December 2002

Building Loyalty

CIDMIconNewsletter Diane Davis, Director, IC Implementation, Technical Publications, Synopsys, Inc. with Chuck Millar, ed.

Remember when you were desperately trying to find a writer for a new project and all the good ones were working somewhere else and did not want to make a move? Maybe you made offers to writers only to have them put you off with demands for higher salary or more stock options. It’s hard to remember that just a few years ago the economy was booming and a manager’s major function was to try to hire qualified staff and retain current employees.

Today, most of your writers consider themselves lucky to have a job at all, and finding qualified applicants for new positions is easy. Although retaining qualified employees is no longer a challenge, it is wise not to overlook the importance of job satisfaction and feelings of loyalty among your staff. When the economy turns around, you will have to deal with a high turnover rate if you have been taking your employees for granted and assuming they are happy just because they are not leaving.

As a manager, you have a big influence on an employee’s decision to remain in a job or leave. Your influence is a significant responsibility. And right now is a perfect time to meet that responsibility and take steps to build employee loyalty.

What can you do now to ensure that your employees will want to stay in your group even when headhunters start calling with attractive offers? Should you focus on providing interesting job assignments? A pleasant work environment? Better training opportunities? Personalized coaching? There is no perfect answer or solution that will work for everyone, but I do know some things that have worked for me.

Build Trust

Employees will trust you when you are honest with them. Whenever I hear news of important changes happening within my company, I call “emergency” meetings. Whether the news is good or bad, I would rather they hear it from me than from the rumor mill. During these meetings, I answer all questions honestly. Sometimes, my answers are “I don’t know” or “I am not at liberty to answer that question,” but at least my employees know that I am sharing everything I can with them in an open forum.

You can build trust by following through on your commitments. When you take on an action and do not complete the task, you leave employees feeling that they cannot depend on you. You can build trust by remembering and honoring any agreements you make in meetings with employees.

One of the most effective ways of building trust is to make sure that employees are involved in decisions that affect them. Making a decision quickly on your own is often tempting, especially when you feel that you have the overall picture in mind and know what is best for the department. But you will lose the loyalty of your employees if you do not consult with them and let them know that you value their input about decisions that affect them. You will also make better decisions when you follow this process, even if it does take longer.

Do you go for long periods without telling your employees that you appreciate them? Do you give your employees support in the privacy of your office but not in public? Do you take credit for work they have done? All of these actions damage trust.

Be Open to Listening to What is Bothering Your Employees

If your employees feel that you have listened to them and really heard their concerns, they will feel respected and valued by you. When employees feel respected and valued, they are more willing to work hard and are more productive than if they feel that you don’t care about them.

Listening to an employee who is upset goes a long way toward building loyalty, even if the issue is not related to work. Sometimes, just being heard is all that a person needs to feel better. At other times, your ability to suggest resources for help is greatly appreciated. When one of my employees told me about how she was trying to cope with a family member who had Alzheimer’s disease, I could see that she was too stressed by the situation to really focus on her job. I suggested that she consult with her doctor, who immediately put her on stress disability, and she was out of the office for about a month. When she returned to work, she told me that she had resolved the issues related to the care of her family member, she was no longer stressed about it, and she was very appreciative of my support.

Help Employees Reach Their Professional Goals.

Make sure that you have a career development plan that you establish in consultation with each employee. Ask what the employee would like to be doing in three years and incorporate the response into the plan. Try to identify projects that would help the employee achieve personal goals. Review the plan periodically and modify it as the employee’s goals change.

Several years ago, I hired a writer to create a user guide for a new product. She had never created a manual but always had updated or reorganized manuals that someone else had developed. She was both excited and scared at the prospect of writing a manual from scratch. At one point, she came to see me and said that she did not feel like she was doing her job because she was at a loss about what to do with the product information she gathered. As it happened, there was a senior writer on my staff who loved to create manuals for new products and was available to work with the new writer. By asking the senior writer to help the new writer design the user guide, I was able to assist the new writer in achieving her career goal of learning how to develop new documentation. When the user guide was released, the new writer felt good about her work and grateful for the opportunity to develop new skills.

Recognize Growth and Excellence

Employees know that you pay them for the work they do, but recognizing the value of their contributions makes them feel good above and beyond the purely monetary value that they receive. What kind of recognition is appropriate for a particular employee? For some people, it is money. For others, it is working on an interesting new project or being allowed to attend a class or conference. Employees with a long commute may appreciate the freedom to work from their homes.

