I spent most of the past week speaking with senior HR professionals at Executive Platforms’ annual North American HR Executive Summit series in Orlando, Florida. Some of these conversations were with leaders responsible for tens of thousands of employees, and others were with executives from industry-leading companies with as few as 25 highly skilled and highly coveted experts on staff.
From globally recognized brands to the small but mighty companies the public at large cannot name but depend on every day, the same topic of conversation came up over and over again: The disruption of the last three years has made the War for Talent all the fiercer, and the best HR teams are finding success in holding on to their Top Talent and attracting the Top Talent of their competitors through a mixed approach that focuses on what people want in the New Normal of Work. There is no one silver bullet, but there is certainly an arsenal of options available that in combination can make any organization an employer of choice.
Someone said, “If you’re the employer of choice, there is no talent shortage.”
Someone else who heard that said, “But you need to sense-check yourself every day to make sure you are still doing enough to be that employer of choice.”
Here are a few key ideas employers can mix, match, combine, and tailor to retain and develop the employees they have while attracting the employees they need for the future.
We cannot have a conversation about compensation without talking about money, so let’s cover it at the top. Everything costs more than it did five years ago. How long can employers consider themselves competitive and attractive to their existing workforce and the talent pools they need to tap without spending more money? Now that is not to say money is the only option —the length of this week’s column should make it pretty clear that there are many other ways to compensate people for their time and energy and productivity— but if the decision is being made to set money aside as an option, a lot of ground will need to be covered elsewhere by other means to make up its absence.
We already live in a world where many professionals move from job to job to advance their careers and earning power rather than wait for promotions and raises from their current employers. Putting to one side what this does to retention rates, how can a company hope to attract the Top Talent they want if they are not offering competitive salary or wages? Industries that talk about labor shortages are often looking to fill low-paying positions. Now imagine an engineering firm or insurance company or bank trying to attract the best expertise available to grow without putting some funding behind their new wants and needs?
Money has to be part of the conversation when it comes to attracting, retaining, and developing top talent, or at the very least you are committing to having a much longer conversation to make up for its absence.
Moving on from money, the next obvious opportunity to be an attractive employer is through offering benefits. Imagine yourself applying to two jobs with equal salaries where one had very comprehensive benefits and the other is pretty basic. Who would not opt for the employer who is offering more, all other things being equal, right?
Going beyond that self-evident example, it should be acknowledged that everyone wants and needs different things from their benefits, and there are more options out there for benefits than can easily be imagined. A company that has a young workforce might be looking to supplement and support the needs of its people with very different offerings than an organization with a broad spectrum of ages or even a decidedly older team, as one illustration of what we are talking about. For the purposes of this week’s column, getting into specifics would see us lost in the hypothetical weeds, but we can say with confidence that there are many, many ways to create a benefits package that can make a powerful argument that an employer understands and cares about its people. After money, benefits are probably the easiest way to get a potential employee’s attention or demonstrate to a current employee that their job is more than just take-home pay.
Again, there are as many incentives out there as the most creative employer can conjure. Are we talking about commissions? Bonuses? Extra paid time off? Holiday fun? Company swag? Casual office attire? A trophy that sits on someone’s desk after a round of applause from everyone’s peers? Incentives can come in all shapes and sizes, and they have two important factors attached to them: How much they are going to motivate and energize the recipient, and how much they are connected to the company’s goals.
I was speaking with an HR executive working for a company in an industry where institutional knowledge is paramount. She does not want her best people to spend a few years with her and then take what they have learned and the connections they have made to a competitor, and so she has built elevators into everyone’s salary and vacation time over and above the normal promotions and raises to reward and celebrate employees’ anniversaries and milestones with the company. For an organization like hers whose success is finding a few of the right people and holding onto them for long stretches of their careers, it is a powerful retention strategy incentivizing people to stay and put down roots.
Is that an incentive that makes sense for every organization? No. It is a great fit for hers, though. That’s the point.
Incentives should connect what will motivate the employee to what the employer most wants from them and for them. In companies where business development is a key driver of success, sales contests and regular targets with a prize for completion are so normal, they almost go without saying. Why don’t we take that obvious motivator and apply it to other things beyond bringing in revenue? What incentive would motivate senior executives to take on young mentees? Or motivate junior team members to sign up for continuing education? Or let the people who do important but unglamorous work know how much they are valued and appreciated for everything they do?
The best HR organizations are asking those kinds of questions and coming up with innovative incentives —many of which do not require a lot of extra resources— to get their desired results and drive positive outcomes.
Work-Life Balance and Wellness
Probably the single biggest shift in the last decade of HR as a profession is that today an HR leader is expected to think of the employee not just as an important contributor to a company’s shared success, but also as a whole person whose private and public lives connect in ways that old-fashioned HR practices discouraged people from talking about, but today it is front and center in conversations about how to make that person —the whole person with many things going on in their lives— feel understood, supported, valued, and accepted.
We live in a world where people can now talk about mental health without fear of losing their jobs.
We live in a world where people whose loved ones need support and care can admit what is going on at home that is distracting them from their work.
