employees may cite a lack of career development opportunities. Whatever the reasons, fully understanding them is essential to formulating an employee retention plan—and a company culture—that takes that feedback into account.

Understand Organizational Culture—From the Employee’s Perspective

There often exists a gap between how executives and company leadership view the organizational culture and how employees view it. To improve your culture, and eventually get it to a place where it plays an active role in retaining employees, you must perform a detailed assessment of your current culture. One of the most useful ways to accomplish this is to start conducting regular, anonymous employee surveys. “Regular” is key because employees will be much more likely to fill out quick surveys focused on one topic. For example, how employees feel about current learning and development opportunities, or the “open door policy” you think you have.

Remember, taking surveys isn’t enough. Once you’ve gathered all of the feedback, let employees know they’ve been heard. You can send out a communication that says “this is what you’ve said, and we’ve heard you.” Don’t feel like you have to present solutions to all—or any—of the problems you’ve uncovered right away. The last thing employees want is a band-aid solution. Instead, be upfront about what you’ve learned, let employees know you’re working on it and be sure to follow up with regular updates.

Workshop Culture Solutions

Once you’ve gained an understanding about where your organization’s cultural strengths and weaknesses lie, you can begin to address them. This shouldn’t be a top-down endeavor. Instead, consider creating a sort of taskforce with individuals from all levels and start to workshop viable solutions. Keep in mind that you don’t need to tackle the entire organization at once. Each department could have their own “culture team.” During these workshop sessions, seek to identify core values that you want to focus on and create solutions accordingly.

Consider this example: Organization X decided that one of their core values was employee well-being. In the past, the organization paid a lot of lip service to these values. But the feedback from employee surveys suggested that employees saw the focus as just that—lip service. To remedy this, a team workshopped the following solutions to turn that lip service into a reality:

  • Each employee should commit to taking one “well day” per month
  • Each employee should commit to taking one week of vacation before August
  • Each team would commit to at least one work-free lunch hour each week
  • Each team would sponsor a monthly breakfast open to all employees (employees were free to stay or simply “grab and go”)
  • Each team would sponsor a monthly happy hour. This would occur from 4-5—not after hours—so as not to impact employees’ non-work time
  • A “no response expected” policy towards after-hours communications (unless in the case of emergencies, which are recognized as few and far between)

Only time will tell if these solutions have an impact for Organization X. But the important part is that the leadership took the time to uncover an issue, worked with employees to create solutions and clearly communicated those solutions and how they would be implemented.

While organizational culture can be complex, there’s one aspect that’s quite simple: If the culture isn’t working for employees, they will eventually leave. That turnover will show up in overall morale, productivity, engagement and the bottom line. Creating and fostering a healthy workplace culture is one of the most important things an organization can do to ensure employee satisfaction, retention and the overall success of the organization.