Back to basics: The four keys to retaining staff

Back to basics: The four keys to retaining staff

Posted: Thu 29th Jun 2023

When my children are looking for advancement at work, virtually their first port of call is a recruiter.

They look outside their current companies to see what opportunities exist. This might be a negotiation tactic for a future discussion with their current employer, but often it isn’t.

I could understand if this was three years or more into their current jobs and things are becoming routine. But their quests start after six months, certainly under a year, which is barely time to get your feet under the table and start contributing.

In a sense, this is a product of the social media age, where we constantly seek to better ourselves – a better car, house, job or relationship. But there must be something seriously wrong if, after a few months, we’re out looking for another job.

Is it surprising that productivity is so low in the UK if companies lose valuable resources so quickly after recruiting them?

So, what's the problem?

This is squarely an inadequacy of human resource management. I’m not pointing a finger at HR managers per se, but rather the culture of treating HR management first as a recruitment consultant and payroll manager and then as an exit administrator, without managing the bit in the middle – the career.

I’ve worked in companies where the HR manager was required to attend management meetings only to read out new entries in the accident book! Hardly an affirmation of the vital role they have in building the team.

So, in a quest to keep staff on board, out pop the incentives. Some of these can be reasonable – flexible hours, the occasional day working from home, a generous pension and having a family healthcare plan.

And some can be just plain silly – bring your dog/child/granny to work, unlimited holidays, free pet insurance, bean bags, slides, midday mindfulness classes and a steady supply of quinoa and parsnip smoothies.

Some or all of these incentives may be appropriate, but first, you’ve got to get the basics right. People will more likely stay working for you if they’re fairly remunerated, and they’re challenged, recognised and given opportunities for advancement. Each of these is so critical that, in my view, they should be detailed in the employment contract.


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A fair basic salary is a given. Sometimes it might have to be more than fair to attract the right people.

Then there are bonus and commission payments, which should be designed to drive behaviour and be based on results; hence not guaranteed. For example, a sales executive might be paid a commission but only when the customer pays. That drives them to personally manage the customer account and to ensure payment, rather than leaving it for finance to chase – if that’s the behaviour you want.

Share or stock options are often mentioned quickly by new hires, particularly in start-ups. You may need to offer them to keep the salary modest. But for options to have any value for the employee, there should be a market for the shares once they vest – either public or internal.

Being challenged

Feeling challenged in your job is incredibly important. It is different from being under constant stress.

The challenge can be physical or intellectual (generally not emotional) and originates from the company mission in which the core values of the business may be spelt out. To be challenged is about learning. If you ask someone what they like about their current job, they may well say: “I'm learning a lot.”

Part of the human spirit is to advance, and so any job where you stop learning becomes dull, and that’s when you start looking for the next challenge.

From an employer’s perspective, keeping the team challenged and moving fast in the same direction is vital. Stretching their capabilities is what makes a job worthwhile.


Aside from salary and the other financial rewards that go with a job, there are more spontaneous ways in which great performance can be recognised.

In my businesses, we always worked hard at this. We’d hold a town meeting and it was always a pleasure to call out someone from the team and publicly praise them for an extraordinary effort they’d made. The effect was amazing – the whole team was energised, not just the individual.

If one of your team has done an outstanding job, go and see them, congratulate them (in front of their colleagues) and invite them to take their family out for a meal and charge it to the company. They’ve put in the extra hours and their family has made a sacrifice – say thanks to the family for that.


This is about both personal and career advancement. Personal advancement might take the form of learning additional or complementary skills. A finance course for non-financial managers, a marketing diploma for your product manager. As a business, you’ll benefit from the additional skills your employee has gained.

And then, career advancement. Some employees seek a promotion and others avoid it because they don’t want additional responsibility. However, if HR has succession planning under control, identifying and preparing people for their next role is crucial.

Being promoted and taking additional responsibility is key – but so many companies make this a secret. You have no idea whether you’re on the promotional ladder, which can be very frustrating. Talk to your employees about their ambitions.

For those who want to stay where they are, you might create an elevated role of a distinguished marketeer, engineer, lawyer or financial manager and invite them to join an advisory panel to mull over tricky challenges the company is facing. Give them influence to shape the direction of the business. They get more opportunities without the responsibility.

The strategy with staff retention should be to get the basics right first and have a plan for each individual for remuneration, challenge, recognition and opportunity. Then you can start offering additional incentives. But forget these basics and no amount of free food will keep people in their jobs.

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