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The secret to employee retention is not to try and reinvent the wheel, but emulate the practices used by organisations that have been very successful at keeping their staff says Nigel Risner – motivational speaker…

Two such organisations are Marriott Hotels and Southwest Airlines. Both companies have extremely low staff turnover, while still consistently posting profits. Both have successfully tapped into a very powerful truth. The underlying basis of their success is that they are able to provide for the basic emotional needs of their employees in a manner that creates lasting ties to the organisation. Both also believe that if you take good care of your employees, they will take good care of their customers. As Maya Angelou said “People will often forget what we said, but never how we made them feel.”

Employees come first

Publicly, both organisations have gone counter to the usual “customer first strategy” and state that their employees come first. They have discovered that the best way to ensure customer satisfaction is to have happy and motivated employees which will result in having people who have a strong vested interest in keeping customers satisfied. Employees who are loyal and heavily invested in an organisation will naturally desire to do things that keep and increase a loyal customer base. As company founder JW Marriott himself said, “Take care of associates and they will take care of customers.”

Creating a culture — and communicating it

Both organisations hire, not so much based on technical skills, but on attitudes, teamwork abilities and a natural inclination towards friendliness and service to others. While some may argue that not hiring for skills means more training, both Southwest and Marriott have found that employees who have the right attitude pick up skills faster and adapt quicker than those hired only for skills.

Most organisations post in their recruitment communication with generic terms such as “good team players wanted.” Southwest Airlines has gone far beyond and identified the personality traits of the type of person that will make a successful employee.

In its recruitment ads, you will see statements like: “If you want to have fun, this is the place to work! This is a place where you can be yourself, where it’s okay to be irreverent, where you will be loved and valued. We love our employees, we trust our employees, who in turn work very hard to give Positively Outrageous Service (POS) to our customers.”

To differentiate themselves from other employers who look for attributes such as advanced degrees, professional conduct and adherence to strict dress codes, Southwest advertises “professionals need not apply.”

This clear understanding and communication of the type of person Southwest is looking for serves as a valuable self-screening tool for applicants; attracting people who are looking for – and will fit well into – the environment and dissuading those who would not be interested in applying. Having done an excellent job of branding themselves, Southwest has tapped into a steady supply of the “right kind of people”.

Model your culture — starting from the top

At Southwest, having fun is taken seriously and modelled at all levels in the organisation. Former CEO Herb Kelleher was known to do stunts such as dressing up as Elvis. New employees are shown funny videos such as “The Southwest Shuffle” set to a rap beat in which employees describe their roles in the organisation. Leading off is the chairman who is also introduced as the ‘Chief DJ’.

Immerse new employees in the right away

The sooner new hires are made to feel part of the organisation the better. Southwest takes great effort in making its newest employees feel special and a valued part of the company from the moment they are hired.

There’s no sitting down and reading the policy manual. One of the new staff hired to work in the University for People (called the HR department in more formal organisations) was surprised to find on her first day on the job that the entire department was hosting a pancake breakfast in her honour. Everyone takes part in welcoming new staff and making them feel part of the family.

A programme called “Cohearts” matches volunteer longer term employees to new hires. A seasoned staff member takes a new starter under his or her wings for six months. Their role is to ensure that the new person always feels supported and embraced. Some of the ways that “Cohearts” do this is by spending time with newcomers, buying them small gifts and taking them for lunch. As a result of these efforts, powerful bonds are created between staff and the organisation in addition to nurturing long-term friendships.

Ongoing training and career opportunities

Once hired, each organisation invests heavily in their employees, both in terms of workplace training and opportunities. This ensures they never feel that they have reached a dead end and there is nowhere else to go in the business.

Both Marriott and Southwest offer their employees ongoing training in leadership, new software upgrading, career development and operations. This gives a sense that there are always opportunities for learning and advancement and it shows the business has an interest in having them reach their potential.

Look after people in good times and bad

Southwest’s corporate culture involves looking after ‘your own’. While the company believes in working hard, it also believes it is important to celebrate just as hard. Impromptu parties with executives dressing in funny outfits happen frequently. Having fun is an integral part of the culture, because an employee who is having fun is a happy employee.

The company also believes that looking after its employees extends to the families as well with events being held regularly. When tragedy strikes, or an employee or family member become ill, other employees have been known to deliver meals and offer support that goes well beyond that found in most workplaces.

Beyond comp and benefits

Salary and benefits do play a part in employee retention as far as employees feeling that they are fairly compensated. Beyond that, however, the employer that can make the workplace a setting where employees can meet their needs for advancement, a feeling of being cared for and having fun will be able to retain staff regardless of the economic environment.

Companies like Marriott and Southwest have been highly successful due to hiring the right employees based on attitude, teaching them the skills necessary for the job and creating the type of environment that they never want to leave.


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