Improving Employee Retention


A focus on mutual respect between employees and supervisors, appropriate pay, benefits and rewards, as well as recognition of performance excellence, are key ingredients of an effective employee retention program. The importance of putting such actions into practice generally is well understood by most managers, but actually doing them takes time, so they are often left for another day. However, the payoff of focusing on employee retention—in terms of increased performance, productivity, employee morale and quality of work, plus a reduction in both turnover and employee-related problems—is well worth the investment of time and financial resources. The bottom line is that the organization will retain talented and motivated employees who truly want to be a part of the company and who are focused on making a contribution to the organization’s overall success. See, Retaining Talent: A Guide to Analyzing and Managing Employee Turnover.

Business Case

Notwithstanding extremely adverse economic conditions, one of the most critical issues that organizations perennially face is how to retain the employees they want to keep. Even in the midst of a deep recession, companies must anticipate impending shortages of overall talent as well as a shortfall of employees with the specialized competencies needed to stay ahead of the competition. Organizations that systematically manage employee retention—both in good times and bad—will stand a greater chance of weathering such shortages. See, Thought Leaders Focus on Finding, Keeping Talent.

A focus on reducing turnover makes sense for three key reasons:

  1. It is costly.
  2. It affects the performance of an organization.
  3. It may become increasingly difficult to manage as the availability of skilled employees decreases in the future.

Direct replacement costs can reach as high as 50% to 60% of an employee’s annual salary, with total costs ranging from 90% to 200% of annual salary. See, Retaining Talent: A Guide to Analyzing and Managing Employee TurnoverandCost of Turnover. Examples include turnover costs of $102,000 for a journeyman machinist, $133,000 for an HR manager at an automotive manufacturer and $150,000 for an accounting professional. See, Retaining Intellectual Capital in the 21st Century. In addition to the obvious direct costs (e.g., accrued paid time offand replacement costs), there are numerous indirect costs (e.g., disruptions to team-based work, lost clients, decreases in overall service or product quality, etc.).

Turnover costs can have a significant negative impact on a company’s performance. One study estimated that turnover-related costs represent more than 12% of pre-tax income for the average company and nearly 40% for companies at the 75th percentile for turnover rate. See, Driving the Bottom Line. However, not all turnover is harmful—it may, instead, generate some important benefits to the organization (e.g., the new replacement hire may turn out to be more productive or skilled than the previous employee). See, What Types of Skilled Workers Is Your Organization Concerned About Retaining: A SHRM Poll.

Drivers of Employee Retention and Turnover

Devising effective employee retention strategies requires organizations to understand both why employees leave organizations and why they stay. See, What Do Employees Want, Not Always What HR Thinks.

SHRM members who wish to receive additional information and resources on this topic via a one-time e-mail message may go to SHRM’s Express Request service and select any of the following key terms: Reasons for Turnover; Employee Engagement.

Why employees leave

Employees leave organizations for all sorts of reasons—some find a different job, some go back to school, and some follow a spouse who has been transferred to a different location. Some retire, get angry about some work-related or personal issue and quit on impulse, while others simply decide they no longer need a job (these categories of departure are referred to as “voluntary turnover”). Still others get fired or laid off by the organization (referred to as “involuntary turnover”). See, Employee Turnover: Analyzing Employee Movement Out of the Organization.

Generally, an individual will stay with an organization as long as the inducements it offers (i.e., pay, good working conditions and developmental opportunities) are equal to or greater than the contributions (e.g., time and effort) required of the person by the organization. These judgments are affected both by the individual’s desire to leave the organization as well as the ease with which he or she could depart.

Studies have shown that employees typically follow four primary paths to turnover, each of which has different implications for an organization. These include:

  • Employee dissatisfaction. Attack this with traditional retention strategies such as monitoring workplace attitudes and managing the drivers of turnover. See, More Than Money Motivates Employees.
  • Better alternatives: Ensure that the organization is competitive in terms of rewards, developmental opportunities and the quality of the work environment. Be prepared to deal with external offers for valued employees. See, SHRM Poll: Many Managers Will Bolt for the Right Offer.
  • Following a plan: Some employees may have a predetermined plan to quit (e.g., if their spouse becomes pregnant, if they get a better job, if they are accepted into a degree program, etc.). However, increasing rewards tied to tenure may alter the plans of some employees. For example, if a company is seeing exits based on family-related plans, adding a more generous maternity and family-friendly policy may help to reduce the impact.
  • Leaving without a plan: Employees sometimes leave on impulse, without any plan for the future. Generally, this is the result of a negative response to a specific action (e.g., being passed over for a promotion, difficulties with a supervisor, etc.). Analyze the types and frequencies of work-related issues that are driving employees to leave. Provide training to minimize prevalent negative interactions (e.g., harassment, bullying or unfair and inconsistent treatment) and provide support mechanisms to deal with those problems (e.g., conflict resolutionprocedures, alternative work schedulesoremployee assistance programs).

Additional predictors of turnover that merit careful attention include:

  • Organizational commitment and job satisfaction.
  • quality of the employee-supervisor relationship.
  • Role clarity.
  • Job design.
  • Workgroup cohesion.

