Understand the Psychology
First of all, think about what satisfies and motivates
MCPs and MCSEs. In my experience, one of the prime differences
between sales types and good technical people is that
sales folks can wade through a pile of No’s looking
for the one Yes. Techies, on the other hand, abhor No.
We always want to say Yes: “Sure, we can do that—it
will just take a little more _____.” And we technical
folks always want to hear yes, or at least some affirmation.
Don’t get me wrong (and don’t flood me with
email): the money is important. But I find it to be less
of a factor than it is with salespeople. Challenging work
with appropriate recognition, along with the chance to
get better at one’s job, goes a long way toward keeping
eyes from wandering.
In our organization, a new technical resource with little
experience (either with or without certifications) becomes
an internal support person. The rookie thus gains experience
in our environment, and isn’t inflicted on our customers.
Other organizations have a progression of job titles to
handle this—for example, from Associate Systems Engineer
through Senior Systems Engineer. Still others have rate
differentials based upon experience. If you see certifications
leading to inflated compensation packages among beginners,
stop and think before you hire. Can you afford this newbie?
Can your customers?
To use a sports theme, most everyone’s staff is
going to have three classes of employees: promising rookies,
utility infielders, and superstars. Keep the superstars
happy, trade the veterans when appropriate, and be prudent
in signing the rookies. Remember, you’re buying potential,
Incentives vs. Environment
Be sure you understand the difference between incentives
and environment. The environment is what your employees
face (and think about) on their drive to work in the morning:
“Is this something I want to do? Is this someplace
I want to be?” Environmental benefits are things
you offer to everyone, all the time; meaningful ones include
complete health insurance, including vision and dental;
401(k) plans with high company-match percentages; flexible
vacation and work hour policies; good working tools, like
quality notebooks and TechNet subscriptions; and solid
industry partnerships and affiliations.
Incentives, on the other hand, are incremental: “If
we achieve our quarterly goals, we’ll have a big
party” or “As a key contributor to this project,
if it comes in under budget and on time, you’ll get
The fact is, in the long run, incentives never overcome
environment. If, in the opinion of your employee, your
management team stinks, or the co-workers are jerks, or
the drive is too long, throwing money at him or her is
a temporary patch, not a solution. A quality environment
will attract good candidates and keep valued employees
from comparing shades of green over the fence. Reserve
the incentives for special projects or accomplishments,
like achieving a new certification level.
Employee Contracts Work?
|A word about what
I call “negative incentive”—the
employment agreement or contract. Usually
the big deal here is the non-compete clause,
otherwise known as the “mess with
us and you’ll never work in this
town again” threat. I realize that
protecting your investment in your staff
and your customer base is vitally important
to your business. But also know that there
are a few drawbacks: many states are hesitant
to enforce these terms, and employees
are likely to view severe restrictions
as indicative of a lack of trust. In any
event, make sure that any such terms are
discussed during the recruiting process—springing
it on a new employee after he or she has
been hired smacks of coercion: “Now
that you’ve left your previous company,
sign this or you’re out on the street.”
When I spoke to MCSEs about retention, a major cause
of dissatisfaction was low-quality management—meaning
managers who don’t communicate, supervisors who make
illogical assignments, and companies that disseminate
information on a need-to-know basis. There are many ways
to communicate with your employees, both formal and informal.
One-to-many newsletters, intranets, and public folders
are important means to get the company line out. I once
worked for an organization that sent emails to all employees
whenever a significant press release came out. Unfortunately,
those emails came out at least a week after the press
release. Our customers knew more than we did about our
company (or at least they knew it sooner). How do you
think we felt? At best, like afterthoughts; at worst,
like we couldn’t be trusted with the information.
Problems rarely occur because your employees have too
much information, but the reverse is too often the case.
On a more individual basis, most companies have some
sort of performance review policy. We’ve all heard
horror stories of employees who haven’t been evaluated
in years—it’s a crime of which both the company
and the manager are guilty. The better companies enforce
their review policy; the best managers outperform it.
Employees deserve to know what their jobs are and how
well they’re doing them. An employee who is left
guessing about how he or she is doing is much more likely
to be a) doing the wrong things, and b) looking for a
more supportive environment. Subtle course corrections
are easier to make than hairpin turns.
Watch Your Internal and Your External
More important than these formal methods, however, are
the informal webs of communication that stretch throughout
your organization. I’m not talking here about planting
stoolies among the troops, or closely monitoring phone
calls and Internet usage. Contrary to many managers’
thinking, you can maintain your managerial distance and
tap into what’s going on. After-hours bull sessions
and impromptu lunches help you keep your ear on the track.
Having an open-door policy helps too, but only if you
are, in fact, approachable and trustworthy. I’ve
heard of one manager who maintained “office hours”
of Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 4 p.m.; outside of
those times, he was not to be interrupted. Needless to
say, he was rarely interrupted during his so-called office
hours; employees had a hard time scheduling their issues
within those parameters, and they wondered what he did
the rest of the time.
Does this mean you have to be perpetually interrupt-driven?
No, not really, but you do need to make the effort to
deal with employees’ issues on a timely basis. Publish
your schedule—Outlook and other tools like it make
it easy for your staff to see when you’re busy and
to request meetings.
Almost as important as knowing what’s happening
with your company is being aware of current events in
your marketplace. For example, knowing that a large national
organization with heavy MCSE staffing needs is opening
an office in your city is valuable information; being
proactive is the key to staff retention. Develop contacts
with other firms like yours—it won’t stop the
raiding, but you may get a heads-up of what’s coming
that you can then address with your employees.
Admit Your Mistakes
Even the most stringent hiring process can result in
difficult situations. When serious problems occur with
employees, it’s usually the result of one of three
causes: the company has changed direction and the employee
can’t or won’t follow; the employee has undergone
some change which is reflected in work performance; or
the employee shouldn’t have been hired in the first
The first two represent disciplinary challenges, and
I won’t discuss them here. But in the case of what
I call the “well-meaning mis-hire,” you must
be able to recognize and resolve it. In some situations,
the candidate deliberately misled you as to experience,
desired situation, or other circumstances; most times,
however, the candidate didn’t know what he or she
wanted to do or didn’t understand your environment
and his or her role in it. The key is to identify the
problem quickly and determine whether the situation is
salvageable. For example, you may learn that the person
you hired for project management and customer liaison
really doesn’t have the kind of people skills needed.
Can you find a back-office position for this person? To
retain someone who is presumably still a good employee,
simply mismatched, you need to do what you can quickly
to salvage the situation and the employee.
This is an article about retention, but just a reminder
here. Retaining ill-fitting or problem employees after
attempts to correct the situation have failed will only
compound the problem and cause resentment among the employees
you do want to keep.
Finally, let’s open the phone lines (actually, email)
on this topic: What do you do when a valued employee tells
you they’re leaving? Do you make a counter-offer?
Or do you say “I’m disappointed, but I don’t
want to stand in your way…” and escort them
out the door? Send me email with your solutions; I haven’t
found the perfect solution.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Staff retention isn’t an activity you schedule once
a year, or once a month, or once a week. It’s a continuous
process that’s part of everything you do as a manager.
As prudent managers, you take steps to protect your valuable
assets: you insure your equipment, you control access
to your customer list, and you lock the front door when
you leave. What are you doing to protect your most valuable
assets—your human resources? Let me know what your
strategies are to recruit and retain top technical staff.