Tip Sheet: Five Steps to Retaining Top Comms Talent

During the post dot-com doldrums, I presented an employee communication and retention program to a CEO. His response? “Bah. Where are they gonna go?” He had a point: just then, the company wasn’t losing talent. But when the market opened up, it lost a lot of top performers who’d been biding their time.

We’re facing a similar situation today. Listings on Craigslist and LinkedIn are up, recruiters are calling, and according to an April 2011 Deloitte study, just 35% of employees surveyed plan to remain with their current employers—a drop of 10 percentage points from Sept. 2009.

While the smartest companies were thinking about this six months ago, it’s not too late to make a plan to keep your top performers. Here’s how.

1. Take stock: Why did employees leave your company prior to the recession, and are those “push factors” still in force? What did you do to make it through the recession—freeze salaries, cut bonuses, cancel perks? Employees who accepted such steps as necessary during the downturn may be less understanding now (but before taking action, see step 5).

2. Benchmark yourself against your competition: If your salaries are lower and you don’t offer a compensating advantage, or your competitor offers flex time and you don’t, you may be looking at a problem.

3. Define your goals: Who do you want to keep—all your employees? Select senior managers? Employees in certain geographical regions? Defining your target audience will shape your approach.

4. Form a hypothesis: If your salaries are 10% lower than your cross-town competitor’s, you might conclude that you’ll need to increase salaries to keep people from jumping. But before you start passing out raises, it’s important to test your hypothesis. Why? Because there’s often a disconnect between what employers think will drive retention, and what employees value. No matter what approach you take, retaining employees will cost something. Your goal is to make sure that you get the most retention of the most needed employees out of every dollar. Which brings us to the final step.

5. Test it: preferably through a vehicle like a survey that allows employees to remain anonymous. Why ask for input, and why a survey?

• You may not know your employees as well as you think you do, and a survey lets employees tell you what they really think without fear of reprisal.

• Employees may differ in what they find valuable. A recent study found that a key driver of engagement for Millennials was access to flexibility, while younger Gen Xers valued training and development and older boomers said supervisor support was key. The April Deloitte study found that men ranked compensation first as a retention incentive, while women said recognition was most important. Personally, I’m skeptical about this last finding, but the point is that people are different; just as employers are increasingly providing a “benefit buffet” rather than a set package, you may want to craft a variety of strategies, with employees being able to choose the options they care about most.

• A survey lets you solicit input while limiting the input to what’s possible. For example, in surveying employees about what summer benefits they’d find most valuable, OfficeTeam discovered that flexible schedules (38%) and leaving work early on Fridays (32%) far outstripped additional activities such as picnics and a more relaxed dress code. By limiting the feedback to choices the company was able to implement, OfficeTeam got credit for asking and learned something about its employees in the process.


If you launch a survey seeking input on what will most encourage employees to stay with the company, won’t they know something’s up? You bet. Should you tell them what it is? Absolutely.

Your colleagues may voice concerns that by admitting there may be a challenge with retention, you’re creating one, inciting employees who otherwise wouldn’t think of looking to check out the options. That’s ridiculous: at this point, anyone who thinks employees are not thinking about their options has their head in the sand. Developing and implementing a smart program that addresses employees’ actual frustrations and wishes gives you a very good shot at keeping your top talent.


Beth Haiken is a senior VP at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].