Good Help Is Hard To Keep

The search for good employees is tough and time-consuming. Unfortunately, once the right worker has been hired, a waste firm's stress doesn't end. In fact, it may just be beginning. That's because the company now has to keep the worker in the fold.

The employee retention challenge is, at best, overwhelming. Recent studies show that 78 percent of workers are, at least to some extent, seeking alternative employment. What's more, they are finding it.

The national voluntary turnover rate is 19.3 percent. That's one out of every 5 employees every year. In the solid waste industry, the number is even higher, particularly in the residential and customer service ranks, where in some cases firms have to replace every position within a department several times a year.

Clearly, the problem is not going away and is one for which there are no simple solutions. However, some practical strategies will help tame the turnover monster.

All too often, discussions about turnover focus only on finding replacements through creative hiring tactics. Missing from the debate is an acknowledgement of the staggering costs associated with turnover. For example, every time an employee leaves, so does a portion of the organization's investment in safety training.

Moreover, maintenance costs increase when employees are no longer committed to their company, and route hours expand in the days before an outgoing worker's departure and during new employees' orientation periods. Fuel costs go up.

An added strain is placed on co-workers and supervisors who have to cover vacancies and recover missed stops. Customer service suffers, and morale declines when a daily shortage of experienced employees leads to fatigue and weakened communications. Obviously, if this goes on long enough, more turnovers and a deep gash in profitability will result.

Some argue that industry turnover centers only on those who are just not cut out for the task. They are wrong. Research finds that an overwhelming number of waste industry employees like their work. Exit interviews demonstrate that many who leave a company stay within the solid waste industry. Applicant flow in many markets is strong and shows a lot of relevant experience among candidates.

Others claim that when employees leave, money is the reason. Wrong again. While that may be an issue in some cases, it is not the principle source of employee turnover. Nor will periodic “stay bonuses” keep a worker around for very long.

Reducing turnover to zero is unrealistic and undesirable. If someone is not a fit, you should quickly move that person out of your organization. Don't waste time trying to “teach a pig to sing.” But, you should work to retain contributors. The quality of your team members ultimately will determine the success of your company.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes when it comes to retaining good employees. The answer lies in a comprehensive approach to creating the kind of workplace where talented people want to be for a long time.

The First Step is Key

Successful retention strategies begin with good hiring practices. If this key step is botched, a company will spend the rest of the employment relationship paying for the mistake.

First of all, quality job seekers want to feel good about the work they are doing and the people with whom they are doing it. Therefore, they are drawn to companies that have reputations as good places to work. Firms that are known for enjoying their employees' trust and confidence are at a major competitive advantage in the search for good employees.

Once a potential employee has applied for a position, exercise extra effort and attention to detail during the interviewing process. This will increase the likelihood of employee retention down the road. Take the time to find out if the organization's values match the applicant's. A mechanical application of routine administrative hiring procedures is of little value.

Furthermore, resist the temptation to hurriedly fill vacancies with people who do not meet high standards. There is no sense in hiring an uncommitted employee who continues his or her job search while basking under the security of your payroll.

Realistic job previews also are an important part of the interviewing process. There is no hiding the fact that the solid waste industry requires hard work performed over many hours in difficult conditions. Be honest with job applicants about what the position will entail. A facility tour by a supervisor and realistic orientation videos are good ways to introduce the job. Listen for indications of a mismatch. If expectations about the work do not match with reality, the turnover process can accelerate in a hurry.

Once an employee is brought onboard, thoroughly communicate with the new hire about the details of his or her compensation package. All too often, the value of good pay and benefits is lost. A recent study found that companies with rich packages but poor communication have a higher turnover rate than those with lesser packages and effective benefits communication. Such misunderstandings result in “pay and benefits” being cited as one of the main reasons people leave their jobs. That is not to say that compensation alone will keep people doing something they do not like. But, it would be a shame to lose them over a mistaken belief.

