Turnover Prevention: Why Workers Stay Put
For building service contractors, that sinking feeling that sets in when an employee hands in a two-week notice — or just stops showing up for work — is all too familiar. A BSC wants to catch a break, to move on and be able to concentrate on other aspects of the business, but constant turnover taxes resources and can erode the confidence and reputation of a company.
The reasons behind turnover may be many, and include those relating to the employees and their attitudes or work ethic, societal or cultural norms and the positions themselves. But in many cases employers are also responsible for doing little to prevent it. From hiring to compensation to orientation and training, companies can take steps that insulate them from the negative effects of turnover.
Contractors in the cleaning industry are not alone in their battle with the revolving door epidemic. In other service-oriented industries, businesses seeking part- and full-time workers to fill the jobs at the bottom of the ladder are also facing turnover issues, and finding their own ways to identify and keep quality employees.
Some employers, like Corbin Snow, president of Snow’s Garden Center in Charlottesville, Va., are flexible on experience but have one litmus test all potential employees must pass.
“From retail to landscaping to maintenance, the first thing I look for is attitude,” Snow says. “I mean, we can train someone how to learn about plants and care for plants, we can teach them the horticultural side of this industry, but it’s a lot more difficult to instill that positive energy and attitude into someone.”
Unlike some of its peers, Snow’s Garden Center sees little turnover, which Snow attributes to being a smaller, close-knit business.
“We’ve just always had a good culture of people who are family-oriented and enjoy the camaraderie and the friendship and I think that goes a long ways in keeping and retaining employees,” Snow says.
That retention includes Hispanic laborers who have stayed with the company for decades. Snow’s has employed immigrants since the 1980’s, when it got involved in a Texas-based program that helps immigrants get their H2A visas.
“Some of the original employees we hired through that are still working for us today,” Snow says, including those granted amnesty under President Ronald Reagan. “They’ve raised their families here, they’ve purchased homes here, their children are in the school systems here. And now some of their children are working in the company.”
It’s a company tradition to treat employees like family, and Snow says that goes a long way in keeping them. Employees enjoy two or three events throughout the year, such as a 4th of July cookout and soccer game and a Christmas party, as well as a day-long field trip to somewhere fun such as Washington, D.C., or an amusement park.
“It really just builds a sense of team and family and that’s something we’ve tried to instill in our company,” Snow says.
At Christensen’s Plant Center, a wholesale nursery in Plymouth, Mich., about 80 percent of employees are seasonal, yet many of them come back year-to-year. Being in southeastern Michigan, where the economy is bleaker than in many parts of the United States, many people are just happy to have a job, says Todd Haines, general manager.
There are plenty of potential applicants, but when times were better, they’ve chosen to work the jobs that are done indoors, in cleaner environments, Haines says.
“For a while there it was hard to get qualified applicants because there were other industries that had more comfortable work conditions” than those of a landscaper, Haines says.
Most new hires come from internal referrals, and are subjected to a two- or three-step interviewing process, depending on the position. Each applicant is subjected to a pre-employment drug screening, and random drug testing of all employees is practiced as well.
Christensen’s also promotes from within, which can be a great motivator for employees who want to move up in the company.
Agriculture, like landscaping, requires a largely seasonal workforce, so there are two different types of turnover, says Howard Rosenberg, cooperative extension specialist for Agricultural Labor Management and Policy at the University of California-Berkeley.
Growers have a bigger problem with employees that leave between seasons than they do with workers that will walk off the job in the middle of the season.
“What I’ve observed is that there’s no substitute for just building a reputation as a good place to work,” says Rosenberg.
For many growers in the California ag industry, which employs a 90-percent immigrant workforce as field workers, having a family-centered culture is vital to keeping their employees, Rosenberg says. While most companies think only of pay as the factor that helps retention, growers need to understand that immigrants — a more isolated population that depends on friendship and kinship networks for learning about employment opportunities — may forego an opportunity to make more money in order to be in a place where they’re treated fairly and with respect, where there is decent supervision and where policies and guidelines are clear.
“We also see companies trying to strengthen attachment with people in the workforce and build a core with social events,” he says.
While making sure workers are socially comfortable with their job environment, good compensation always make a position more attractive. Methods to retain workers include financial incentives such as creating a pay scale that increases with seniority rather than paying all tractor drivers, for instance, the same rate.
Management practices such as making promotional opportunities available to employees are common at operations with lower turnover rates. Having an avenue by which people can work up in the organization increases the attractiveness of an employer, Rosenberg says.
Depending on the market a company is in, it can be hard to find applicants in the first place.
“There’s the perception on the part of so many entry level workers that menial task usually means menial pay, which contributes to turnover,” says John Sibbald, president of Sibbald Associates, a recruitment firm for resorts and clubs in the hospitality industry.
