Employee Retention: Research and Best Practices

How do nonprofit and public service organizations attract and retain the best possible employees?

Let's take a look at the research and "big picture" of employment in America. Next we'll call upon the collective wisdom of a stellar group of executive directors who recently attended a workshop on the subject of employee retention.

"Any organization believing it can solve its attraction, retention and motivation problems solely by its compensation system is probably not spending as much time and effort as it should on the work environment - on defining its jobs, on creating its culture, and on making work fun and meaningful," says Jefferey Pfeffer in his Harvard Business Review article on "Six Dangerous Myths About Pay."

In fact, studies show that financial compensation ranks quite low in worker priorities. Employees are most committed to their work when it:

  • is highly autonomous.

  • provides high levels of feedback (on the work itself).

  • requires a variety of skills.

  • is meaningful.

  • (From Organization 21C, "Total Rewards Management" by Robert Heneman and Wendy Schutt, who suggest that financial compensation packages should be considered in tandem with two additional factors: learning opportunities provided and employee opportunity to be involved in job design.)

    The Gallup Organization, most famous for their opinion polling, has "studied human nature and behavior for more than 70 years, employing many of the world's leading scientists in management, economics, psychology and sociology." A significant portion of Gallup's work has been in studying "employee engagement." The Gallup theory is that an engaged employee is a productive employee. Gallup research, which now exceeds more than 4.5 million employees studied, "also proves that engaged employees are more profitable, more customer-focused, safer, and more likely to withstand temptations to leave."

    What is an engaged employee? Gallup contends that it is one who has:

  • a strong relationship with his/her manager.

  • clear communication from his/her manager.

  • a clear path set for focusing on what s/he does best.

  • strong relationships with co-workers

  • strong commitment to co-workers.

  • (Again, note that nothing here indicates that financial compensation is a primary consideration of workers.)

    The "theme" continues in Gallup's 12-question (proprietary) test to measure employee engagement:

  • Do you know what is expected of you at work?

  • Do you have the materials and equipment you need to effectively do your work?

  • At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?

  • In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for your work?

  • Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?

  • Is there someone at work who encourages your development?

  • At work, do your opinions seem to count?

  • Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?

  • Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?

  • Do you have a best friend at work?

  • In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?

  • In the last year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

  • Based on their extensive analysis, Gallup has determined that 29 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged, 55 percent is not engaged and 16 percent - or 22 million workers - is actively disengaged, or fundamentally disconnected from the job. The disengaged workers are costing up to $350 billion annually in lost productivity: absence, illness and other symptoms of unhappy workers.

    Nonprofit managers, too, report that their workers often are/become disengaged. Most believe this is due to:

  • Inappropriate work loads and little opportunity for advancement(small organizations).

  • Management's failure to manage; worker "disconnect" with leadership.

  • Employee's lack of voice/power/meaningful role in workplace.

  • Employee not taking care of self; employee not displaying personal motivation or job engagement.

  • Employee's personal values and priorities misaligned with the organization; gaps between the reality and the "fantasy" of progress that will result in the lives of clients (human services work).

  • Poor initial hiring/job decision.

  • It is worth noting that many of these are not "the employee's fault," but are issues that can be addressed by the savvy - and flexible - manager.

    In creating an environment and culture where employees want to "stick around," domestic violence project managers from throughout Colorado share their best practices, most low- or no-cost:


  • Establish and adhere to priorities for communication methods (e.g. first face-to-face, then voice and printed word, with email being the last option).

  • Send "Welcome Aboard" greeting card from manager.

  • Honor an open-door policy by management, with regular times for one-on-one consultations.

  • Provide opportunities for board/staff social interaction.

  • Acknowledgement and Appreciation

  • Award "You Rock!" special recognitions at weekly staff meeting (including a $5 coffee gift card).

  • Host quarterly "away" staff meetings (at a paint- your-own-pottery studio, at dance lessons, hiking).

  • Provide an annual "afternoon off" with a surprise event.

  • Remember and celebrate birthdays.

  • Healthy Employment

  • As the/a manager, model work-life health and balance.

  • Help employees develop annual self-care plan.

  • Distribute stress balls.

  • Provide educational opportunities and reimbursements.

  • Encourage time away.

  • Finally, avoid the following false belief: An important and meaningful MISSION indicates a positive organizational CULTURE and healthy WORK ENVIRONMENT. There is no inherent correlation between these independent keys to a successful nonprofit.

    Strong Leaders / Strong Stories

    Strong leaders have strong stories, and a solid sense of "self" as a leader.  But too often, even strong women view themselves or are perceived as being very good at "getting things done," but not as valuable strategic resources. What can you do to change this?  Find Out More Here