To Keep Your Best Employees Start Spelling ‘Retention’ with Three Rs

To Keep Your Best Employees Start Spelling ‘Retention’ with Three Rs

Do I quit or do I stay? This is an ongoing decision employees consider by asking themselves one basic question, “Is what I’m getting from this job equal to or greater in value with what I’m required to give in return?” If the answer is no, they quit. If the answer is yes, they stay. It’s a simple transaction.

We keep making the pursuit of employee retention more difficult than it needs to be. Despite trying everything from free food to unlimited PTO, employees continue to leave. Why? Bottom line – you can’t solve a people problem with an organizational solution.

Picture a simple teeter-totter. On one side sits the first ‘R,’ the Requirements. These are the goals, activities and behaviors an employee must deliver in the hopes of getting a good performance review. Requirements can be direct – those listed in the job description – or indirect, like having to make a one-hour commute to the office or missing a child’s recital because of a required team meeting.

On the opposite side of the teeter-totter sits the second ‘R,’ the Rewards. These are the tangibles such as a paycheck or benefits package an employee gets in return for meeting the Requirements. If the teeter-totter balances with the Requirements and Rewards, all is right with the world. At least at the beginning.

The final ‘R,’ the Respect weight, comes into play here and sits close to the Rewards. More than ever, employees are evaluating how appreciated and valued they feel while doing their job. In some cases, Respect can even make up for a lack of Rewards, as many people since the pandemic are willing to take a salary reduction and waive other tangible perks for a job that provides an increase in mental well-being.

The Requirements, Rewards and Respect weights can be individually calibrated to create balance, but because each employee is unique, the weight they assign each will vary. For example, the thought of that one-hour commute to the office might be a torturous Requirement for one employee but for another it may be a welcomed Reward as a chance to decompress and listen to a complete podcast in peace.

The more we try to mass market employee retention strategies the more we miss the point about leading people. We keep hearing employee retention today is all about offering flexibility – no, it isn’t about flexibility, unless the employee you want most to keep needs flexibility.

We also hear it’s all about being able to work remotely. Again, only if working remotely matters to the top performer you want to retain.

We’re consistently told that recognition and appreciation are king. This is very true, but only if you know how each unique employee defines recognition and appreciation. Nothing shouts “lack of respect” louder than an intended reward that backfires.

Therefore, it is crucial as a people leader to have ongoing conversations with your employees, especially the top talent you want to protect and keep. To determine how to balance the Requirements, Rewards and Respect for each of them, here are three tips to get started:

Learn which of the Requirements are creating the heaviest weight for each of your people. Are there any options that can lighten this weight? For example, is there room for your employee’s input on scheduling or completing more difficult tasks at a time of day when they are most productive?

Have each employee describe what a Reward is for them. Do they like public recognition? Prefer to be acknowledged in private? What’s their preferred type of gift card? Favorite snack? Which of their current Rewards carry the greatest value for them? Compensation? Benefits? College tuition? Time off?

Sit down with each of your employees and have them define their meaning of ‘Respect’ while working with you as their leader. For one employee that might mean being assured of having five minutes of your time each morning to connect, ask questions, or get feedback. For another that behavior may reek of disrespect and micromanagement, as they define Respect as checking in only as needed and letting them self-direct as much as possible.

There are no short cuts to employee retention. The most efficient route to keeping valued workers is connecting with one individual at a time to monitor the balance of the Requirements, Rewards, and Respect they experience while on the job. Why? Because people will always be people first and our employees second.


  • Merrylue Martin

    Merrylue Martin is a people leadership strategist who works with all types and sizes of organizations to help them make their employees feel uniquely respected. She is the author of "The Big Quit Survival Guide."

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