Faced with a lack of quality applicants, some clubs in the hospitality industry are going so far as to recruit workers from overseas.
“Clubs and resorts are increasingly going to Europe and the Caribbean to bring in workers on visas, and that’s how they’re trying to deal with this,” Sibbald says.
Most companies have experienced the pain of hiring someone and training them, only to have them quit and go to work for a competitor or similar company — in effect, using that company as a stepping stone to another, perhaps more illustrious job elsewhere. There is usually very little an employer, who does not offer anything but base pay to those entry-level, hourly employees, can do to prevent that.
“So the only way that people in the hospitality industry can deal with that is by providing better benefits,” Sibbald says.
Smart employers in the hospitality industry are increasingly putting together incentive programs with bonuses attached to help hold onto the people they’re concerned about losing, he says.
“Many of those are taking the form of deferred compensation, where the big payout might come if someone stays three, four, five years,” Sibbald says.
Sibbald compares the system to an escrow account, which would vest at a relatively small percent in the first few years but becomes very large toward the end.
“It’s a form of golden handcuffs. Clubs are doing that to provide this vehicle of tying in people so they don’t jump ship,” he says.
In the world of retail, stores and corporations are used to seeing high turnover in their entry-level, hourly positions. It’s hard to slow that kind of turnover — but companies like Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreens Co., the largest retail pharmacy chain in the U.S., are doing their best to retain employees in a very customer service-driven environment.
The company culture is strong in its recognition and appreciation for service from workers, says Milena López, campus and diversity programs representative in the corporation’s recruitment and diversity department. After a year of service, and at successive anniversary milestones after that, each employee receives a pin. In the corporate offices, managers are encouraged to gather employees around for an impromptu pin ceremony and recognition.
“When I first started here, that was something I’d never seen before, or even heard of other companies doing: making an effort to really recognize the people for their term of service,” López says.
Walgreens is a growing company — so much so, a new store opens every 17 hours, López says. That leaves a lot of opportunity for employees to move up into management positions. After six months on the job, employees have access to an internal job posting system and are eligible to apply for other positions within the company.
Compensation is competitive, and one big plus for employees is a profit-sharing program with a nearly three-to-one match for every dollar an employee puts in.
“For most people that’s a pretty big incentive just to have that good of a match,” López says.
Turnover in the fast-paced restaurant industry is notoriously high.
“Restaurants don’t have a turnover issue; they have a retention issue. There’s a big difference,” says Jeffrey Summers, owner of Restaurant Coaching Solutions, Dallas. “It’s the difference between taking care of your people once they’re there vs. churning them through because you don’t do anything with them once they’re there.”
Companies in the restaurant industry that are doing it right are paying more attention to the needs of the employee than they are to the needs of the organization or even the guest in some cases, he says, “because they realize without employees you can’t have guests.”
Not only are pay and benefits improving, but restaurants are building in flexible scheduling, advancement opportunities and even college tuition reimbursement. Those who see their workforce as an investment tend to be successful — every dollar invested in training is returned threefold through increased productivity and the ability to sell.
“The role falls to the leaders in an organization in order to make sure your employees are engaged to the level in which they are loyal to stay,” Summers says. “And that’s a huge issue for us, too, understanding the difference between managing your employees — things that you do to employees — and then leading them, which is things that we do with employees.”
Now hiring — again
Many hiring and retention challenges are universal across industries: recruitment of the right employees, lack of resources to do proper background and reference checks.
The first step a BSC can take in preventing turnover is to hire the right employees. Very often in the cleaning industry, which many acknowledge does not offer glamorous work, pay or conditions, a contractor is so desperate for an employee that he or she will rush quickly through the hiring process.
“What we see is most employers in hospitality are just desperate to get somebody in the job and to do anything in the way of formal planning, they really don’t do that they’re basically just scrambling to fill positions,” Sibbald says.
And scrambling to hire a body is a huge mistake, as many BSCs know. Though it might solve a temporary problem by filling a vacancy, the practice actually contributes to high turnover. Employers should take the time to screen applicants by checking references and criminal records.
Yet that is where many businesses drop the ball, Summers says.
“They hire out of desperation, they hire bodies instead of talent. It happens in every industry,” Summers says. “That’s one thing we have in common with a lot of them. When you start hiring bodies, that’s what increases your turnover.”
Each industry has its own unique challenges when it comes to labor management, but it is clear that those companies who are forging ahead successfully in competitive markets are the ones that are being proactive about decreasing employee turnover and understand the value of a happy, dedicated workforce — building service contractors included.
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Smart Podcasts For The Commercial Cleaning Industry
Other industries are working to improve their own employee turnover problems, but how are BSCs dealing with turnover? In the podcast, BSCs Discuss Retaining Quality Employees, CP asked readers what they’re doing to keep employees.
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