Got good people? Want more? So does everyone else in your business. Here are suggestions from a manager on how to convince your top technical staff to stick around.

Keep Your Top Talent Loyal

Got good people? Want more? So does everyone else in your business. Here are suggestions from a manager on how to convince your top technical staff to stick around.

As managers in technical environments, we’re faced with the unending daily challenge of finding, recruiting, training, and retaining talented staff. Sometimes it seems that the industry has embraced a paraphrase of the old developers’ adage: Good managers develop good people; great managers steal good people. Or to put it another way, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” If you’ve spent the time, effort, and expense to train and certify your employees, what can you do to protect that investment? Here are some suggestions, gleaned from my own experience and from conversations with both managers and employees.

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.

Hire Intelligently

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, not performance.

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 a bonus.”

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.

Do 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.”

—Steve Crandall


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 place.

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.

About the Author

Steve Crandall, MCSE, is a principal of ChangeOverTime, a technology consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in small business and non-profit organizations. He's also assistant professor of Information Technology at Myers College and a contributing writer for Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine.

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