Wednesday, May 11, 2005

It’s one of those gut-wrenching moments that small-business owners dread: One of your key employees says she’s quitting.

You might be able to get her to change her mind, depending on how flexible you can or want to be — and how carefully and considerately you deal with her. It might be possible to reverse a decision that even the employee believes is set in stone.

When Rachel Imison, one of Lou Hoffmann’s vice presidents, told him she was leaving, he took steps to keep her that might seem extraordinary, offering a three-month leave of absence to give her time to think things over, and then fashioning a job that would give her a more flexible schedule.

“It was good business to do that,” said Mr. Hoffman, chief executive officer of the Hoffman Agency, a San Jose-Calif. public relations firm. “She’s terrific and it’s not just the tangible performance, but the intangible performance — leadership, she understands the culture, she perpetuates the culture.”

If you really want to keep a valuable worker, you must react quickly and let the employee know you really don’t want him or her to leave, said Leigh Branham, a human resources consultant in Overland Park, Kan.

“When you have someone critical come and resign, it can hurt your business immediately,” said Mr. Branham, author of “The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave.” “You want to convey the message, ‘This is a big deal. We value you.’”

Mr. Branham says business owners who are serious about retaining an employee should drop what they are doing and deal with the situation right away — canceling meetings if necessary, or driving out to see the employee if he or she works at another location.

The next step is to start a dialogue to determine all the reasons behind the planned departure — “more money” is likely to be a cover for more painful reasons or to avoid a confrontation. It’s better to do this fact-finding in a separate conversation, said Paul Sarvadi, chairman and CEO of Administaff, a Houston-based human resources firm.

A discussion the next day, or a few days later, will give you some time to recover from your first emotional reaction, whether it was anxiety, fear, anger or all three. It will also give you time to do what Mr. Sarvadi calls “the analytics,” evaluating whether you absolutely must keep this worker, or whether your business will be fine without him or her, despite the need to hire and train someone new.

When you do have the conversation, chances are it will include some things that are hard to hear — maybe one of your managers is alienating your employees. Maybe you are the problem — maybe you didn’t make your employee feel appreciated enough. Maybe the workload is too much and the employee is burned out. Maybe you are not giving the worker enough responsibility.

If you want to keep the employee, you have to be sincere if you agree to make changes he or she asks for.

“If you promise to change a specific situation in a very specific way, that’ll be convincing,” Mr. Branham said. “But if there’s something you promise to do and it doesn’t start happening immediately, you’re going to lose them.”

You also have to get the employee excited about working for you again. “You have to rekindle what was once there,” Mr. Sarvadi said.

In the case of Miss Imison, Mr. Hoffman’s employee, there wasn’t a situation that had to be corrected. “She really felt like it was time, and she wasn’t satisfied in the job,” Mr. Hoffman said.

But he said, “we began having discussions so I could understand what was going to work for her and what was important.” That led to the leave of absence and her eventual return; she’s been back on the job for nearly six months now.

Joyce Gioia also made some big changes to bring back an employee who left for purely personal reasons, moving to California, far away from Miss Gioia’s management consulting firm in Greensboro, N.C. Miss Gioia asked the employee to work part time, using the company’s virtual network.

“She is able to sit in California and work with our system as if she were sitting in our offices in Greensboro,” said Miss Gioia, president of the Herman Group.

The arrangement is worth it because “she’s great, she’s wonderful,” Miss Gioia said.

Of course, there are many cases in which it’s impossible to persuade an employee to stay. But there is still something to be gained from trying.

Your discussions with the employee can tell you “things that need to be done to prevent that from happening again,” Mr. Sarvadi said. “Look at it from an objective information-gathering point of view.”


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