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Staff retention should be priority for CIOs

Staff retention should be a priority for CIOs. Some executives get creative to keep their A players.

Staff retention is an ongoing issue and priority for CIOs today. But how can you keep your best employees from leaving? Bolt the office door. Hide their car keys. Or make a bunch of little black masks, and take them to see Zorro.

That's what Dean Lane, former CIO at Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Plantronics, did to address staff retention at his organization.

"It broke up the stress level and gave them something to talk about," said Lane, now CEO of Varitools in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Something as simple as going to a movie, telling a hard-working employee to take the family to dinner and send you the bill, or recognizing accomplishment with a plaque or a cake can go a long way toward keeping employees happy and overcoming the sterile, life-consuming, thankless and dead-end cubicle culture so well portrayed in the movie Office Space. But keeping your employees on top of their game could be what keeps them from heading for the door.

"A good training program to keep skills current is a big incentive for IT people," Lane added. "Their skills are the most important thing [professionally] they have."

Truliant Federal Credit Union in Winston-Salem, N.C., has a spacious, open working environment that incorporates the forgotten windows -- the kinds that let in light. There's also the frequent free lunch and a recreation room that allows employees to get away from their monitors and hone their air hockey and pool skills. But keeping their tech skills sharp and ahead of the Eight Ball could be the reason why Truliant hasn't had any turnover in IT in more than five years.

"We train the heck out of our people," said CIO Thomas Beck, whether it's sending them off to get Cisco or Microsoft certification or providing them with the latest software tools. "Preparing [IT] people for what is to come is important to them," he said.

According to some experts, companies are coming up with creative ways to keep employees sharp and deal with staff retention issues.

Professions programs

In a study of 164 employers in the U.S., U.K. and Europe, research firm <Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn., found that some companies are putting a new face on an old idea -- professions programs -- to make greener pastures look less lush and to offer employees long-term careers rather than short-term incentives. Basically, an employee tells the boss he'd like to jump to another career path. Through a community of interest within the company, the employee talks to fellow employees who are already doing the job that interests him. His manager then agrees to put him into a professions program so he can work his way toward the job he really wants.

David Foote, the firm's president and chief research officer, believes these programs help companies invest in their employees' development ; address staff retention issues; and make them feel like they're moving forward in their careers.

"People leave because they're unhappy with what they're doing in the company," he said. "Recruiters will say, 'I can put you in a company where you can do what you want.' If your employer says, 'You can do that here,' that's huge -- it goes beyond pay."

Officials with Mohawk Industries Inc., a flooring manufacturer based in Calhoun, Ga., realized that their employees wanted a clearer picture of their future within the company and wanted to know that they could move up without moving out. Now management has moved to assure them that they can.

"We've worked on a more formalized career path and enhanced job descriptions so people see that they can advance and don't need to look elsewhere," said Jevin Jensen, senior director of IS infrastructure.

Compensation was not the most important perk for Mohawk's employees, and researchers and CIOs seem to agree that money doesn't necessarily make the IT world go 'round.

Central perks

"No one wins the salary war," Beck said. "You just have to know what pushes your people's buttons and makes them want to belong with your company."

Foote's research showed that additional time off, comp time rather than overtime pay and flexible scheduling are the other perks IT workers want the most. Jensen said Mohawk employees preferred flexible schedules to more money.

"These people definitely want to get away from the office," Foote said.

Other employees just want to avoid an unappreciative corporate culture at all costs. Lane has had five people in the last six months -- including a former CIO, an expert in financial systems and a developer -- come to Varitools seeking asylum from companies where IT is still regarded as a cost center that needs to be cut, not courted. Despite their different levels, they all had the same issues.

"They knew they were doing well [in their old jobs] when no one was yelling at them," Lane said. "They came here to work with me, not for me, and to be treated like humans not employees."

It's the employees, stupid!

Companies not loyal to their IT employees could find themselves in trouble from a business standpoint. Staff retention should be a core value, Foote said, because not only are they supporting existing technologies, products and services, they're also providing new ones and helping drive revenue. "Companies don't want to lose people who understand customers, where they are in the industry, and what it takes to stay competitive and grow."

But unhappy employees have more options with a rebounding economy and now that SOX isn't such a big budget killer. It's their market, but not all companies seem to realize it.

Most of the client companies of IT Staffing Inc. in Grand Junction, Tenn., are blissfully oblivious to the fact that employees are holding the cards, according to CEO Trish Corlew.

"Retention is not on their agenda," she said. "They're not even thinking about it.

"They're in for a rude wakeup call."

Ed Parry is a freelance writer based out of Hixson, Tenn. He can be reached at

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