“A bad system will beat a good person every time.” -W.E. Deming

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 40 million American workers quit their jobs in 2018.  That’s almost 27% of the workforce.  Furthermore, a 2019 survey revealed that 75% of employees in the U.S. do not stay at their jobs for more than five years.  What is causing the increase in job-hopping?  Some cited responses include dissatisfaction with salaries, lack of growth or advancement opportunities, toxic work environments and poor work/life balance.

As our culture continues to shift to an around-the-clock, 24/7, “productivity first” mindset, employees are lost in the folds.  They’re working longer hours, and with cell phones, are “at work” even when they aren’t at work.  Employees are leaving these high demand, high stress jobs by the masses in search of something new.  The turnover affects not only day-to-day operations, but safety as well.   When good employees leave, everyone suffers.

How Retention Affects Safety

We know that safety in the workplace is affected by factors such as engagement from employees and management, awareness, and budgetary concerns, but employee retention also plays a role.

When someone is new on any job, training is almost always required.  It’s highly unlikely that even two identical jobs will be done exactly the same way at different companies.  As new employees are taught new skills, it’s easy for them to get lost in the barrage of information.  Brains take in the big picture first, and then focus on the details after the big picture is understood.  As such, a new employee is more likely to make an error than seasoned one.

In industry, where an error can be deadly, the importance of retaining good, seasoned, employees should be evident.  They reduce the likelihood of an incident. A workforce made up entirely of new employees will have a much higher incident rate.  And if there’s a high turnover rate, the likelihood of an incident never stabilizes.

While it’s even more important in industry, retaining good employees is something every employer should strive to do.  Not only do they provide stability to a company, long-term employees also offer loyalty and dedication when they feel appreciated and valued – and loyalty and dedication means business growth and success, and safety.  So how are good employees retained?

Trust

Anyone who has ever worked for someone who micromanages knows firsthand how important trust can be in employee retention.  No adult wants to feel as though they’re being babysat. When someone is hired, it should be because their employer believes they can get the job done.  They need room and space to do so.

It is hard for an employee to feel trusted if their hours are nitpicked when they arrive or leave a minute or two early or late.  If they’re completing their work and doing it well, they need to be allowed flexibility, especially when the work itself is not clock sensitive.

Constant check-ins are unwarranted when the correct individual has been hired for the role.  Employees will sense that they are trusted when they have room to complete tasks without being checked for status or constantly reminded something needs to be done more.

When an employee calls in sick, they deserve the benefit of the doubt.  Most employees dislike sick days because sick days make them fall behind in their work.  When a good employee calls in sick, they truly shouldn’t be coming to work.  There may be someone who abuses a sick policy, or has in the past, but the cost of general distrust is an employee retention problem and as a result, poor safety.  No one should be afraid to take a sick day.

Trust builds the foundation of the employee-employer relationship.  Without it, there’s no solid footing to build an effective safety program upon.

Respect

Stephen R. Covey said, “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.”  I used to work in a front-line, public facing role and I can tell you how true this statement is.  Employees want to know they are respected and appreciated.  It’s easier to forget the things someone said than it is to forget the way someone made you feel.  It’s always easier for an employee to treat a customer with respect and appreciation their employer sets the example by first showing it to them.  Employees will always feel more compelled to work harder for someone who respects them than they will for someone who does not.

Tone of speech is one of the easiest ways to make employees feel respected.  Don’t demean or talk down to them.  Put yourself in their shoes.  No one wants to be made to feel inferior, insignificant or unintelligent.  Change the culture and be positive.  Employees need support, not belittling.  What’s obvious to a manager might not be obvious to an employee.  Managers, in general, have a wider range and more years of experience than those they are managing – sometimes that’s forgotten.

Another way an employer can show employees respect is to listen to what they have to say.  Employers can learn a lot from listening to employees.  Maybe they have ideas that can be implemented in one form or another– making them feel both productive and like they’re truly a part of the business process. At the very least, ideas are a way of identifying a perceived problem.  A spare moment spent talking to an employee about either their professional and personal lives is also a sign of respect.  When an employee knows they are respected, safety policies will seem less like paternalism and more like a genuine effort to keep them safe.

Exempt Employees

At one of my previous jobs, I started as an hourly employee.  I was promoted to manager two months later and then, a year after my promotion, they made me salary – not because I was working a ton of overtime, but because they wanted me to do more without having to pay me more.  I didn’t receive a pay increase, they just took my current hourly wage and made me salary at that rate.  As expected, after the implementation of the salaried wage, I was the one they requested to stay late when there was a problem.  I was the one on call on the weekends.  Consequently, I was working 25~50% more than before, for no more money than I had been making.  I was taken advantage of and, as a result, I left the job.

When I was younger, I used to think being salaried meant that you were successful.  As I’ve grown, I’ve learned that’s not always the truth.  In fact, most workers would much rather work for an hourly wage than a salary.  For many companies, paying a worker a salary as opposed to paying them hourly is a method of getting more for no extra cost.  Often, there are no extra benefits, some positions are simply salaried because a company knows the number of hours that position requires far exceeds a 40-hour workweek.

However, this is not the case with all employers.  There are honest companies with salaried employees who they appreciate and would like to retain.  So how do you be sure you’re being fair to your salaried employees?  First, don’t expect too much for too little.  If you need them to stay late once in a while, they can understand.  But, don’t make it a routine, or worse, an expectation.  Just because they’re salaried doesn’t mean their time is less valuable.  Work/life balance is important and extra hours at work are hours robbed from their families.

For that matter, time away from work is no less valuable to employees who don’t have a family.  Single salaried employees shouldn’t be treated any differently than married salaried employees, unless they indicate otherwise.  If they are willing to step in for a married coworker, let them – but don’t expect any more or less from someone based on their home life.  No one wants to be expected to work more than a typical work week, every week, than what they’re being paid for.  Especially when their workload doesn’t require it.  That’s neither fair, nor reasonable.

Two-Way Street

It’s important to remember that a long-term commitment requires effort from both employer and employee.  Trust, respect, and fairness are all important to retention and to safety.  An employee who feels valued and appreciated will work harder – and safer – than an employee who feels disregarded and taken advantage of.

Retaining employees is important to both stability and safety.  Keeping talented, knowledgeable employees around keeps a workplace safer and more efficient.  Employees—and safety—are an investment, one worth making when the investment is long enough to get a return on.