Finding and Keeping the Best 3 Ways to Ensure That Employees Stay

By Mark Hewitt

Jan. 11, 2007

Imagine retaining more than 95 percent of your employees for the long term. Impossible? Not at all. And for any company, achieving this kind of sustained working team can be priceless, both in terms of human capital and financial returns.

    In terms of pure capital, studies show that employee turnover can cost companies up to 40 percent of their annual profit. A negative impact on the bottom line is damaging, but a churning employee population seriously degrades the corporate culture, creating even more dissatisfaction and turnover.

    There’s no magic formula for curing churn. What it does take is strong core values, open communication, a sense of community that’s continually nurtured, and constant vigilance. We’ve made it work at our company, Allyis Inc.

    Based in Bellevue, Washington, Allyis recently marked its 10th anniversary. With our team of 154 employees, all but three of whom are full time, we manage technology projects and personnel needs for enterprise clients and governmental agencies, primarily on the West Coast. Since its founding by three former graduate students in English, all of whom had been contract workers at Microsoft, Allyis works to thoroughly understand its clients’ business needs and provide flexible staffing options to place highly skilled personnel on virtually any technical, Web-based project.

    The long-term payoff for our dedication to “employee care” has been dramatic. At Allyis, we have retained on average more than 95 percent of our employees for three years. We demonstrate care for our employees through a very specific commitment. We provide much higher than average benefits, and dedicated staff provides regular employee care in the form of work and life event recognition, encouragement and support of ongoing education, plus regular, consistent communication about job satisfaction, management of client expectations and team dynamics.

Core values
   Core values are often talked about, but not often well defined. Our values are relatively simple: Base everything in your company culture on demonstrating that you value long-term relationships with both employees and clients. We believe this is done by focusing on the quality of day-to-day relationships that ultimately evolve into long-term relationships.

    A thoughtful and strategic plan should be built on a clearly articulated mission statement. Mission statements shouldn’t be about profits, or include empty buzzwords about quality or striving. They should clearly express what’s most important to the company’s health. Talk must be backed up with action, so it’s important to continuously assess whether you’re living up to your mission, vision and goals. At Allyis, we hold one another accountable with a broad-based employee stock ownership program, twice-a-year town hall meetings, anonymous feedback mechanisms and 360-degree reviews ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard.

    A key element in our mission statement is commitment to employees, and we show this by championing internal development. This is not always easy. During a period of exponential growth, existing employees lacked necessary management skill levels. We faced a dynamic challenge: Do we let current management muddle through and hope for success, or do we bring in outside management and then work toward helping our employees acquire the management skills needed to fulfill these positions?

    To ensure that Allyis employees learn critical managerial skills and achieve necessary personal growth—and that clear promotion paths are established—we are formalizing the Allyis University program. The program identifies core skills ranging from written skills to “service leadership” skills. The Allyis model of service leadership encourages our employees to serve first, both each other and clients, and then lead, as a way of expanding their sphere of service. This reinforces the belief that every position in the company is a position of leadership.

    Allyis has subsequently been able to promote mostly from within instead of hiring managers from outside, engendering a sense of self-sufficiency and meritocracy. Our culture is transparent, based on trust and includes taking accountability for mistakes, no matter the employment level. “Stuff” happens, but it is important to examine the impact versus the intent, make necessary changes and communicate openly so that we can collectively learn what to do differently next time.

Communication and listening
   We encourage a collaborative atmosphere of trust, empowerment and listening, involving our employees in the planning and feedback process. In a world of short-term contracts, over half of our employees work on open-ended, ongoing contracts due to the quality of their work and their demonstrated listening and communication skills. Company culture and standards are improved on an ongoing basis, based on feedback from employees and clients.

    The evolution of our employee assessment process, for example, demonstrates how we take everyone’s views into consideration. We have evolved from doing straight numerical rankings to a 360-degree review. Taking assessment and development to a new level, Allyis employees work with a personal mentor, similar to a college advisor, to help guide their career growth in key areas of development. The program’s success is measured by improving employee review scores, and the one-on-one attention of the mentoring process lets us get qualitative feedback from employees to get a baseline read on how our programs are doing. Evaluating employees is significantly easier, since the evaluating mentor is already close to the employee and has knowledge of his or her strengths and weaknesses.