We live in a world where people can have children without fear of closing doors on their future career ambitions.
We also now live in a world where remote work and hybrid work have gone mainstream in a way that no one could have imagined even five years ago, and what does that mean for all those people whose physical and mental health and wellbeing and those of their loved ones can be better served with an open dialogue with their employers about what is best for them, rather than the expectation being the status quo of a decade ago where asking for an exception marked you out as being somehow a less valuable employee?
The best employers have embraced all of this and are leaning into it, and we are now far enough into this trend that we can see productivity did not fall away from being flexible. Retention rates go up when people are able to work as they want to work while still taking care of what they need to take care of outside their job.
Work-life balance can even be as simple as companies insisting people use all their vacation time and unplug from their jobs while they are away without checking emails or making themselves available by phone.
We heard from a Fortune 100 company at NAHRES22 that has instituted a policy that every employee of the corporate headquarters takes the same week off in August —other employees also get an additional week off throughout the year— during which time no one is allowed to contact coworkers. Everyone enjoys the time off knowing they are not coming back to a full inbox. Now not every company has the freedom or power to do that, but can you imagine how much better a holiday would be knowing no one in the office is working away covering for you and waiting on your return before they can complete important tasks?
Connecting the Job to both the Company’s Culture and the Community at Large
Doesn’t that last example sound like a great company to work for? Going beyond the specifics of what they actually chose to do, what kind of a company even thinks up and approves something like that?
Only a company that really thinks about its people, has its own culture, and works to better everyone could green light an idea approving extra shared vacation time. That’s the sort of company a lot of people would be interested in working for, and who would want to leave an employer who makes that kind of brainstorming idea a reality?
Beyond being a part of a great team and a great organization, there is also a real opportunity for HR professionals to seek out the people who want to do something to make things better, and then empower them to do it. Who in your organization is passionate about DEI? Who in your organization is passionate about sustainability? Who in your organization is passionate about safety? Who works with local charities? Who wants to make a difference? Giving people the ability to do more and to do it as part of their employer’s own mission to be better is such a powerful thing to do, and in many cases it costs nothing the company was not already looking to spend.
Imagine someone making their personal cause part of their daily work with the full support of their employer. How likely is that person to leave their job? How likely is that person to be championing what they do and who they work for to others? How likely is that person to become a positive force shaping the culture both within the company and with the larger community the company is built upon and working with every day? How much more likely is that person to grow and learn new skills and rise up and become the leader their employer will need in the future? Asking people what they are passionate about and then helping them do that can be one of the most powerful things an HR professional ever does for both that individual and for the organization and community they serve.
Feeling of Accomplishments
Building upon that last point, a feeling of accomplishment is such a powerful motivator to stay and do good work. The employee who sees their passion become something they can do more of through their work is a happy, productive, engaged employee who wants to stay and do more, and also reaches out to like-minded people saying, “I work for a great company. I get to do this!”
Beyond championing good work, even the normal day to day of a person’s working life can be connected to a feeling of accomplishment. Recognize and celebrate what people contribute. Have awards and public announcements shining a light on the good work people are doing. When a company doubles in size in ten years, take a moment and honor the people who have been with the company all that time making that happen. When a company grows into a new territory, make sure the people who spearheaded that growth and did the hard work get their moment of recognition.
People who are proud of what they do want to do more, and those people become the examples their peers look up to for inspiration and guidance and advice. We talk about Top Talent so often we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are talking about the people who actually get stuff done and drive those positive outcomes. Do they feel a sense of accomplishment when they achieve their goals? If they do, that is already a powerful force for retention and development.
Clear Career Path
On that note, not everyone wants to be the boss one day, but everyone wants to know what is possible for them in the future. One of the simplest and best things an HR professional can do to retain and develop the people they have and attract the people they want is be honest with them about where they might be able to go and what they might be able to do.
You don’t need to make big promises. You don’t need to offer guarantees. Goals and targets and milestones to hit along the way are fantastic things to offer. Paint the picture. Say it will be a journey. Say it will take hard work and dedication. The people who we can call ‘Top Talent’ are not afraid of hard work or putting in effort. They do want to know what that effort is going to earn them as they move forward. You get people’s best effort with an open and honest conversation about what is possible and what getting there is going to look like. It should also be emphasized that is not a conversation to have once, or even once in a while. Motivated people want to know how much progress they are making. Engaged people want updates. People who are invested in what they are doing want to know they are moving the needle.
Everybody wants something. This whole blog post has been about some of the things they may want that HR people can offer them. The easiest and best thing every Human Resources professional can offer someone is insight into the direction and distance they have in front of them along their future with the company. With that information in hand, a lot of other very productive conversations can be had and decisions made.
And there we have it. Those were my biggest takeaways from the discussions I had at NAHRES22 about compensation, benefits, and incentives to attract, develop, and retain Top Talent in this New Normal of Work we are now navigating. Having written it all out, I feel like every one of these ideas can be a whole column for the future. Stay tuned for those!
Head of Content & Research
Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.
Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.