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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.
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:
- It costs more to hire than to retain people
- The more experienced the hire, the more it costs to retrain replacements
- Experienced employees know the ropes, the lingo, how things are done
- Experienced employees form deeper relationships with customers
- 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:
- the benefits of retention increase in direct proportion to longevity, and
- the pace at which new employees become productive is relatively fixed.
Both beliefs are looking a lot less true these days.
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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Trust is a many-meaning thing. One of its multiple mysteries is the assumed object. As in, “I trust my 16-year old.” Well, to do what? Trusting him to set the table correctly is one thing; to make curfew may be quite another. The identity of the implied object makes all the difference.
A more relevant example is the Edelman Tweet Level test; it rates your twitter handle on several dimensions, including trust. On the Top Twitter Users by Trust ranking, the New York Times is #14. CNN is #4. Tops on the list is–of course–Justin Bieber. (Numbers 2 and 3 are a couple of Kardashians).
Trust to do what? Report the news? Or–well, I’m not sure what Bieber/Kardashian are trusted for, but I doubt it’s for the same thing as the Times. Again, the implied object makes all the difference. (Full disclosure: I confess, I’m hooked on TweetLevel myself).
Which brings us to an interesting blogpost, Employee Trust in Its Death Throes, by Derek Irvine in the Human Capital League.
Employee trust in and loyalty for the employer has been dying a slow, agonizing death for the last several decades. It began with massive layoffs in the 1970s-80s when employees who thought they had a job for life, like their parents before them, found themselves pounding the pavement looking for work…
…The result? No one expects their employer to look out for the employee’s best interests.
…Octavius Black, chief executive of the Mind Gym, a performance consultancy, warns that while staff retention has held up during the downturn, that could soon change. “Over 60 per cent of employees currently say they plan to switch companies, with 25 per cent actively looking for a new job,” he says. “The risk is even more acute with top performers, whose feeling of engagement with their employer has dropped three times faster than the average employee’s in the past 12 months.”
Well, yes. And no. Employees should trust their employers—to do what? Employers should trust their employers—to do what? It depends on the implied object of trust.
Unless we update the implied objects, we’re about half a century out of date in our assumptions. And you can’t get good answers out of questions that no longer make sense.
What Trust Means Between Employers and Employees
The old, 1950s belief-set of employer-employee trust had to do with a pact around employment. If the workers worked hard and well, the company would/should take care of them. As usually interpreted, “take care” meant, if not lifetime employment, then something approaching it. As the article notes, that myth was taken out and shot several times in the past few decades.
But, like a zombie myth, it lives on. It lives on in articles that still conflate low turnover with a trust-based employment relationship. It’s time to get clear:
The length of the W-2 form relationship no longer has anything to do with employment trust!
There, I said it. Let’s see why that’s true.
It’s true because no company in the world these days has enough direct control over its markets, customers, suppliers, etc. to guarantee employment. No one—not employees, customers, suppliers, nor stockholders—should assume in a globally-scaled world that any one institution can maintain its current form over the decades required to guarantee any one’s employment.
It would be arrogant of an employer to claim otherwise, and foolish of an employee to believe it if they did. Yet somehow we look at arrogance and stupidity and see—a decline in trust!? The fault lies in the perceiver, not in the relationship.
Let me suggest a different meaning of employment trust, one that is also cited in Irvine’s article: trust as looking out for the other’s best interests.
Trust as Looking Out for the Others’ Best Interests
What would happen if a company really, truly took this approach? In a rapidly evolving world, a company dedicated to its employees’ best interests would be attuned to the times when employees’ interests could be better served by working elsewhere.
Think about that. What if a company hired an executive search firm not to add more people, but to find offers to entice away the existing employees. Because if they then stayed, they would have re-upped and re-motivated; and if they left, it would be for the sake of their personal improvement. Which a good employer would be dedicated to serving, yes?
This is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. For decades now we have recited “attract and retain” as a mantra. It’s half wrong, and the wrong part is the retention part. We have come to think of talent using the roach motel model: you can check them in, but don’t let them check out.
Yes, there are economies of knowledge, which argue for employee retention. But there is also burnout, bureaucratization, golden handcuffs, Peter Principles, going native, drinking the Kool Aid, and diminishing returns. Companies truly focused on their employees’ best interests would not automatically try to retain everybody—they would aggressively seek personal development opportunities for all, regardless of what that meant. It would sure make attraction a slam dunk!
The molecular unit of business in this approaching world is no longer the company. It is the person. Companies who truly care about their people are willing to morph to serve those people. Companies who insist on bending people to maintain the continued existence of a corporate entity are zombies who have lived out their natural lives–and we all know you can’t trust zombies.
I realize I’ve tried to put 40 pounds of content into a 20-pound blog here, so let me tighten it up in closing:
The idea that employment trust is defined by a continuing employer-employee relationship is not only out of date, it is keeping us from recognizing the true object of trust in an evolving world.
You can’t talk about trust without defining the object. And when it comes to employment, that object is changing.