How to Keep Good Workers: Follow the Golden Rule

Hiring good workers is a critical function for every small business, but it’s only the beginning. One of the biggest costs to small businesses, both in the outlay of actual money and in lost productivity, is worker churn. Once you hire good workers, how do you keep them? The simple answer is, follow the Golden Rule: treat your workers the way you want to be treated. Here’s how.

Overcommunicate, especially at first. Let them know your expectations up front both for job tasks and general behavior. Be crystal clear. Is overtime or weekend work likely and under what circumstances? Is some work more time-sensitive than others? Give your workers a priority tree. What’s your policy on cell phones and social media? Be proactive, not reactive. If you find yourself thinking “That’s obvious” or “Everyone should know that,” you’re not communicating enough.

Mentor your workers. If you think of yourself as their teacher, you have a stake in the outcome. Aside from the Professor Kingsfields of this world (from the movie The Paper Chase), what teachers want their students to fail? Teach processes, yes, but also share your wisdom. If your workers are young, you may have to teach them how to work. Then back off. Don’t micromanage.

Have a clear path for advancement: raises, promotions, rewards, bonuses. Break it down on their first day. If you’re too small for promotions, be up front about it. Use intangible rewards instead – work from home, if possible; MVP and MIP Awards; get out of jail free cards. Give them smaller raises, more often, for reinforcement. Sure, your payout will be higher, but I always like to say, “You get what you pay for.” It’s an investment. And finally, if you have a bonus structure, don’t make it Good Will Hunting complicated. And then stick to it. Nothing frustrates a worker more than the Catch-22 effect: just as they’re about to meet their goal, it changes. Don’t be that company.

Do the little stuff that doesn’t cost you anything. Without being creepy, get to know your workers. Ask about their families and pets, what they do on the weekends, what video games they like. Let them leave early for their kids’ soccer games. But be clear – expect their loyalty and extra effort in return. And don’t favor those with families and kids. Reward your single workers, too. Out of the blue, give them an extra half hour for lunch; let them out a half hour early. Earn their loyalty.

At the same time, be absolutely professional at all times. No matter how it makes for good TV, yelling is not a form of communication, nor is belittling. Reward in public, coach in private. And though you want to be friendly with your workers, you are not their friend. You make the tough decisions.

In the end, some workers will leave no matter how great a boss you are. Don’t be vindictive. It’s a business decision. If you want them to stay, ask them if there’s anything you can do to keep them. If not, then acknowledge their contribution, wish them luck, and move on.