As the economy improves, small business owners are eager to sign new customers and get their companies back to where they were before the recession.
But their next meetings should have nothing to do with deals or contracts. They need to be with staffers who have waited patiently for the economy to improve and who may already be looking for a new job. As the government's February jobs report showed, companies are creating jobs. And that means workers who have waited in vain for raises and put up with heavier workloads now have options.
Leigh Branham, owner of Keeping The People Inc., an Overland Park, Kan., human resources consulting firm, says bosses need to sit down now with staffers individually and have honest discussions about how the workers feel about their jobs. If not, small companies may see an exodus of employees, including the ones they want to keep.
THE REALITY OF WORK TODAY
"People are worn out from being so productive and doing more with less. They're restless and fatigued and looking for new opportunities," Branham said.
Many employers have had no choice but to demand more of staffers and to freeze or cut their pay the past few years. Companies have been strapped for cash and unable to hire. Workers may know that and understand. But given the chance for a better work situation someplace else, many are likely to go for it.
Some owners might think that because staffers have hung in there, there's no reason to worry that they'll leave. Branham says it's a mistake to take any worker for granted these days.
THE CONVERSATION _ AND AFTERWARD
Owners need to go into a talk with a staffer prepared to hear painful things about the company, maybe even about the owner. They need to listen with an open mind and take the employee's point of view seriously.
Don't ask a staffer, "what do you want?" and leave it at that. Branham suggests owners start by saying, "I want to hear anything that's a source of dissatisfaction for you. Let's get it out on the table and see if we can address it, because I don't want to lose you."
You should also sketch out for staffers the plans you have for the company, and how you think employees will fit with them. Ask staffers for their opinions about what they have to offer. Ask for ideas to help the company do better. Be sure this part of the conversation is a true give-and-take.
After the talk, the boss needs to try to meet the staffer's needs. Of course, some things may be impossible to do. But if you say to a staffer, "let's find a way to make it work," and then follow up with some substantive action, you may be able to keep this employee.
IF MONEY IS A PROBLEM
Many companies still don't feel that they're in a position to give raises. Owners need to give staffers a sense of what the company needs to achieve before they can get a raise. And what workers can do to help make that happen.
Many staffers will be happy if they can get more time off or more flexible schedules. Owners often find that will help a staffer to stay, although the truth is, a higher salary is going to be very tempting to someone whose household budget is strained. If possible, give staffers a target date for when they can expect a raise.
WHAT IF THE STAFFER IS ALREADY PLANNING TO LEAVE?
Branham says it's possible for a boss to hold on to staffers about half the time when they say they're leaving. To try to salvage the situation, an owner needs to be willing to give a staffer more reasons to stay than to leave. Branham suggests, for example, that if an employee is unhappy with a manager, the owner offer to have the staffer report directly to him or her. The employee's assignment may need to change.
As you talk to the staffer, ask for one or two days to work out a solution. And if you can persuade the employee to stay, be sure to have periodic talks about how things are going. If staffers feel they got a lot of promises that weren't kept, there'll be no keeping them the next time they say they're leaving.