How to Keep Your Best Employees

A comprehensive plan to keeping them, and responding optimally when they leave.

Your best employees will leave. Even if you do a fantastic job running your business in a way that makes your team stay as long as possible, you won’t be able to keep them indefinitely. Even employees who stay for years will sometimes need to take weeks-long breaks, for personal needs like having a child, or taking a sabbatical.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to keep your best employees for much longer, and deal with losing them in a way that doesn't significantly damage your business.

This article will guide you through the four parts of effectively keeping and replacing great employees:

  1. Make employees want to stay
  2. Prepare for them leaving
  3. If possible, organise effective handovers
  4. Replacing employees who do eventually leave

1. Make employees want to stay

Firstly, if you’re worried that some employees are entertaining the idea of leaving, you need to determine what their concerns and expectations are. This can be done in a one-on-one meeting with their immediate supervisor, and should cover the following topics:

  1. How they feel about their job / workload / responsibilities / workspace
  2. What they would change about those if they could
  3. When they think they might leave

You’re going to need to create an open and honest space for them to talk about those difficult points (especially the last one), because you can’t prepare for the worst if you don’t know what it is, and they won’t tell you unless they believe you have their interests at heart.

Use their answers, you can of course specifically tackle their concerns and implement their ideas of improvements where possible. Given that each employee will have different concerns and ideas, below is a list of strategies you can implement that are often very successful.

  1. Encourage them to take time off
  2. Give them flexible hours and working conditions
  3. Reduce unnecessary meetings
  4. Encourage a positive culture
  5. Promote work-life balance
  6. Maintain a motivating vision
  7. Encourage career progression
  8. Setup mentorships (internally or externally)
  9. Tie bonuses to team success
  10. Develop an employee share scheme
  11. Remove negative-influence employees
  12. Hire support staff
  13. Set up employee recognition systems
  14. Share workloads and responsibilities fairly
  15. Engage employees in management decisions
  16. Provide sufficient leave of all kinds
  17. Ensure salaries are at least industry-average

2. Prepare for them leaving

Capture their knowledge

Chances are, your best employees have years of experience in your business, with loads of knowledge that only they know - knowledge that hasn’t been transferred to anyone else. While you could try to get them to transfer their knowledge to someone else, this leaves you with the same problem all over again when those employees leave. So the best solution is to capture their work knowledge for future employees to access when needed.

The most common way to do this is by creating standard operating procedures (SOPs). These are documents that explain how to do a particular task (for example, preparing a proposal). Ideally, they should also include important related information such as who should do the work, how long it should take, mistakes to avoid, what to do next, etc.

We’ve written an article about this: How to Create an Excellent Standard Operating Procedure.

Taking the idea of SOPs further, you could write down all the in-between bits of information like when to work on which tasks, who’s responsible for which things getting done, which documents to use, etc. If you bring all that knowledge together with the SOPs, we call this a team knowledge site.

Ideally this team knowledge site should be digital, but it doesn’t need to be. All of this knowledge can be printed out and stuck up on the walls of your offices or factory floor, but the key is to make it easy to find and read for your team when they need it.
While your best employees are still with you, it’s super valuable to assign (or employ) someone to interview them to capture their knowledge, to make these SOPs or a team knowledge site.

Not interested in making SOPs or a team knowledge site yourself? Want to hire someone to do it? Well SOPs and team knowledge sites are our speciality at Touchdreams. Contact us to get started.

Check sensitive things are secure

One thing that can make losing great employees even more painful is not getting enough notice, so that you’re not fully prepared when it happens. So to prevent this, check the leaving notice period in your team’s employment contracts. This is the amount of time they need to notify you before they can leave without any consequences, and it should be at least 1 full month, but it may be two months or longer, depending on relevant laws.

You’re also going to want to ensure that no employees are holding onto any key resources like documents or online accounts that only they have access to. You may need to institute a policy that all important (digital) company documents are saved to a shared drive (with suitable access or permissions set up). You should also set up a company-wide system to share accounts and passwords, such as LastPass or 1Password.

You also need to think more broadly about things that your team needs to use that can be held-onto by a single person, such as office equipment. For equipment, ensure your business has an asset registry where everything is listed, with its serial number, and who currently possesses it. That way, you’ll know what to ask to be returned when someone leaves.

3. If possible, organise effective handovers

Assuming you followed the advice above and instituted sufficient notice periods for employees choosing to leave, you should have one or more months to prepare for any specific employee leaving.

