12/01/2006

An Organization That Keeps 'Em Comin' Back

by Piper C. Reason and Barbara L. Warren


Retention of qualified employees is always a concern for organizations interested in quality and efficiency. As the number of retiring baby boomers grows and the pool of people to replace them does not, retention becomes ever more critical. While people will leave for reasons beyond any organization’s control, our little program (10 staff plus the director) has had very little turnover and has actually had three people leave only to return a short while later. Of the eleven, six have been with the program for five years or more.

Considering that there are no advancement or promotional opportunities within our organization, we decided it would be interesting to survey our colleagues and director to learn why many have stayed as long as they have. Is there a common reason for the longevity/return phenomenon, especially given the diverse, and sometimes difficult population with which we work? All of our clients are on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and typically present more obstacles to be overcome than the general job-seeking population.

Our survey, which we developed as a guide for in-person interviews, covered the gamut of job-retention factors including values and culture, salary and benefits, communication, and so forth. We then divided up the staff between us to conduct the interviews. The results were not surprising and coincided with our own positive feelings about our program. They did, however, help us recognize the core reasons for our job satisfaction: the quality of our relationships with one another and the professional respect and recognition we are given by our director.

Mutual trust, respect, and appreciation are important pieces of our group’s culture. Opportunities to share and vocalize these feelings are provided by the director on a regular basis. For example, during staff meetings, everyone's opinions and suggestions are welcome, taken seriously, and given consideration, even when there is disagreement. This is especially important because we are scattered throughout the state of New Hampshire and usually see each other only at monthly staff meetings. Our director encourages us to get together at other times for projects, curriculum revisions, and for such things as the writing of this article and all that that entailed, like the interviews. Most importantly, our director has never taken credit for others' work, and acknowledges our contributions publicly with gratitude.

While isolation can be problematic from time to time, one staffer suggested that the old adage, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” may apply to us. Further, because we all perform the same job, we truly understand the demands, pressures, rewards, and joys each of our colleagues faces.

Creativity and fun also contribute to the strength of our relationships. We all hold dear individual creativity (as we each continue to revise and develop curriculum and supporting materials that best meet the needs of our unique population) and having fun together (essential to building trust and a strong team spirit). An example that stands out is the way in which we "mug" each other. One of our colleagues created a gift bag that included a coffee mug, attached a note to the outside of the bag saying, "You've been mugged." The note includes instructions for passing the bag along. She then surreptitiously left it for another staff member. It makes us all long to be the recipient each month, like waiting for a special birthday, and feeling valued in a fun way when received. It's fun to watch others open their bag to see what they got as well.

As this unique set of interests, skills, and values would be impossible to develop in employees once hired, assuring they already exist becomes paramount. Hiring decisions become even more important when dealing with a group of leaders with markedly different styles and strengths. Therefore, our director includes most, if not all, of us in the hiring process. Newcomers are paired up with experienced staff and encouraged to visit other offices as part of their training.

The sense that we are contributing to society in a meaningful way helps override the sense of isolation and the frustrations we sometimes encounter. Opportunities for professional development answer our need for continuous growth and improvement. Mistakes are tolerated and corrected. We have created a variety of unique ways to share resources, communicate relevant information (and humorous stuff, too). Our director recognizes our many talents and has provided a template with which to create class activities to share with one another. She encourages us to research and explore related materials and websites, and to share our findings with one another. Each of us has a box in the central office where our staff meetings are held, and each month they are filled with not only requested supplies, but with the materials submitted by a colleague or the director herself.

So why would anyone want to leave at all? For all the usual reasons: medical reasons, work closer to home, growth opportunities. For example, one colleague left for an opportunity to work closer to home in Maine while at the same time creating a new position in a similar organization—a marvelous opportunity. Within a few months, his wife was laid off and found work in New Hampshire. Our then former colleague called our director for networking purposes to learn that the office near his wife's new employment was available, and invited him back. He accepted.

The glue that holds us together is the mutual respect and admiration that we have for one another, as professionals and as individuals. In an environment that holds a lot of potential for negativity, we have become a team that focuses on growth, success, contribution, respect, and trust. We believe these are the reasons we stay as long as we do, and that we “keep ‘em comin’ back.”




The authors work for Second Start’s state-contracted program, Working Futures. The goal of the program is to assist Temporary Assistant for Needy Families (TANF) recipients in becoming self-sufficient. Participants attend an eight-week program consisting of classes (job survival skills and self-development) and individual activities focused on job search. By the end of the eight weeks, participants should have made realistic, achievable career choices and be ready to move into paid or volunteer positions that move them toward their long-term career objectives.

Piper C. Reason has worked with Second Start since August 2000. She graduated from Keene State College with a BS in Education in 1975 and earned an MHSA from Antioch New England in 1989. She has written résumés since 1992 and currently holds the following credentials: Global Career Development Facilitator, Certified Workforce Development Professional, Certified Professional Résumé Writer, and Job and Career Transition Coach. She can be reached at preason@second-start.org.

Barbara L. Warren has worked with Second Start since June 2003. She graduated from Framingham State with a BA in Psychology in 1984 and an MS in Training and Development from Lesley University in 1993. She has been working as a career consultant/facilitator for over six years, in outplacement and a one-stop center, as well as her current position, and holds the following credentials: Global Career Development Facilitator, Certified Workforce Development Professional, and Certified Professional Résumé Writer. She can be reached at bwarren@second-start.org.
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