Brass Tacks: A rewarding environment retains employees

Q. I own and operate a small business that depends on well-trained workers. Nowadays, I feel like I’m running a vocational training school for larger, well-heeled companies in my area. As soon as I get a worker trained and up to speed — and begin reaping the fruits of my training efforts — POOF! A bigger, more cash-flush firm steals him away. I react quickly to any discontent, but still the churning continues. What can I do to stem this outflow of my most important resource?

A. Unfortunately, poaching of this type has become pretty routine, and even a downturn in the economy probably won’t quell it. Why? Because the understandable goal of every enterprise struggling in today’s competitive world is to get and keep the best of the best.

Years ago, sociologist Frederick Herzberg postulated the “Hygiene/Motivation Theory” when analyzing what could be done in a company’s internal environment to motivate good workers. I believe it also will help you see what must be done to keep the talented employees you have.

The hygiene part of his approach involved “cleansing” the workplace of negatives that were clear turnoffs to workers, thus allowing them to feel, at best, neutral about their circumstances. He claimed that this was accomplished by providing adequate supervision, a good, “clean” working environment, maintaining effective interpersonal relations, and offering competitive salaries, status and security.

While these elements are necessary in every situation, in order to truly motivate – and keep – the best employees, Herzberg’s theory suggests you have to go much further. Here is where your abilities as a motivator come into play.

You must continually strive to enhance that which your employees do in order to increase their sense of personal achievement. Effective leaders — I call them MetaManagers — enable their followers to gain a sense of achievement by structuring their responsibilities in a way that presents a meaningful challenge and a true sense of personal and professional accomplishment.

This means giving them increasingly expanded responsibilities and the freedom and authority to execute them independently. The best way to keep a crew member on board is to let him or her enjoy a sense of personal growth and advancement … and to personally recognize them for that accomplishment.

Here are a few additional Brass Tacks Tips for creating this kind of rewarding and, very importantly, “retentive” environment:

• Hire the right workers in the first place. You want a workforce that shares your entrepreneurial zeal and penchant for hard work. Continually work to build your knowledge of every employee after they are hired, too.

• Create a culture that ambitious people can buy into. Ensure that your business model promises success, both collectively and individually.

• Make sure each team member has meaningful work to do. Boredom or a sense that an employee is doing something beneath his or her abilities is a “turn off” that is sure to “turn out” talent.

• Delegate and empower. Don’t knit-pick and hover over your charges. Trust them to do a good job. This will be tough for a hands-on entrepreneur like you, but really talented employees need a mentor, not a boss.

• Provide the tools, technology and personal example necessary for them to do a good job. Your team must know you are committed to winning. Set the example.

• Show each team member that he or she makes a big, unique difference. Offer immediate, positive, personal, even public, feedback when a job is done well.

• Compensate creatively. Competitive salaries and benefits are merely hygiene factors that keep an employee from harboring negative feelings. Consider a “cafeteria” type benefit plan that covers everything from flextime options to stock options (although I prefer “virtual equity” to actual equity ownership in small businesses).

• Conduct exit interviews with departing workers. The best maintenance policies are predicated on an understanding of why things break.

• Give everyone a chance to grow, learn and enhance his or her personal value. On-the-job training and off-site educational opportunity increase an employee’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth.

Paul Willax is a professor of entrepreneurship and chairman of the Center for Business Ownership Inc., Amherst, N.Y. He is also the author of the book, “Brass Tacks Tips for Business Owners,” available at If you have a question or suggestion for his column, or to receive a free, weekly e-mail newsletter, “Brass Tacks BrainFood,” write to

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