For leaders at small marketing agencies, it’s an all-too-familiar sight: A talented employee hands in her notice and prepares to leave. She could be off to a bigger agency, off to a different field, or off to start her own business. But the effect on you is the same — another valuable person to replace.
If this sounds like something that’s happened to you, you can take some slight comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.
Elliot Schimel, in an AdWeek post, wrote that “talent is leaving the [marketing] industry in droves, and agencies have no idea how to stem the flow.”
Every employee who walks out the door leaves behind a jagged hole you need to fill. Their unique competencies, specific skills, relationships with clients, and rapport with the team are never easy to replace.
At IMPACT, we spent years surviving this very situation. Our team kept getting shaken up by departures — a combination of attrition and letting people go. Back then, we weren’t always able to articulate exactly what made a “good” employee, so it was hard to tell the difference between departures that made us weaker and ones that were opportunities to improve.
But we found that turnover was contagious. Whenever we lost a person or two, we knew that others were soon to follow.
Today, we’re much more stable — and the hard-won lessons we learned are what I’m going to share with you in this article: employee retention strategies that are proven to help you keep your team intact. These include:
The effect turnover has on your agency.
Six ways to retain your employees.
The difference between good turnover and bad turnover.
Let’s dive in so you can start holding onto your best talent.
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Why turnover is such a killer
At a marketing agency, when a team member leaves it sends ripples that are felt by coworkers and clients alike. When a strategist or account manager gives notice, service gets disrupted and the client is rattled. As an agency leader, you’re left scrambling to find a replacement so that service can resume as normal.
At the same time, many small agencies are operating at thin profit margins. As a result, they struggle to afford more mature, experienced talent. Younger employees are cheaper, but they’re cheaper for a reason — and they are also more likely to leave after they’ve gained a year or two of experience.
More turnover leads to more churn. More churn leads to more turnover.
If this sounds like your organization, you know you need to do something to keep your valuable employees. As with anything else, employee retention starts when you admit you have a problem.
7 ways to retain talent
Retaining your top employees doesn’t happen by accident. It takes active effort and commitment from your entire team. It’s easy to assume everything is fine and all of your employees are content, but a high turnover rate is often the result of inaction and inattention.
With easy online applications and a tight labor market, finding a new job is easier than ever. If someone’s job satisfaction is shrinking, they can quickly look elsewhere — or answer any of the emails and LinkedIn messages they get from recruiters every day — and you’re left looking for new employees.
The key to employee retention is simple: Treat your workers like you’d want to be treated in their situation. To do so, follow these seven recommendations.
1. Compensate your employees fairly
I know this one seems obvious, but it has to be said. And it has to be said first: Pay your employees well and they’re more likely to stick around. If you need to, use sites like Glassdoor or Indeed to determine fair market value.
When employees feel like they’re underpaid, their motivation wanes, taking productivity with it. Underpaid employees are always looking for a better opportunity — and a team member with one foot out the door will hurt your culture.
‘But I can’t afford to pay my people more!’
Businesses have budgets, and money doesn’t appear out of thin air. I get it. Still, the market rate is what it is. If other companies can offer competitive compensation, you should too — or your employees will go to competitors who can pay them better.
Think about the best people at your company. The key employees. The ones you would do anything to keep. If their work is superlative, recognize them with more money. Bill Gates once said that “A great writer of software code is worth 10,000 times the price of an average software writer.” To improve employee retention, pay your great workers what they deserve. You’ll likely find that they’re worth every penny.
Reward the volunteers
Over time, new projects crop up and people take them on. When it’s time for a regular check-in like a performance review, make sure managers are clear about exactly what that employee has been working on. If someone has taken on new responsibilities, make sure that’s reflected in their salary (or as a bonus, if it’s something more temporary). It’s just good business to do so.
Think beyond salary
One last note: Compensation is mostly about salary, but benefits, bonuses, and other forms of payment factor in as well.
2. Reward employees generously
This sounds the same as compensation, but it’s not. Compensation is financial. Salary, benefits, bonuses, etc.
But there are other rewards you can offer your people.
Offer them an exciting new account or big project.
Encourage them to speak at conferences or events.
Connect them with industry thought leaders who can offer mentorship.
Incentivize professional development.
Provide tuition reimbursement if they go back to school.
Promote them to a higher role with more responsibility.
Let them mentor new talent you bring in.
There are dozens of ways you can make employees feel valued and trusted. Think of possibilities that make sense for your business.
3. Treat employees like people, not like numbers
Employees leave when they feel overworked and undervalued. It’s vital that each employee knows that managers and company leaders see them as an individual, complex person with feelings.
