Most of us have heard something like this expression of employee gratitude. “I’ve enjoyed working here. You taught me so much, and you’ve always treated me well. But the company down the road is paying a lot more for people with my skills and training. I’m sorry, but I just can’t turn down this opportunity.”
Our first reaction as an owner is usually “What? After all we’ve DONE for you?”
It can be frustrating to see your investment in an employee walk out the door. He or she knew little when they arrived, and you spent many hours and lots of dollars teaching them to be good at a job. You may have paid them more than warranted until they had enough experience to legitimately earn that salary.
It’s especially galling to lose them to a larger organization that doesn’t hire inexperienced people. Instead of investing over time, they just pay more for someone who is already at their desired skill level.
Small business is the training ground for most of the entry-level employees in the US. If a first job is in high school, or as a college student, it is probably somewhere where few skills are needed to be hired. The business teaches those skills, in return for an entry level wage.
Once an employee has mastered the basics; showing up every day, starting on time, following instructions, they quickly move on to a “real” job. They begin seeking a career path. Most understand that the next step may take years instead of weeks or months.
They do, however, expect a next step. Mastering a position is satisfying for a short time. If that results in recognition through additional responsibility or higher production incentives; that works for a while as well, but it isn’t very long.
Why are you a business owner? At whatever point in your career you went into business for yourself, whether it was by purchasing a company or bootstrapping a bare bones startup, you were probably working for someone else at the time. Perhaps it was a bad employer, but maybe it wasn’t. You just wanted more than the job offered.
Where was your employee gratitude? If, like most of us, you went into business doing something you already knew; who taught you? Do you feel remorse for going out on your own?
Have you ever been in a company where no one has ambition? Where the employees do the same job for decades, no one advances and no one leaves? It’s awful, and I’ve yet to see such a business that could be considered a high-performing organization.
You want employees with ambition. The people who tackle a job with enthusiasm and are hungry to learn are the same ones who most want to advance. Unless you have very rapid growth, you can’t satisfy them all.
Retention strategies help. You can document a career path, demand promissory notes for training costs, or even offer equity in your company. If you are smart and lucky, you can retain the best of them for most or all of their careers.
But if you are hiring right, and teaching them well, many will move on to greener pastures. The same traits that make them good employees also make them a flight risk. Acknowledge it and counter it with tangible action, but don’t depend on employee gratitude to keep them around.
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