Why employees stay

As important as it is to understand the reasons that drive employees to leave an organization, it is just as important to understand why valuable employees stay. Some recent studies have suggested that employees become embedded in their jobs and their communities. As they participate in their professional and community life, they develop a web of connections and relationships, both on and off the job. Leaving a job would require severing or rearranging these social and value networks. Thus, the more embedded employees are in an organization, the more likely they are to stay. Companies can increase an employee’s embeddedness by providing mentors, designing work in teams, fostering team cohesiveness, encouraging employee referrals and providing clear socialization and communication about the company’s values and culture, as well as financial incentives based on tenure or unique incentives that may not be common elsewhere. See, Report: Loyalty Is Built on Communication, Not Compensation and The Three Secrets of Retention: Respect, Rewards, and Recognition.

Key Retention Strategies and Best Practices

Practices that contribute to retention arise in all areas of HR. This makes it critically important for professionals specializing in various HR Disciplineswithin organizations to work together under HR leadership to develop and implement multifaceted retention strategies. Broad-based and targeted strategies, or a combination of both, may be appropriate to the circumstances.

Effective practices

Evidence suggests that effective practices in a number of areas can be especially powerful in enabling an organization to achieve its retention goals. These practice areas include:

  • Recruitment. Evidence suggests that recruitment practices strongly influence turnover. Considerable research shows that presenting applicants with a realistic job preview during the recruitment process has a positive effect on retention of those new hires. See, Staffing Issues Critical to Business Strategies and Recruiting for Retention
  • Selection. The use of biographical data (biodata) is an especially effective technique for handling the selection process. Biodata empirically identifies life experiences that tend to differentiate those who stay with an organization and those who quit. Life experience associated with people who stay may include significant tenure on previous jobs, educational experience, involvement and leadership in career-related clubs and organizations, and early work experiences. Assessing “fit” for the organization (with the job and the organization and its culture) can also shed light on the compatibility of an individual with the work environment. See, Fueling the Talent Engine—Finding and Keeping High Performers(including both video and discussion guide), How Google Searches for Successand Use Employment Branding to Hire, Keep Employees With Best Cultural Fit.
  • Socialization. Turnover is often high among new employees. Research has shown that socialization practices—delivered via a strategic onboarding and assimilation program—can help new hires become embedded in the company and, thus, more likely to stay. These practices include shared and individualized learning experiences, formal and informal activities that help people get to know one another, and the assignment of more seasoned employees as role models for new hires. See, Managing the Onboarding and Assimilation Processand Fusing Fun With Work Aids Retention.
  • Training and development. If people are not given opportunities to continually update their skills, they are more inclined to leave. However, training and development is a double-edged sword as training may make employees more marketable, increasing the ease with which they can be recruited by rival organizations. See, Lack of Career Advancement Main Reason Workers Consider Leaving.
  • Compensation and rewards. Pay levels and satisfaction are only modest predictors of an employee’s decision to leave the organization; however, a company has three possible strategies:

1. Lead the market with respect to compensation and rewards. See, Building a Market-Based Pay Structure From Scratch.

2. Tailor rewards to individual needs in a person-based pay structure.

3. Explicitly link rewards to retention (e.g., tie vacation hours to seniority, offer retention bonuses or stock options to longer-term employees, or link defined benefit plan payouts to years of service).
See, Benefits Key to Recruitment and Retention, MetLife Finds; Retention Bonus Policy;Keeping Comp on Track: Some Practical Tips;Total Comp: Retention Tool; Retention Becoming Top Benefits Objective, Report Shows; Staying Power: Rewarding Key People Who Stick Through Tough Times; andHot Skills: Compensation Strategies to Recruit/Retain Technical Talent.

  • Supervision. Several studies have suggested that fair treatment by a supervisor was the most important determinant of retention. This would lead a company to focus on supervisory and management development and communication skill building. See, People Leave Managers Not Jobs and Boss Factor Can Make or Break Retention.
  • Employee engagement. Engaged employees are satisfied with their jobs, enjoy their work and the organization, believe that their job is important, take pride in their company, and believe that their employer values their contributions. One study found that highly engaged employees were five times less likely to quit than employees who were not engaged. See, Employee Engagement and Commitment.

Broad-based strategies

Broad-based strategies are directed at the entire organization or at large subsystems and are intended to address overall retention rates. Examples include providing across-the-board market-based salary increases, changing the hiring process to incorporate retention-related criteria and improving the work environment.

The data to help a company determine which broad-based strategies to implement typically come from retention research, best— or effective— practice review and benchmarking surveys.

  • Retention research can shed valuable light on the primary drivers of turnover. Attendance at conferences and membership in professional associations such as SHRM can also provide access to the latest research on turnover and retention.
  • Best/effective practices encompass the strategies that other organizations are using and are finding effective or ineffective.
  • Benchmarking surveys can provide information about where a company stands on issues such as pay, benefits, bonus plans and the like.

