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The Four Cultures of Employee Retention

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Got turnover? Compelling data from the Society for Human Resource Management and others who study workforce trends reveal that leading organizations must take time to analyze their retention realities and ensure that the valuable employees they currently have are not seeking greener pastures.

How do great organizations maintain low levels of turnover and high levels of employee satisfaction? The answer is found in one word: culture.

Organizations with high rates of employee retention concentrate on creating four distinct cultures—choice, balance, development, and care—that keep people focused on the organization and its goals.

The Culture of Choice

Donald N. Smith, the president of Burger King, said, "The individual choice of garnishment of a burger can be an important point to the consumer in this day when individualism is an increasingly important thing to people."

Burger King recognized long ago that Americans expect to have multiple choices each day. Workers are not exceptions to this rule. Today's employees are looking for choice in the methods they use to complete jobs, in the benefits they receive from work, and in when and how they report to work.

In the last two decades, there has been an explosion in the types of employee benefits offered by employers. There has been increased acceptance of telecommuting and flextime. We continue to learn more and more about employee engagement and the link between empowerment and retention.

Do your employees have choices every day? If not, they might soon be exercising their choice to leave.

The Culture of Balance

Even with increased acceptance of flextime and work/life-balance initiatives, employers indicate that stress levels remain high in their workplaces. Employers with lower levels of turnover recognize the increasingly important issue of balance and are addressing this need with proactive programs to help workers find satisfaction at home and on the job—a trend that is being driven by a growing population of women in the workforce.

Progressive organizations will recognize these trends and look to their increasing populations of women to drive their cultures of balance. And, while some organizations have already responded to this call, those organizations with workers in professions that are typically dominated by males may find this to be an increasingly important issue in terms of attracting and retaining workers. For example, in the historically male-dominated world of professional accounting, firms traditionally expected high levels of billable hours and allowed little time off.

Some firms are now recognizing the value of creating a culture of balance by offering increased levels of mandatory vacation each year, coupled with flexible hours and family-friendly benefits. These firms are recognizing the impact a balance-focused work culture can have on the retention of top performers.

The Culture of Development

Bestselling authors Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans, in their book, Love 'Em or Lose 'Em, say any organization that ignores the ambitions of good people can't expect to keep them. High rates of retention are clearly linked to the amount of attention employees get in terms of their professional development and growth.

When employees feel that their career goals have been acknowledged and that they are continuing to be challenged on the job, they are likely to stick around. Employees who feel stagnated, ignored, or bored will likely start looking for other opportunities.

Training, mentoring, and clear career paths all contribute to a culture of development. However, the strongest culture of development is created by the first-line supervisor who works with the employee each day. Every supervisor and manager has the opportunity to show that he or she is interested in the employee's growth and development by asking the right questions and by understanding where the employee wants to go professionally.

Kaye and Jordan-Evans suggest that managers and supervisors have regular "stay" discussions with individual employees during which the following questions are explored:
  • What learning opportunities can we support?
  • What work challenges would "turn you on"
  • What can we do to help you be more fulfilled on the job?
  • What will keep you here?
Simply by asking, managers and supervisors can begin to create a culture of development and, hence, increase levels of retention.

The Culture of Care

R. Brayton Bowen of the Howland Group said, "In a strict sense, the kind of motivation we need to be talking about in today's environment is inspired rather than induced."

As Bowen indicates, employees will be motivated to stay put and work at higher levels if they feel that they are cared for and if they care about the work they are doing.

In organizations where retention levels are high and turnover is low, research has found that employees find some level of inspiration from their jobs. Such inspiration might be a sense of contributing to the greater good. It might be a commitment to the team and its goals. Inspiration may be derived from following a committed and ethical leader.

How is a culture of care created? A recent study found that employees become dissatisfied when they perceive they are not being listened to by management. The study concluded that:
  • Leaders, including managers and supervisors, directly impact the culture and the sense of care within the organization.
  • Leaders typically do not recognize the impact of their behaviors on the morale of the workforce.
  • For morale and retention levels to improve, the leadership team must address their own beliefs and skills as they relate to being leaders.
Retention and overall employee satisfaction are directly impacted by the level of empathy and attention provided by the organization's first-and second-line leaders. It is clear that the relationship between these key players and employees is a major factor in employee retention today.

Putting the Four Cultures to Use

We have all read the ominous reports that indicate the workforce will shrink over the next 10 years with the anticipated exit of the baby boomers. It is clear that organizations will continue to be challenged to attract and retain qualified and committed employees. It is now time to turn our attention internally to the four cultures of employee retention. Use the following questions to explore the four cultures in your organization:
  • Does your organization provide ample choice to employees throughout the work experience? Do employees feel that they can control their day-to-day work lives?

  • Does your organization recognize employees' increased need for work/life balance? How can you continue to communicate this priority to employees?

  • How is your organization fostering a culture of development? Besides the traditional development strategies such as training and tuition reimbursement, what is your organization doing to foster a sense of continuous learning and development at all levels? What role do supervisors and managers play in creating this culture?

  • Do your employees feel "cared for?" Have the organization's leaders created a sense of commitment among the staff by showing they care?
With the national average length of employment hovering around one and a half years per job, it makes sense to explore what it takes to retain and develop a committed staff. Retention, while often considered a factor of economic times, is now being considered a long-term strategic goal for organizations that recognize its value.

About the Author:

Marnie E. Green is Principal Consultant and President of the Chandler, AZ-based Management Education Group and the author of the award-winning guide Painless Performance Evaluations: A Practical Approach to Managing Day-to-Day Employee Performance (2006). For more information about Green, call 480-705-9394 or visit
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