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Employees need a clear sense of purpose and unity

Columnist Dave Conrad says employees will stay loyal if management is loyal to them.

Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug

Dear Dave: My company is going through some rough times and even some of our best managers have left the company. There are many more that are planning to quit. The president of the company (I will name him Richard) says, “Good riddance” when an employee leaves because he wants to make it appear to be a good move for the company. I know that more employees will leave and are badmouthing the company whenever they can. What ideas do you have to help us keep our staff? -- K

Leaders determined to stem the tide of talent defections during the “Great Resignation” could be surprised to learn their attempts are futile if their solution is to simply throw money or perks at the problem. It is very interesting to see so many workers decide to quit their jobs and move on – throwing the dice that a new job with a new company will help them be more engaged and motivated.

It’s no surprise that employers are worried about the mass exodus happening lately. The drivers of this mass resignation range from people wanting higher-paying jobs to simply being consumed by the devastation of COVID-19 burnout. Interestingly and shockingly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics reveal that more than 15 million workers quit their jobs since April 2021 in the U.S. alone. No doubt that there’s a quiet revolution underway in the American economy.

I would suspect that if you surveyed any company's personnel, you would discover that almost a majority of the workers are at the least curious about whether there are better opportunities are out there. Workers have had ample time to reflect on their purpose and their careers.

We can also observe the fact that a majority of workers want to stay put where they work – even though they want more money and more fulfilling work. This means that employers can – if they decide to – design the jobs and the challenges that will keep these workers engaged. And I believe the best companies keep their workers aware of the importance of their work and how the company workforce is a unified, committed and purpose-driven human resource venture.

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Interestingly, many workers are taking less pay for better jobs. This means that pay is attractive, but it is not the sole reason that workers choose to stay with a company. Again, we can see that the pandemic has caused a “mass reinvestigation by workers” concerning what their jobs do for the company – and even society as a whole – and how they can best use their time and talents to truly make a difference in the world. As Apple founder Steve Jobs said, “People want to ‘make a ding’ in the universe.”

What the best companies do to retain their staff

What can we learn from the organizations that are retaining their employees in this environment?

First, good leaders realize that “talent defections” will not be stopped by simply throwing cash at the problem. It is true that workers need the money and better pay is what draws the most people to a job and a company. However, if company leaders are genuinely committed to retaining their talent, they need to dig deeper to find out what will retain their talented workers. Here are some ways to do that.

Employees want to be part of a winning, inspirational culture – the last 20 months have awakened leaders to the fact that employees are hungry for meaning and purpose. This means employees question the value of their work and the sense of meaning it provides. Recent research confirms there are – primarily – two reasons employees are leaving (or considering leaving) their companies: Employees didn’t feel their work was valued by the organizations’ leadership (54%) or that they lacked a sense of belonging at work (51%).

Managers must make “personal aspiration” (a strong desire to achieve something) a core part of all manager-employee conversations and employee performance reviews. While many organizations are busy trying to create the illusion of meaning and purpose, the best organizations embed solidarity right into management practices. These managers have learned how to sincerely and genuinely engage in meaningful conversations to learn how their employees are progressing with their professional, career, or personal aspirations. These conversations are crucial, and these managers are serious.

In summary, many employees feel like their labor isn’t valued and some employers tell their workers as much. I remember some of my former bosses would hammer on the fact that I'm replaceable and it was just shoved in my face at least weekly. I remember how much I dreamed of working for a place I was loyal to, and that my managers were loyal to me.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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