This doesn’t mean you need to be your employee’s best friend, but it does mean that regular check-ins like one-on-one meetings shouldn’t just be about KPIs and quarterly priorities. A company is only as strong as its relationships, and you have to dedicate time to cultivating them.
You’ll see fewer workers jumping ship if their managers truly see them as unique, valuable people.
4. Give your team shoutouts
We might roll our eyes at employee-of-the-month type recognitions, but we shouldn’t. If you want to retain talent, recognize what great workers do for your company. Sure, monthly recognition might mean you eventually recognize the entire team, but what’s the harm in that? Year-end celebrations are another time to hand out awards.
But praise should not be limited to big meetings and year-end celebrations. An off-the-cuff remark in the hallway, an email or Slack message, a handwritten note — these can work wonders. It could be a message as simple as: “Hey Alissa, I had a chance to look at the presentation you gave last week. Great work!”
We internalize praise. It informs our self-worth and actually contributes to how we see ourselves. If a vice president or CEO tells us we’re doing a good job, it means a lot. When a company values its workers, those employees stay put.
5. Help all employees plan their future
Gone are the days when workers stayed with one firm for their entire careers. Even so, your employees need to see a future with your company. Otherwise, why would they stay?
At regular intervals (probably once a year) have managers talk with each employee about career development. Start by asking about their goals for the next 18 months.
In addition, encourage employees to meet with company leaders about their career path. You might uncover new skills, talents, and strengths you hadn’t noticed before. Doing so can benefit your company and the employee.
6. Get ahead of contagious turnover
The phenomenon of contagious employee turnover has been studied by economists and other academics for years. (The BBC has dubbed it “turnover contagion.”)
At IMPACT, we found that we would often see several departures in a row from the same team. This was due to three factors.
First, a departing colleague would leave behind extra work for the rest of the team. If this extra burden didn’t get acknowledged and rewarded by management, it led to resentment and frustration.
Second, if a team member left and headed to an impressive and lucrative position at another company, former teammates would see that easy jump and start considering making a similar move themselves.
Third, a soon-to-depart colleague was more likely to gossip, complain, and display bitterness, which impacted team morale and, eventually, retention rates.
To get ahead of contagious turnover, anticipate each of its effects.
Build a team structure that allows for substitutions and backups. If someone leaves for any reason, there should be a plan in place for everyone adjacent to that person. This ensures continuity and prevents you from having to scramble. You can also consider offering a bonus to those who pick up the slack.
Pay people at or above market value so that external opportunities are not so enticing. Promote internally, too.
Keep up your relationships with departing employees. Plan for their offboarding and departure so that their exit is natural and seamless — but not drawn out more than it needs to be.
When someone does leave, address it openly with the team. This allows you to get in front of fears and assumptions, nipping gossip in the bud.
The more effort you put into actively keeping your employees happy will minimize contagious turnover.
7. Normalize a healthy work-life balance
Talking about a healthy work-life balance is a good start, but if that talk isn’t backed by action, it will feel meaningless. In his book No Rules Rules, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings talks about how his company instituted an unlimited time off policy to relieve the highly competitive Silicon Valley culture they were surrounded by. At first, the vacation policy didn’t gain much traction.
Employees could take as much paid time off as they liked, but few actually took advantage of it — and Hastings was failing to use the policy himself. He came to realize that he was undermining his own policy by not taking advantage of it himself. When Hastings started taking a week’s vacation every quarter (and talking publicly about it in the office), other employees started to follow suit.
He normalized a healthy work-life balance in a way that a policy alone never could.
If you want to keep your employees healthy, you need to build a company culture that prioritizes health and encourages boundary setting — and then you, the company leader, have to model it.
Employee retention is an all-hands-on-deck initiative
It’s important to remember that some turnover is inevitable at your organization. People leave for a variety of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with your business. They’re going back to school, they’re starting a family, they’re moving to a different state, or they’re caring for a family member.
They also leave for legitimate professional reasons: a change of scenery or a new challenge they’re ready for.
And don’t forget, some turnover is healthy. Every great employee you now have on your team was once a new hire. Most came in to replace someone who left. New team members bring new ideas and new energy to your organization.
But when turnover becomes rampant — when you lose more great people than you can hire, you’ve got a bigger problem. Use the advice above to help turn the tide and keep those employees on your team.
Make them feel valued, fulfilled, well-compensated, and supported. And do what you can to preserve their work-life balance.
When they can see a hopeful, healthy, prosperous future at your agency, they’ll be encouraged to stay the course.