When you are sincerely appreciative about what employees are doing, make sure they know it. One employee in my department, who started out as an intern, recently took on a somewhat challenging assignment, and now I have noticed that senior writers are asking her for advice. During a one-on-one, I asked her how she felt being an expert. She had not even thought about the role she was filling in the department and how valuable she was to her colleagues. Needless to say, she left my office a happy employee.

When you value an employee’s contribution to the company or to a specific project, make sure the employee understands specifically what you were impressed with and then express your appreciation in an appropriate way. Sometimes, just saying thank you is enough. If you intend to recognize someone’s contribution with a spot bonus or a gift certificate, do you know which of your employees prefer public recognition and which prefer private acknowledgment? If you are going to provide a gift certificate, do you know what type of gift certificate specific people would like? One year, when money was not so tight, I tried to get a number of spot bonuses. Many were approved but several were not. To supplement the bonuses, I decided to get Nordstrom gift certificates for several women in the department. Those gift certificates were really appreciated. Some of the women stopped by my office just to show me the shoes they bought, and others wrote me notes about what they had purchased with their certificates.

When you have had a large release and everyone in your group worked hard on it, you need to decide whether to spread recognition and bonus money throughout the group or to recognize only the individuals who you feel contributed the most. How you decide is partly a matter of management style, but you should be observant about how your style affects the dynamics of your particular group. If you recognize everyone equally, you diminish the impact of the recognition for any one individual, but you emphasize the value you place in the group as a whole. If you recognize only the outstanding individuals, you increase the loyalty of your most valued employees, but you risk making other employees feel unappreciated. Ideally, the employees who are not recognized will feel inspired to work harder so that they too can receive recognition.

Provide Constructive Feedback

People like to hear what they are doing right, but constructive feedback about problems is also appreciated when done sensitively. No one is perfect, and employees will feel that you value them just as much if you are willing to discuss their shortcomings in the context of your overall appreciation of their contributions. If you avoid the issue of improvement opportunities, on the other hand, employees might tend to discount your positive statements about their accomplishments. Usually, employees know when they have not done something correctly, and high performers tend to “beat themselves up” even when you don’t say anything. Sometimes your role in discussing mistakes is to help the employee see that one mistake does not end a career. When you notice mistakes or opportunities for improvement, provide specific feedback as soon as possible, discuss a plan and a timeline to correct the problem, and make a point to follow up so you can both evaluate the results.

Start an Employee Recognition Program

Several years ago, I was looking for a way to more effectively recognize the contributions of employees in my organization. I asked a manager and four staff members to give some thought to this question, and they proposed a “Recognition Program” in which everyone, including managers, can participate. They created a Web site that includes a form that any employee or manager can fill out to provide public recognition and appreciation of any other employee or manager. The recognition notices are then posted on the Web site, and the recipients, as well as their managers, are also notified by email that they have received a recognition notice. After an especially large release, there are always numerous postings, which provide a public way to let people in the group know the specific contributions that have been noted and appreciated. At first, people who received recognition notices also received gifts of chocolate; now they receive gift certificates from businesses, like Starbucks, Jamba Juice, or movie theaters.

A standing committee has been established to oversee this program. Once a month, the Recognition Committee meets to decide which recipients of recognition notices deserve more than a token gift certificate, and they accordingly make their presentations at a monthly staff meeting of all of the people in my organization.

The Recognition Program provides an efficient way for employees to publicly recognize each other’s contributions and express appreciation for help that they receive from each other. The Recognition Program has been running successfully for about two years at a total cost of less than $2000.

Because in this economic climate you are naturally trying to do more with less, you might be inclined not to spend scarce resources to recognize personal achievement, but this way of thinking involves false economy. Now is the time to acknowledge the achievements of your employees and build loyalty that you will need later. Make sure to utilize the various methods your company provides for employee recognition and to be creative in considering other means as well.

In summary, this discussion is perhaps a wake-up call to anyone who has become complacent about their current ease in attracting and retaining qualified staff. Now is the time to build loyalty among your employees by making sure they trust you; by making sure you are in touch with their concerns and doing what you can to help them reach personal and professional goals; by being willing to provide constructive feedback; and by making a point to recognize employee contributions and communicate your appreciation in ways that feel good to each employee. CIDMIconNewsletter

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