I am often asked, “What can I do to retain my most valuable IT employees?” And when I respond with, “What are you doing now?” I’m told about training, pay and bonuses, flextime, teamwork, flat organizations, independence, casual dress codes, health benefits, 401(k) matching, profit sharing and free food.
What’s particularly interesting is that the basic menu is the same for everyone.
Two underlying assumptions seem to drive this. First, that the only way for employees to feel fairly treated is to have a uniform policy that applies equally to everyone. Second, that the same set of policies will elicit the same desirable response from everyone. The first assumption seems pretty reasonable, but the second likely misses the mark. People want different things from their employers.
One way that organizational theorists look at issues of retention is by examining what they refer to as employees’ “psychological contract,” which describes what a person believes he can contribute to the organization and what inducements he expects in return. Studies have shown that when employees (and potential employees) contribute and are compensated as they would like, they are more likely to stay (or join) than they would be otherwise.
But these studies have also shown that how employees want to contribute and what they want to receive changes as they pass through stages of their careers. In other words, as people age, their expectations change. So to retain employees, you may need to accommodate the evolution of their preferences rather than assuming that everyone will respond favorably to the same set of policies.
Although there are many ways of looking at what are meaningful stages in a career, the following four-stage model seems instructive:
People in the Exploration Stage see themselves as figuring out who they are and what they might become. They want to be nurtured and mentored, to explore and contribute in specifically directed ways. Independence and the potential isolation of flextime may be threatening rather than appealing. People who are just getting on their feet financially and professionally are likely to respond to things such as pay, training, job rotations and teamwork.
People in the Establishment Stage see themselves as proficient contributors and feel that their organizations expect them to be go-getters. While apprentices feel more secure with close supervision, established professionals want independence and feel that their organizations should offer them opportunities to take on new and challenging work and to get promoted to fulfill their promise. They are most likely to respond to things such as flextime, empowerment in decision-making, opportunities for promotions and merit-based bonus pay.
People in the Maintenance Stage feel that they have plateaued in their careers, that they should be able to stay at the level they have achieved without being expected to continue to grow or take on new roles. Many turn their attention toward re-evaluating their life priorities and deprioritize career and work without disengaging completely. They want to be kept in the loop and respected while also having more flexibility to attend to other priorities. This group is likely to appreciate flextime, health insurance, retirement benefits and opportunities to share their wisdom with up-and-coming colleagues.
Finally, people in the Disengagement Stage are approaching retirement and feel that their organizations should expect them to slow their work pace. Instead of focusing on their careers, they turn their attention to planning the next stage of their lives, whether it may be a new work endeavor or full retirement. They also feel that they are less competent than they had been at their peak, that they may process information more slowly or that they have lost touch with new technologies and methods. They want the freedom to choose how much they contribute and when their waning engagement will end. At this stage, people appreciate flexibility and respect and may be interested in transitioning to a part-time consulting role that allows them to stay engaged, but on a project basis.
The challenge for organizations that want to retain people at all stages of their careers is to develop policies that allow employees to evolve in their expectations and contributions and their managers the leeway to adjust. Whether people feel that their contributions and compensations reasonably adapt to their drives and desires is really up to their direct managers. If managers understand how employees change over their careers, they can create an environment that is conducive to long-term retention.
Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.