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June 15, 2024
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How to keep your workers (so you don’t have to replace them)

The “Great Resignation” is killing many small businesses. I see it every day here in Asheville, NC. This tourist town’s many great restaurants can’t keep their doors open because they literally can’t get enough staff to cook the food or serve the customers.

It’s not just restaurants and corner shops. It’s all small businesses.

What can you do? I’ve talked before about keeping your staff on board in general; this time around I’ve got a few more specific suggestions.

First, listen to your people. This is simple, but all too many managers ignore this one. Ask them what their concerns are. What makes them happy at work? What makes them miserable?

That done, figure out what you can do to address those issues. For example, a recent Adobe survey found that younger Generation Z workers, 18 to 24 years old in particular, are sick of work as usual. In a piece in Fortune magazine, Todd Gerber, Adobe’s vice president of document cloud product marketing, said “enterprise workers and small-business leaders are dissatisfied with their time at work; they’re spending more hours working on unimportant tasks, struggling with work/life balance, and feel that technology is the missing piece to achieving productivity.”

Right now, there’s a listing of problems that could be fixed. Look at employee workflow—are they wasting time? Can you dump some of their tasks? Would letting them keep working from home help with their work/life balance? Can you automate the boring parts of their job? Listen, think about their concerns, and then act.

Let me underline the issue of work/life balance. The sheer relentless pressure of facing the coronavirus pandemic day after day is depressing. Dealing with that, I believe, has made people much less accepting of work as usual. Talk to your workers about it. Is child-care a problem? Have they lost someone? How do they feel about working with fellow unvaccinated staffers? Is there anything you can do to help them with these issues?

Yes, I know, these aren’t the usual office concerns, but you need to deal with the COVID-19 elephant in the room.

One concern many of your best employees have is, “Where am I going from here?” Offer them a clear career path forward. Offer them training. Nothing gets as stale these days as out-of-date technology skills. When someone makes progress toward a promotion or to learning a new skill, make sure to recognize and praise them. This is old hat, but it’s more important than ever.

Here’s one of the quickest ways to annoy your staffers. Have one person leave and then pay their replacement big bucks—while leaving everyone else at the same pay level. Word will get out and other employees will leave. Repeat that cycle for a while until all your employees have less than a year of experience and your productivity goes down the chute.

Pay your workers what they’re worth. If you don’t, someone else will.

What a radical idea, right? You know what’s really radical? Six years ago, Gravity Payments’ CEO Dan Price raised the salary of everyone at his Seattle-based credit card processing company to at least $70,000 per year while slashing his own salary by $1 million.

The result? Price’s company has tripled in size and employees walking through the door still start at $70K per year.

The pandemic didn’t spare his company. To keep the doors open, the employees voluntarily took temporary pay cuts of up to 50%. (They were later reimbursed, and business is again climbing.)

The moral of the story? Price recently tweeted, “Businesses lose about $1 trillion to voluntary turnover each year. Then there’s the incalculable cost of lost institutional knowledge. Executives always focus on the cost of paying workers more but not the cost of losing people. I hope they are finally seeing that now.”

Let’s say someone quits anyway. I did that once, and my then boss threw a screaming fit at me. “How could you leave? Why are you doing this to me?” The answer was I was getting a 50% raise. But, as fate would have it, we ran into each other again, and this time she had a much bigger budget and offered me a new job that was, what do you know, 50% more than I was currently making. Hey, life was good if you were a top-notch system administrator with a security clearance back then in the Washington Beltway Bandit contractor culture. 

Did I take the offer? Please. I turned her down flat. I’m not working with anyone who’s abusive. Life’s too short.

So, if someone quits, when you talk to them—and do talk to them—keep it professional so you can keep the door open for future work.

My current work circle, tech journalism, is very small. Unless someone is an abusive jerk, I never burn bridges. You shouldn’t either. You never know when that person may walk back into your business life just when you need them.

And you never know when you might be asking him or her for a job down the road!

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