The same is true for pay-for-performance plans. Even the best designs will fail if they are misunderstood. Internal pay disparities fall in the same category. These only bring allegations of favoritism, undermine supervision and tear apart the fabric of any workforce. Turnover follows.

Strong Leadership

There is no denying the clear link between turnover and the quality of the overall work environment. The people who labor in our industry work extremely hard. A daily sign of appreciation for a job well done is not too much to ask.

Try starting the day with a welcoming “good morning.” A sincere “thank you” at the end of the day can go a long way as well. So can telling employees how proud you are of their contribution. Let them know how much you need them, too. When handing out assignments, start by saying, “please.”

Gestures like these, coming from the heart, will pay big dividends. Ignore them, and absenteeism and turnover will continue to be a nemesis.

Another factor in turnover is the degree of inclusion felt by employees. In other words, do they feel “in” on things? Unfortunately, we tend to focus our attention on a few “superstars” or problem players. All of the others who make up the largest part of our workforce and just perform their work reliably every day are, by and large, taken for granted.

Some employees genuinely like to travel “under the radar.” But, most who feel disconnected to the organization will seek — and probably find — a company that will consider their thoughts and ideas, and show an appropriate level of appreciation. Strong two-way communication builds trust and confidence in the employment relationship, which has a positive influence on retention.

Delivering relevant training in a timely fashion also has been shown to have a positive influence on employee retention. If organizations spent as much time developing people as they do finding ways to discipline them safely within the law, everyone would all be a lot better off, and organizational performance would improve.

Think of the frustration felt by an employee who is embarrassed by criticism for taking too much time on the route even though he has never been fully trained for the task. How about the conscientious one who suffers a nagging injury in the absence of thorough safety training? Or, the willing customer service representative who underperforms because of a lack of understanding about compliance and available service options?

And then there is the case of the competent driver who was catapulted into a supervisory position with no more than an uttering of “good luck.” Then consider the people who are known to be well-trained, and think of how long they have effectively performed at a satisfactory level. Clearly, it is better to develop people and expect that they stay than it is to not train them and pay another price.

The companies that retain their employees are those whose supervisors show strong leadership. Turnover often is an indicator of weak supervision. Indeed, people will quit because of a bad boss even if they still like the organization as a whole. On the flip side, a good boss can retain valued employees in the face of troubled times in an organization.

Supervisors must be tough-minded, but fair, in advancing the organization's goals and objectives. In today's world, there is nothing to be gained with abrasive styles that demean people. A sure way to encourage turnover is for supervision to be dishonest or break promises. Dispensing public ridicule is another.

A company's leaders also must take care to avoid appearances of favoritism. Rewards must be distributed evenhandedly. Responses to good faith challenges must not be accompanied by threats or retaliation.

On balance, constructive coaching and counseling in an atmosphere of approval is by far a more effective way to develop employee loyalty. A more participatory style that gives employees a voice in matters that affect them will foster greater trust and loyalty among workers, and therefore, a more stable team.

Other Methods

This general discussion of employee retention strategies is by no means exhaustive. A number of work-life considerations — such as flextime, telecommuting, tuition reimbursement, catalog awards, job sharing, gain sharing plans, paid time off and child care provisions — also may help improve a company's employee relations. However, none of them will offset or mask an otherwise unsatisfactory work environment.

Turnover is an unforgiving issue. It strikes without forewarning. When it does, productivity declines; quality suffers; customer loyalty is strained; costs increase; profits decline; and measures of competitive advantage slip away.

Enlightened organizations constantly monitor their work environments to address the unique needs and interests of their respective teams of employees. If they don't, they are bound to watch their best people slip away — and into the arms of their competitors.

Kenneth M. Baylor is a vice president for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Republic Services.


Kenneth M. Baylor, the author of this article, will be speaking in the “Keeping Good People” session at WasteExpo on Tuesday, May 8. The session, part of the Business and Employment track, will run from 10:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. in Room B309.