Career Coach: Building loyalty at work

July 3, 2011

Why is it that you can go into some workplaces and see the same good employees working year after year, while at other places it seems there’s a different crop of employees each week? What is it about those firms that seem to be able to hold on to their top performers and how do they get such loyal employees? This is especially important as the economy improves – don’t let your best employees leave for greener pastures.

In 1956, William Whyte wrote the classic “The Organization Man,” based on his observations of company life.

He described people who only work for “the organization”:

“They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions,” he wrote.

Those workers could expect to have their jobs for life as long as they did not make any major mishaps. They were loyal to the firm, and it, in turn, was loyal to them.

A decade ago, Daniel Pink noted is his book “Free Agent Nation” that the “organization man” was no longer the norm. Instead, millions of Americans, frustrated by bad bosses, dysfunctional workplaces and false promises of riches, left organizations to start their own businesses. Many chose to follow the employment-at-will doctrine — where the employer is free to discharge individuals and they are free to leave.

Despite the changing times, there are still organizations whose employees remain incredibly loyal. They could leave and get better benefits or money elsewhere, but they remain. I have spoken with many firms over the years to better understand how they get buy-in and commitment from their employees.

Here’s what I heard:

·The environment is critical. The company must create an environment that is challenging, yet at the same time collegial and community-based, so that employees want to stay. When I recently spoke to one of the owners of Patapsco Valley Veterinary Hospital in Ellicott City, she mentioned the value of good collegial relationships among employees. In their firm, many of the employees have been there since the practice started more than 12 years ago, not because the perks are significantly better than those at other places, but because the sense of camaraderie is so strong. “It’s the feeling of knowing that the owners and managers care about you, ask for your input and want to make sure you are taken care of,” said one employee.

·Share a purpose and a mission. How can they be loyal to firm if they don’t know what it stands for? They want to feel connected and committed to the company’s purpose and values.

·Show appreciation. I know many employees who have stayed working for companies that have had salary freezes or furloughs, in part because their firms have done plenty to acknowledge and notice employees’ efforts in other ways.

·Be transparent. When managers do not share information with employees and do not include them in decision-making, employees do not feel valued. They don’t see the need to be creative or to show initiative.

·Encourage employees to share their views. Ask for their views on how to grow the business or advertise, find clients, etc. Once suggestions and ideas are heard, engage those same individuals in determining the feasibility of implementation.

·Don’t use layoffs as your only cost-reducing option. It’s hard for employees to be loyal to a firm that is not loyal to them and sees them as readily expendable.

·Provide opportunities for development. People want to grow. Companies can either provide employees with growth opportunities or watch them leave. Sponsor them if they go back to school part time or take additional classes that will expand their skills and help the firm. Don’t simply limit these opportunities to those with managerial potential; make the offer to all of your employees.

·Show you care. It’s amazing how many employees say their managers do not know their names or interests or even what they do for the firm. As a manager, you should know something about each of your employees as people — do they like to play an instrument or a sport, do they have pets, do they like to travel?

·Create a team-based culture. Some firms engage in social activities, have sports teams or engage in community activities together. Employees like to stay at a place where they enjoy the people and the activities.

Loyalty is hard to achieve and requires ongoing attention. Don’t take loyalty for granted, but continue to actively and consciously nurture it.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, negotiations and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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