Attract! Attract! Why Attract is the New Retain

The mantra of “attract and retain” has been around the HR community – and its general management constituency – even longer than the unfortunate rush to refer to people as “talent.”

It used to make sense. But it doesn’t anymore and the implications are significant.

Why Retention?

It’s been awhile since anyone dusted off the basic retention rationale, so let’s review the bidding. Here are some commonly stated reasons why companies should pursue employee retention:

  1. It costs more to hire than to retain people
  2. The more experienced the hire, the more it costs to retrain replacements
  3. Experienced employees know the ropes, the lingo, how things are done
  4. Experienced employees form deeper relationships with customers
  5. Retained employees are motivated, which helps customer relationships.

Of course, a few of these tenets were always subject to qualification – number 5, for example. Longevity can just as easily drive complacency and myopia as well as it can drive motivation.

But that’s not the Big Story. The Big Story lies in the assumptions underlying all five of those beliefs. Those assumptions are:

  1. the benefits of retention increase in direct proportion to longevity, and
  2. the pace at which new employees become productive is relatively fixed.

Both beliefs are looking a lot less true these days.

What’s Changed?

Two things have changed: work and people.

Work. Work has become outsourced, modular, plug-compatible, horizontal, contracted, bite-sized, for-hire, project-based. Employers shun fixed costs and value flexibility.

This is partly because they can: technology has made work-sourcing a global phenomenon, freed from space and time. It’s also partly because they have to: global sourcing means competitiveness is also global. The global economy has undergone a massive make/buy analysis and has come down heavily on the “buy” choice. If you’re not working with the world’s best/lowest cost doer of some key task, then you’re at a disadvantage.

The nature of work has shifted from a “job” focus to a “project” or “task” focus. Employers no longer need “someone who can do…” but rather “someone who has done, and will do…”  The new work model is not semi-permanent vertical employer silos of people; it is the model used by the film industry and by consultants, a constantly shifting nexus of tasks and resources.

Recruitment comes to resemble an ongoing speed-dating event.

People. I think we’re finally past decrying the lack of employee “loyalty;” it’s so last millennium.  People are “loyal” to their professions, their technologies, maybe their customers – but not to the constantly morphing corporate entities that sign their paychecks.

The skills of the new generation have evolved to fit the new workplace. The Facebook generation, adept at mass-scale peer relationships, doesn’t relate well to authority, no matter which side of the relationship they’re on. Geography? Twitter is everywhere and while not every 20-something can afford time in Europe, they all know someone who can and does, and can all Skype it and tweet it 24-7 in the meantime.

The oldsters may not like the verbal promiscuity of “friending,” but it fits perfectly with the new workplace. While society may pay a price in the dearth of deep, vertical relationships, the market place is demanding breadth.

Attraction and Retention Redux

Let’s put these trends together. What the economy needs, and what people are organizing to offer, is the ability to form relationships at the speed of transactions.

To companies, the attractive employees are not those with deep potential; they are those who can hit the ground running in a plug-compatible world, instantly connecting with thousands of like-minded peers within the company and without.

To people, the attractive employers are not those who offer long-term “commitments” (usually just relationship-disguised transactional offers anyway) but those who offer the ability to be instantly productive, while offering personal growth opportunities in the form of autonomy and new activities.

There is an obvious match here. What is no longer obvious is the relevance of “retention.”

Why would an employer want to retain people when the changing market requires ever-changing skills that can be bought quickly with precision rather than trained over time with generality?

Why would an employee want to be retained, when (s)he can find ever-changing opportunities to gain experience in a world thousands of times bigger than one employer alone could ever hope to offer?

Attract! Attract! Three New Strategies for Companies

The above are massive trends. The trend is your friend. The challenge is to ride the trend, not fight it. Here are three strategies for doing so:

1. Aim for zero cost onboarding and training. Zero works well as a stretch goal, but it’s not enough. How can you get people to pay you to join your company? (This is not as crazy as it sounds: how much do people pay to go to Harvard? So, become the “Harvard of YourNiche.”)

2. Reverse-hire search firms. Tell Russell Reynolds you want every employee to get one bonafide offer from an outside firm every year to keep them motivated. If they stay with you, they have re-upped, and become re-attracted. If they leave, you can choose either to recalibrate your attractions program, or wish the employee well and let them tell the market how employee-dedicated you are. (This is not as crazy as it sounds; Tony Hsieh already does a version of this at Zappos, paying people not to take a job offer).

3. Up your knowledge management game. Tenure is such an expensive way to gain company knowledge. Figure out how to make it available to every employee, from day one.

And don’t assume that means AI and databases. Try the same thing that works in the outside world: massive horizontal networking. Invent intra-LinkedIn and Intra-Tweet. (This is not as crazy as it sounds; Clay Hebert is working on SpinDows)

Attract and retain? That sounds like a motto for a roach motel. The new mantra is Attract! Attract!


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6 replies
  1. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Thanks Jay, I think it’s pretty cool too. Though I’ve been recommending it for over ten years now, and I’m not aware of anyone that’s actually done it. Until then, as you suggest, employees can do it on their own, and probably should.

  2. TenYearTexan
    TenYearTexan says:

    Great article. I love the “loyalty..last millenium” comment and agree with your view on the trend.

    A general comment: In my 20yr career, I’ve noticed a pendulum-like trend from employees to contract/outsourcing and back. Contractors are cheaper, but do more “shallow” work. I think offshoring is a similar trend – saves money but not always healthy for the company long-term.

    I have three points about long-term employees I don’t see mentioned (though hinted at in #2 and #3). They are long-term goals, dotted line teams and human nature.

    While unfortunately companies are seem to have shifted focus from long to short-term goals, beyond knowing company policies there is often a corporate or (at least department) mentality/culture that has evolved and doesn’t come through on a webpage, but is intuitive to veterans. (“customer service above productivity” or “despite what mgmt says, our dept hates loose ends, make sure the case is properly documented before moving on to the next one” or “though John is a slow worker, we cover for him because we need him – he is the only one who can fix the copier”)

    Secondly, talented tenured employees have established relationships with people on teams outside their own with whom they work best with to accomplish certain tasks with dramatic efficiency (“I know someone in IT who can get that done in an hour instead of a week. I sometimes bring him cookies…” “John knows the correct process for properly backing that out of the system. Everyone else in that dept screws it up” ).

    Thirdly, your thoughts remind me of the “white-boards everywhere / no cubicle walls” thinking popular in the aughts that I haven’t seen deliver on its promises (except for furniture manufacturers). While some roles in a company do fine as loosely-coupled positions and see a quick rotation, this isn’t a natural human condition. Most people want to belong to a group. And while there are positions (especially low skill positions) that can survive relatively rapid turnover, I cannot think of any(?) that overall benefit from it – anymore than an individual benefits from multi-tasking – constantly shifting gears is stressful for a person, a department, a company and its suppliers/customers.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:


      Great comments, thanks so much. Your points are rich and based in humanity, which makes them very close to my way of thinking too.

      You’re right to counter-propose those points against the trends I drew, and I’d agree that I’ve probably overstated the case to make the point.

      Maybe one point where our generalizations both apply would be in the diminishing relevance of the corporate entity, and the continued relevance of personal relationships.

      Thanks for the thoughtful commentary, please send more.


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  1. […] From Charles H. Green: Attract! Attract! Why Attract is the New Retain “The mantra of “attract and retain” has been around the HR community – and its general management constituency – even longer than the unfortunate rush to refer to people as ‘talent.’ It used to make sense. But it doesn’t anymore and the implications are significant.” […]

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