Targeted strategies

Targeted strategies are based on data from several key sources, including organizational exitinterviews, post-exit interviews, employee focus groups, predictive turnover studies and other qualitative studies. This information can lead an organization to determine more specifically where a problem exists and develop highly relevant and linked strategies to address the issue (e.g., if female professionals are departing the organization in significant numbers, a company could review common reasons that women give for leaving a company and develop strategies to specifically deal with this group of employees). See, Some Moms Would Take Pay Cut for Time With Kids, What Are Some Innovative Ways to Retain High-Tech Employees?and Creative Approaches to Employee Retention.


A company’s HR department typically is the linchpin of effective and efficient administration of the employee retention strategy. Having an HR team that is educated about employee motivation, retention strategies and benchmarking and best practices research is critical to the success of the program.

Laying the groundwork

HR typically would be responsible for taking the following steps that together would yield the information that an organization needs to determine the extent of its problem and to help shape the retention strategies that are implemented in response.

  • Determine whether turnover is a problem. This can be accomplished through turnover analysis, benchmarking and a needs assessment (both external and internal).
  • Determine the best way to proceed. After reviewing the turnover analysis, benchmarking data and needs assessment, a company should be prepared to determine the extent to which turnover is a problem. Then broad-based or targeted strategies (or a combination) should be considered and identified for implementation.
  • Implementing the retention plan. This step involves actually putting into place the strategies that have been identified as appropriate for the specific problem.
  • Evaluating the results. After implanting the plan, it will be important to evaluate the results to assess their impact relative to their cost.

See, Smart Steps for Creating an Employee Retention Strategy and Ward Off Unwanted Attrition by Honing Retention Programs.


Establishing appropriate benchmarks—both external and internal—is a key first step in preparing to implement an employee retention strategy.

  • External Benchmarking.Is a 15% annual turnover rate too high? This question is impossible to answer in isolation. Benchmarking and needs assessment can provide valuable information for determining whether turnover is a problem for an organization. Through external benchmarking, a company compares its turnover rates against industry and competitor rates. These data represent annual and monthly quit rates as a percentage of total employment for all non-farm employment across the United States, broken down by industry, geographic location, public or private, etc. See, Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics – Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. SHRM itself offers a fee-based customized benchmarking service that includes a Human Capital Benchmarking Report. See, List of Metrics in the Human Capital Benchmarking Report.Another source of external benchmarking data can be found in private organizations such as the Attrition & Retention Consortium, a members-only group of 25 Fortune 500 companies that provide quit-rate statistics to a third party, which compiles the data and circulates benchmark statistics.
  • Internal Benchmarking.With this form of benchmarking, an organization tracks its turnover rates across time. If the rate increases, overall or among particular groups, this can be a “red flag” that a potential problem may exist. See, Annual Voluntary Turnover Rate and Cost-of-Turnover Worksheet.

Dealing with some common problems

As with all strategic initiatives, there are some common problems associated with employee retention programs. These include:

  • Lack of Top Management Support. If senior management does not send a message to managers and supervisors emphasizing that employees are critical to the company’s long-term success, they are likely not to focus on people-related issues. Unless senior management actively participates in the retention process and takes primary responsibility for it, managers and employees will remain unsure of the true value of employees, both to senior management and the organization. See, Many Senior Executives Not Engaged With Their Organizations.
  • Perception of the Program as Time-Consuming “Busywork.” Similarly, without an organizational commitment to the initiative and a clear understanding of how it is strategically contributing to the organization’s successful long-term performance, managers will view a focus on people as “nice” or “just busywork” and a huge waste of time that takes them away from the more important demands of their “real job.”

Costs and return on investment

Because there are so many different actions a company can take to improve its employee retention rate, it is not feasible to quantify the “typical” costs—hard and soft—of designing and implementing a program. However, this does not mean that an organization should not try to budget its own initiative carefully.

The payback in financial terms can be estimated by reviewing a number of HR metrics, including turnover data, promotions/transfers from within vs. outside recruiting, the number of grievances filed, absenteeism, discrimination complaints, etc.

Auditing and evaluating

Any HR initiative or program—especially one designed to retain an organization’s key talent—needs to be continuously evaluated to determine if it is effective and to identify opportunities for improving it. A good way to determine whether the employee retention program is working is to conduct an independent audit of the way the program is affecting various groups of employees. For example, are certain types of employees (e.g., low-skilled, highly skilled, technical, professional, managerial, executive or those with varying degrees of tenure) leaving the organization at more significant levels than others? If so, that group can be targeted for specific interventions. See, Finding and Keeping the Right Talent–A Strategic View. HR must be responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of all people-related program outcomes.

Global approaches and perspectives

Increases in cultural differences within the workforce raise critical issues for HR practitioners. Employee retention efforts have proven to be very difficult in some parts of the world due to differing expectations for pay, work assignments, benefits and the like. If a company is global in scope or simply has a highly diverse employee population, both cultural and national differences must be taken into account at the outset of the development of any new HR-related program, including employee retention strategies. See, Multinational’s Travel Program for Workers’ Offspring Increases Retention and Growing Costs Spur Increases in Global Retirement Age.

Special thanks to Teresa Daniel J.D. Ph.D. and the Society for Human Resource Management

Source by Daniel Nase, MBA, PHR