    Allyis also solicits information by regularly administering surveys. Surveys are powerful and an excellent way to gather information from a large group of people, but too many questions or surveys throughout the year can overwhelm employees. Allyis plans and executes an annual survey to gauge employee satisfaction and learn about what can be improved.

    Two months before Allyis starts benefits planning, a companywide employee survey is administered to ascertain employee needs and gain an understanding of how health care and other benefit programs are valued. We want to ensure that the benefits we offer are ones that our employees want, need and will use. Early on, our employees were fairly young, and orthodontia was not included as part of our benefits plan. It is now, since many of our employees’ children are at the age where this service would be valuable.

    Follow-up surveys gauge satisfaction levels after benefits are implemented and confirm that we’ve assessed correctly. Surveys also provide ongoing assessment of employee attitudes about training and development, company events and employee newsletters. By including the participation of all departments, we ensure sure that we’re genuinely listening to feedback and effectively reacting to it.

Connection and community
    Open feedback and listening, central to Allyis’ core values, helps us to connect with one another. We are keenly aware that while we are doing business in a local community, we are also part of our state, country and global community. We communicate this to our employees and the community at large by responding, for example, to tsunamis in Thailand and hurricanes in the southern United States and reaching out locally to hungry children in Seattle. Giving back to the community is part of our mission helping to build and maintain a strong sense of community at Allyis.

    Tangible expressions of support among our employees foster a close-knit sense of family. A two-way street of dignity and respect between employees and employer has developed into a powerful relationship. We have many heart-rending stories of support and participation, proving the significant connection to our fellow team members.

    Here are just a few examples:

  • Several years ago, an employee’s young child was diagnosed with a serious chronic disease during the holiday season, requiring a lengthy hospital stay. We assembled a huge play basket to help the child get through the stay and researched various fundraising opportunities, like walk-a-thons, that we could participate in. Allyis offered a scholarship to a camp that helps children with the same disease learn how to manage it, to further demonstrate our resolve to help.

  • Another employee was serving as a caretaker not only for his critically ill parents, but had also taken on the role of guardian for his teenage sister. His double duty was taking a toll on his health and well-being. During a particularly draining week, we arranged to have a week’s worth of meals delivered for the entire family to help ease the load.

  • I’ve personally experienced this kind of Allyis care. Sidelined at home for a week with an inner-ear infection, my co-workers sent me soups that only needed to be heated. It showed me the power and importance of caring. This atmosphere of caring for our employees encourages sincere and consistent loyalty, and naturally spills over into the long-term relationships with our clients.

Caring caveats
   Being aware of what is happening with your employees sends a strong message of caring. Creating an employee care program requires some extra attention to detail, and here are some important reminders:

  • Privacy: Identify a mechanism, such as a paper or online form, that will provide specific instructions about the information employees would like to keep confidential. This step is vital to protect and respect employees’ privacy.

  • Calendar management: Conscientious management of key employee events, such as birthdays, births or adoptions of children, anniversaries, the purchase of a new home or a promotion is critical to the success of the program. Consistency is important, since missing even one event for one employee can damage the message that the program is meant to convey.

  • Consistent but custom: While consistency and uniformity are important in terms of the value of gifts and which events the company chooses to acknowledge, it is important to be sensitive to employee wishes and lifestyle. An important key to the program’s success is collection of the proper data. This can be done as a part of the new employee orientation. It is important to identify a specific individual or team who will collect information about internal and external life events for employees.

Ready, set, stay
   Allyis has developed a proactive, dynamic and committed strategy for building long-term relationships with our employees and clients. From core values, communication and listening to genuinely connecting on company and community levels, Allyis focuses on the heart, while guiding the business with a steady hand. Employees and clients stay with us. That has enabled us to be among the Northwest’s fastest-growing privately held companies for three consecutive years, to garner service-excellence recognition from our clients, and to be named as a “best place to work” by our employees on numerous occasions.

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