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The great escape: Retaining talent in a recession


Talent in a recessionAs belts tighten, budgets get slashed and redundancies loom, how can HR ensure that its talent doesn’t drain away with its profits? It’s time to think creatively, says Verity Gough.

If ever there was a time for organisations to secure their top talent it’s now – in fact according to KPMG’s recent poll of nearly 200 senior executives of UK firms, 83% of respondents said human capital was the key to maintaining an edge over competitors. And under the current economic conditions, having the edge is one way of keeping your head above water. But how can HR make sure that as the war on talent hots up, theirs doesn’t up sticks and leave?

Desperately seeking talent

The first stage, says Steve Foster, HR strategist at talent management software company, Northgate Arinso, is to think about who you are worried about losing: “Are you really concerned about your senior managers leaving or actually is it those people doing the solid jobs and have the specialist skills right across the organisation?” he asks. Rather than presuming that the most critical staff are the high earners, talent can be found across organisations, and it’s up to HR to locate it.

“Even someone who has been a good, consistent performer for years might not have what it takes to survive a more competitive environment.”

Maria Yapp, Xancam

To this end, evaluating your employees’ skills is one of the first ports of call, says Liz Bavidge, diversity expert and director of the Fair Play Partnership. “HR has a crucial role in helping people see a future,” she says. “I keep coming across organisations where good people are leaving because they can’t see a future for themselves there – and it’s nothing to do with the recession. Perhaps it is a traditional hierarchical organisation or you have to be a certain sort of a person to do that kind of job but that’s how organisations lose their best people.”

She suggests HR looks at redefining job descriptions, to see what other skills employees have and see if they can be used in other areas. What’s more, she urges HR to take note of who accepts early redundancy packages: “They could be the ones who are going to set up their own companies, they are the ones with the skills that you want to be keeping,” she says.

Honesty is the best policy

According to Maria Yapp, CEO of business psychologists, Xancam, being clear about the business’ future is crucial – those organisations that put up a wall of silence can send the office rumour mill into overdrive.

“It’s not about fudging or withholding information about the state of the business,” she says. “The leadership team needs to be clear on what their strategy is to handle the economic climate and the competitive environment and then they need to then communicate that clearly and repeatedly so the people in the business are confident that the organisation knows what it is doing and that it has a future.”

Yapp believes one of the key things HR should be concentrating on is challenging the sort of talent they are going to need. “Knowing what the company strategy will be and the approaches, talents and behaviours required are essential,” she says. “They might be very different to those that made them successful in the last ten years. Companies have to be prepared to make some tough decisions because even someone who has been a good, consistent performer for years might not have what it takes to survive a more competitive environment.”

The knowledge crunch

With the focus now shifting from a traditionally held view of talent being located in the high echelons of the organisation, HR needs to be cannier about spotting who can push the business forward during the tough times. “It’s key to focus on critical skills and leadership within your organisation and get close to your people,” says Claire Lock, HR business relations manager, Monster, UK and Ireland. “Give them the support and mentoring that they need to remain focused and loyal,” she adds.

Bavidge says creating a strong coaching culture is an effective means of detecting people’s latent skills, as well as helping staff feel valued and nurtured. “That’s where people develop their skills – that’s where you find the potential, it all comes from a learning environment which helps keeps the organisation healthy, and of course costs a lot less than expensive training programmes,” she says.

“Organisations need to be very clear about the future, by telling its people that they are its biggest resource, and asking them: how can we make the most out of you?”

Liz Bavidge, Fair Play Partnership

However, while the nation is preparing for the onslaught of the impending recession, the skills gap that companies are going to be left to fill when the so-called baby boomer generation retires is also a pain point for HR. “Organisations need to start mapping out the skills that the younger generation are lacking,” says Foster. “It’s very easy to get caught up in the costs, and act irrationally when the pressure is on so organisations have to make sure they don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

And if redundancies are on the cards, HR should not necessarily look at culling this skills-rich demographic. “Retaining the wisdom is important,” agrees Yapp, “This is a global recession and although different things are driving it, some of the lessons from past recessions will help,” she says.

Bavidge believes that this is a golden opportunity for HR to start thinking creatively about how to retain these essential skills. “You don’t necessarily have to keep that person on full time,” she says. “Can you use them part time, in a consultancy capacity, can you use them to train others with their skills?” she says. One organisation that is actively embracing the skills of its older employees is Yorkshire Bank. As part of an ongoing diversity programme called Project Vintage, the self-titled ‘Grey Hairs Team’ which is made up of staff approaching retirement age, is successfully passing on their skills to the next generation.

“They come in and coach young people to develop the skills these guys have developed over many years,” says Sue Sjuve, manager, inclusion and diversity. “And we have phased a retirement programme so they can work a few days of week and we promote flexible working for everyone in the organisation,” she enthuses.

Taking the long term view

As retaining talent becoming increasingly important, HR’s role also becomes more defined. Instead of simply managing its people, it now has to start thinking outside the box when it comes to making the most out of its existing workforce. “We need people to be seen as a bundle of skills; and organisations need to be very clear about the future, even if it’s five years off, by telling its people that they are its biggest resource, and asking them: how can we make the most out of you?” says Bavidge.

“We shouldn’t have to have a downturn to start questioning who the best performers are but sadly we often know more about the physical things than we do about our people,” adds Foster.

“It’s not about the bottom line, it’s about your people, your process, your stakeholders,” agrees Yapp. While we can look to the past for ways to ride out the recession, it’s now time for HR to turn its thinking on its head.

Top tips for retaining talent in a recession

  • Focus on the talent within – make any adjustments to your strategy and move quickly to align your workforce through clarity with goals, performance tracking, skills and learning alignment and employee engagement.

  • Re-assess your core skills and functions and focus learning, development and your bench strength for these areas.

  • Focus your performance management to ensure that you have clear understanding of the highest and lowest performers within the business, so that if cuts are required then they can be targeted intelligently.

  • Ensure communication of the strategy is clear and encourage transparency wherever possible. The negative ‘grapevine’ is a sure way to encourage your top performers to brush up their CV.

  • Recruit strategically: Be opportunistic with the inevitable talent fall out, tap in to social networks, develop rich talent pools, and optimise reach through the employer brand.

  • Line management holds the key for talent and retention. Invest in developing and equipping your managers to execute a role of real leadership.
  • Source: Karen Bull, product strategy manager for HR and payroll solutions provider, MidlandHR.

    One Response

    1. Line Management is the Key to Retention
      “Line management holds the key for talent and retention. Invest in developing and equipping your managers to execute a role of real leadership.”

      Those responsible for the sharp-end day to day interaction and leadership of their employees are the most vital component of retention.

      Unles people feel that they are valued by their organization (and their boss is the physical embodiment of it in their eyes), then they will be less inclined to stay.

      Too many bosses are only too willing to lay the blame anywhere apart from themselves (and often at the door of HR).



      Martin Haworth

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