Ideally, there should be an overlap between someone leaving, and their replacement starting. The replacement employee can then use that time to familiarise themself with the work while the leaving employee is around to show them how things are done and to answer questions.

This overlap will of course depend on how quick your recruitment or promotion process is, which is discussed in the next section.

For labourers - employees who do tough, physical work - the experienced employee is going to need to show the new person how they do their job, from clock-in time to clock-out time. They should show what good quality work looks like, and how it can go wrong.

They should start by explaining how and why work is done, followed by showing it being done, followed by having the new employee doing it themself with careful supervision, followed by having the new employee do it on their own and getting feedback when finished.

For office workers, the experienced employee can take the new person through the following:

  • Typical work that needs to be done on a daily basis
  • Crises that may come up and how they would be dealt with
  • Resources that are used, whether that is money or people that need to be dealt with
  • The office space and how the team work together
  • How to maintain the right attitude, and learn and improve over time

For executives, below is a summary below of what the experienced employee should take the new employee through.

Proactive activities, such as their technical work (working in the business), and business development (working on the business).

Responses to unexpected circumstances, such as how to respond to damaging or inconvenient events, and which opportunities can and should be taken advantage of.

Personal connections, such as key customers or clients, suppliers, key "resource" people (for finances, talent, etc.), and even political connections.

Accounts, including software used (on their computer or online), and physical institution accounts, such as bank accounts, etc.

Mindset, covering how to be an effective leader, what values should always be maintained, and what can be compromised on.

4. Replacing employees who do eventually leave

Firstly, consider the roles that now need to be filled. Just because one of your employees is a great performer or loved team member doesn’t mean that they should be replaced by someone doing the exact same job. You may find that you need more than one person to fill their shoes, or perhaps the job description should be updated and changed significantly, or perhaps you simply don’t need another employee to fill that exact role for the time being.

If it isn’t clear exactly what work needs to be done, or what responsibilities need to be taken care of, make sure you have clear job descriptions for every team member before starting to bring on new employees.

Promotion internally

Assuming you do need to find one person to replace the star employee that is leaving, you might first consider promotion internally. There are many benefits to this, including maintaining a cohesive team atmosphere, rewarding an employee who’s been performing very well, demonstrating the opportunity for career growth to the rest of the team, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate already, or even just having a fast replacement of the leaving employee so you can start the handover right away.

There are also several potential downsides to this, which includes the chance that the person you promote is great at their current job but poor (or unmotivated) in the new position. Another issue is that merely thinking about promoting internally may blind you to the incredible potential of candidates outside of your business ready for this sort of job.

Effective recruitment

If you choose to hire someone from outside your existing team, the recruitment process needs to be done properly to make sure you get the right person first time. It’s no secret that hiring the wrong person can cost many times more than the cost of the recruitment process, so it’s worth investing in.

If you choose to use a recruitment agency, make sure you do your homework and pick one with a history of hiring excellent candidates - check their testimonials.

If you choose to use your own team to run the recruitment process internally, there are a lot of factors that can make all the difference in minimising the time needed and maximising the chance of finding the best possible person for the job. We highly recommend reading articles on effective hiring techniques, like The mistakes you make in hiring no one will tell you | Job Crystal.

Effective on-boarding and training

Lastly, when you’ve got the right person for the job, and everyone’s clear on what the new employee will need to do and be responsible for, you’re going to need to provide them with a thorough onboarding - sometimes called orientation - and then training.
The onboarding process will be significantly easier and more helpful to the new team member if you’ve already got everything written down in an SOP or team knowledge site. If not, read about it above.

Training is a vast topic because it can take so many forms, and vary in the amount of time needed from a few hours to a few months. Here are some methods you can try to ensure training is done well and isn’t a slog for everyone:

  • Mentoring - partnering the new employee with an experienced employee for regular meetings and communication
  • Shadowing - where the new employee spends time beside one or more experienced employees, observing how they do their work
  • Solo learning programme - where the new employee works through a syllabus of learning material
  • Industry training - where the new employee participates in a training programme provided by an external institution
  • Throw in the deep end - where the new employee is given client work to do and expected to figure out the process on their own (implement with caution!)

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There’s so much more to employee retention, recruitment, and employee handovers that we couldn’t possibly cover in this article, but that you can learn from other online courses. If you spot any glaring omissions, please let us know, as we’re always keen to hear about improvements we can make.

If you’d like to know more about anything above, get in touch with us using the form below, and we’d be happy to chat through it with you.