War for talent hots up

In a time of economic uncertainty, companies are discovering the battle to
recruit and retain key performers is well and truly on. Resources are being
directed towards employees who have a proven track record of adding value to
the business, as Liz Simpson discovers

Stability, security and work that offers a high degree of meaning and
purpose are the factors driving recruitment and retention in North America in
the wake of the dotcom bust, the tragic events of 11 September and the
widespread economic recession.

Labour shortages still exist across many industries and geographical areas,
so it’s not totally a buyers’ market. Many organisations and small businesses
are desperate to attract well-qualified and experienced individuals who can hit
the ground running – particularly in high tech, healthcare and the building

Healthcare organisations around the US have been offering sign-on bonuses
for nearly every professional category from registered nurses to physical
therapists, says Karen Hart, senior vice-president of the Healthcare Division
of recruitment consultancy Bernard Hodes Group. However, she adds, salaries
remain static.

In other industries, companies are directing their resources towards
individuals who have a proven record of adding demonstrable value to the
business. "Companies are attracting and retaining top talent by acting on
these individuals’ needs, concerns and issues," says John Challenger, CEO
of international outplacement firm Gray Challenger & Christmas, based in Chicago.

"For example, this may involve making sure a child’s special education
needs or health problems are well managed, or agreeing that a new recruit can
take a sabbatical after two years. Special employees are having benefits
programs tailored uniquely for them. And companies need to be constantly
vigilant and proactive on this issue to ensure staff don’t become

Incentives have shifted from the tangible to the intangible, according to
Bruce Skillings, executive vice-president in the Palo Alto, California offices
of Bernard Hodes.

"The biggest inducements are vision, values, culture and communication
strategy," adds Skillings. "Employees no longer want three jobs every
four years. They are attracted to stable companies, particularly big brand
names, where the goals, direction and communication style of the organisation
offers the right ‘fit’ for them. Even people still attracted to start-ups want
to see a realistic business model, because today the biggest lure for top
talent is the opportunity to add value and produce real, tangible

The emphasis on security and a sense of meaning and purpose at work is borne
out by the sudden appeal of public sector jobs. For example, the Public Service
Commission in Canada, responsible for Federal Government recruitment, recently
reported getting 22,300 applications for 890 jobs – whereas it received just
16,000 applications during the whole of the previous year.

Pam Walsh is Franklin Covey’s vice-president of talent development. She is
based in Salt Lake City, Utah and oversees the recruitment and retention of
some 3,500 employees that help the company sell, promote and teach personal and
organisational effectiveness products and training around the world.

"We are market competitive on salaries, but the reason people are
attracted to working here is the opportunity to help change people’s lives with
what we do. They stay because of the culture, which we maintain by only
recruiting people who contribute to our corporate qualities of camaraderie,
warmth, integrity and a deep respect for what we are trying to achieve,"
says Walsh. "Ensuring the right cultural fit and offering opportunities
for personal and professional growth helps us retain good people," she

Of course, it’s possible to lose your star performers not only to the
competition, but also to the desire to strike out on their own as
entrepreneurs. A recent study of the investment banking community, carried out
by Harvard Business School associate professor Ashish Nanda and doctoral
students, M Julia Prats and Boris Groysberg, focused on this.

The reasons these high performing knowledge workers leave to become
entrepreneurs offer important insights for anyone anxious to retain the
intellectual capital of star employees. "We found turnover is highest when
the company is under-performing compared with other firms in the industry, and
also if a person’s own department does not comprise of ‘A team’ members,"
says Nanda.

"One of the best retention strategies is to make sure teams comprise
bright, intelligent, creative people who are given the level of autonomy that
satisfies their entrepreneurial tendencies.

"Winning the war for talent involves creating an environment that not
only offers high compensation and the opportunity to develop portable skills,
but is organised in such a way that your stars feel they’re in the
decision-making loop on issues affecting their work."

M Julia Prats, whose particular focus is on the e-consulting industry, adds
that many founders of companies such as these left big consulting firms because
they were frustrated by bureaucracy and their inability to implement new ideas
within those established organisations.

While their research study of investment banks ranged from 1988 to 1996, the
authors emphasise that it ended before the dotcom era and covers both boom and
bust phases.

"Undoubtedly, entrepreneurial turnover has declined dramatically due to
the state of the economy," says Nanda. "However, it is short-sighted
to be less careful about losing good people in bad times," Nanda adds,
"because when the economy picks up those that have left are definitely not
going to come back."

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