Retaining Your Star Performers - A How-to Guide

Have you ever played that game of "remember when?" Well, let’s play that game right now.

Remember when employees were hired right out of high school or college and they looked at employment as a lifetime commitment?

Remember when employers gave modest yearly raises and told employees that they were doing a good job and the employees happily stayed at their jobs?

Remember when the market was so full of potential employees that the people working for you were just happy to have a job and wouldn’t even think about looking for another?

Well, welcome to the new world. Employees are different now. They aren’t looking for lifetime employment – they are looking for a potential stepping-stone to a higher-level job. They are not happy with just a yearly evaluation and a small raise. They know that their skills are in demand and that there are plenty of employers out there looking for star performers. They also demand more benefits, training, and salary. Employers had better be prepared to make adjustments in order to retain the "best of the best."

In a recent new-student orientation seminar at Kansas State University, participants were told that they would most likely change jobs eight times between the age of 18 and 32. AMAZING! You might be saying to yourself right now – "How awful - I would hate to change my job that much." However, this new generation does not see job changing as a problem; it is the world they are comfortable with. Employers have to find innovative ways to retain employees; and it goes way beyond mere money. What else could it be? Truthfully, the list could go on infinitely. Your firm has to find ways to reach each individual employee. Let’s look at just a few retention methods that have gained popularity in recent years.

Career Development – Employees today are well aware they need to continually update their skills. If they see their employer as a hindrance in their efforts, they will find another employer that will give them the training opportunities they desire. Employees see great value in a good training plan that allows them to obtain their goals. Training is a win-win situation for the employee and the employer. The employee gets to increase knowledge and skills, and the employer has a highly trained and motivated employee working toward the company goals.

Protect the firm: Use an employee contract with a training payout clause in it. The firm will be investing a lot of money in employee training, and if someone else is going to benefit when the employee leaves, it is reasonable to expect a payback of a portion of the training expenses. An example of a training payout clause is:

It is the intention of Great Company to invest significantly in professional training and certification for Star Employee. If Star Employee terminates his/her employment within a two-year period following completion of professional training or certification, Star Employee agrees to reimburse Great Company at the following rates for direct training or certification costs, including, by way of example and not limited to, exam fees, certification preparation courses, registration fees, seminar costs and other direct costs related to training: seventy-five percent (75%) of training costs within one (1) year of completion of training and twenty-five percent (25%) of training costs within two (2) years of completion of training.

Job Content – One way to send an employee packing is to offer a job that is boring and one the employee doesn’t enjoy. Make sure, as you structure the position, you give each person duties that will provide challenge and am opportunity to excel. Make sure you do face to face evaluations with your employees at least quarterly to ensure that their job duties are interesting and that the employees understand how their job directly impacts the firm.

Protect the firm: Put the job description in writing, as well as the quarterly evaluations. Don’t leave the expectations of either you or your employee to memory.

Flexibility – Now, more than ever, employees want flexibility. We all know that some people are morning people and others don’t start functioning until later in the day. Some jobs require an employee to be in the office from 8:00 to 5:00, but others do not. This entire article could be devoted to all the different options for when employees can work. Don’t get caught in the trap of “we have never done that before.” Look at each situation and make a rational and clear decision; one that will benefit your employee and ultimately your firm.

Protect the firm: Be consistent with your employees. If you are going to allow one employee to work a 10-hour 4-day week, then you must be prepared for the others to ask and expect that you will do the same for them.

Tuition Reimbursement - Higher education is something that is not just a luxury – it is a necessity in many fields. If you have employees who are looking for the opportunity after college to obtain a higher degree, a tuition reimbursement program may be just the right motivation for them.

Protect the firm: Just like with the training programs, you should build a payback clause into your employee agreements so that if employees choose to leave, they will need to pay back a portion of the education expenses incurred by the firm.

Competitive Salary – A salary that is competitive with your competition is essential to keeping a great employee. Although salary is not usually the ONLY reason an employee leaves a company, it certainly plays a part in the decision. If all things are equal, and an employee can make a higher salary somewhere else - chances are good the employee will make the move.

Protect the firm: Do your homework. Identify sources that give you good data about salary levels for comparable positions in your area. Remember to be careful not to compare the positions in your firm only only other accounting firms. You are not in competition only with other accounting firms – you are in competition with the bank, the technology company, and every other business in your community! Remember, these employees are not afraid of change and therefore changing to a new industry is not an impediment to a job change.

Bonus Plan – Many employees respond very positively to connecting goals, personal or company, to a bonus plan. Set your company goals, and then set individual goals that will help support the company goals. Next, set the bonus structure to support both personal and company initiatives. Your firm will benefit and so will the employee.

Remember, the best thing that can happen to you and your employee is that you will have to pay out on the bonus plan when you meet the company’s yearly goals.

Protect the firm: Put the bonus plan in writing each year. Make sure you stay flexible so that you can change the plan as your firm changes. Communicate very clearly with your employees about why the bonus plan exists, what their roles are in obtaining the goals, and how the plan could change from year to year. The more clearly you communicate, the less chance there is for a misunderstanding in the future.

Be Creative! – There are as many ways to motivate and retain employees as there are employees that you hire. The better you understand your employees, the better you will be able to provide the benefits that motivate them. Some firms have employee parties, set up massages in-house, have contests to give employees chances to win free dinners or gift certificates - the list can go on and on. Find something that will bond the employee to the firm.

In our company, Gary Boomer gave a particularly innovative year-end bonus one year. At the end of our strategic planning session, we were going to meet for a year-end celebration later in the evening. He announced to the staff that we had until we met for dinner that evening to spend a specific amount of money on the Internet. There were some rules we had to follow: 1) we had to spend the money on ourselves, 2) we had to spend it on the Internet, and 3) we had to be ready to show a picture of what we bought by the time we met for our dinner. We had a great time and I believe our entire staff has told the story to almost everyone they know. Gary found a creative way to build loyalty among his staff.

Protect the firm: It doesn’t matter what you do for your staff, but it is always a good idea to have one person in charge of monitoring all the programs, bonuses, and benefits. Don’t let individual managers have an open door to making these types of decisions. You don’t want some employees getting all the "goodies" while others get nothing. Let one individual in the firm – usually the Human Resources Manager or the Firm Administrator - coordinate all of the issues involved in this area.

Do you think all of these ideas sound like a lot of work? You bet they are! However, it is worth every bit of the effort you put into it if you can find ways to keep those star performers in your firm, performing for you! Remember - your employees reflect your firm, so take the challenge to retain your star performers!


About the Author
Sandra L. Wiley is the Director of Marketing for Boomer Consulting.

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