Wanna Keep Your Staff Happy? Think 'Career'

It's right there in the latest employee surveys: Workers want opportunities for growth and advancement. Sure, they'd like to make more money, but when they're up against the decision to stay with their current employers or fly the coop, career progression beats cold, hard cash hands down.

That's what we've heard for seven straight surveys in Foote Partners LLC's quarterly polls of IT workers in more than 800 companies. And they desperately want to discuss their career goals with their bosses. This year's Computerworld job-satisfaction survey (April 24) indicated that 43 percent of IT workers are either "somewhat" or "very" dissatisfied with the opportunities available to them.

Based on our observations, here's what the descent into workforce hell invariably looks like for you, the manager. You've manipulated your workers with short-term goodies (bags of money) and are perceived as insincere in your efforts to understand them. They soon catch on and begin acting on their feelings - often quite unconsciously - in subtle and increasingly passive-aggressive ways. Feuds, vendettas and general carelessness lead to blown projects, defections and declining morale. Band-Aid solutions for replacing skills, re-energizing projects and reducing turnover lose their potency. And while mercenary consultants with just-in-time skills and broad experience can be valuable in tight spots, overreliance on them costs you big-time in turnover.

But even with so clear and consistent a message, most of you are still trying to weasel out of your responsibilities to give your intellectual assets more peace of mind. To make matters worse, worker reaction to the catchphrase "people are our most important resource" has turned from minor irritation to outright anger and resentment.

What are you gonna do about it?

First, accept that lack of commitment is the major reason for losing good people. You need to manage your employees' commitment in order to successfully motivate and retain them, not simply pander to their whims and capricious natures.

Next, connect everything possible to career development, giving your workers a clear one- to five-year view of where their careers with you can lead. Create formal programs for moving people ahead but not up some proverbial "ladder" that emphasizes budget control, years of service and number of direct reports under them. Base advancement instead on core skills and competencies that staffers must demonstrate and that have explicit links to business goals and objectives. Identify specific measures of success, craft a goal-directed future for each employee and then manage their commitment to those goals. Develop mutual expectations between managers and workers, and work diligently to achieve them. This is more art than science, so train your managers appropriately. Give them a feeling of belonging to an objective, a project or a team pursuit, and make the workplace a pleasant place to work.

Make certain that incentives and rewards are fair, plentiful, varied and tied to both individual and team success with a view to overall enterprise success. Assign coaches or mentors because - let's face it - managers of projects (to which workers are increasingly assigned as their basic work domain) usually don't have the time or skills to help employees manage their careers and professional growth.

This will get you started. In a future column, I'll go into more detail with best practices and tips pulled from our research.

David Foote is managing partner and research director at Foote Partners LLC, an IT compensation and workforce research firm in New Canaan, Conn. Contact him at dfoote@footepartners.com.

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