Retain restless employees

ITworld.com –

Now that we've all had a few years to absorb the fact that lifetime employment is dead, comes another tectonic shift: job tenures that zip by, you might say, in Internet time. The Web's six-month product cycles now appear to be matched by two-year stints at dot-coms. Add a labor shortage, and you're facing a harsh reality: Few of a company's hires will stay longer than five years. Managers must accept this as a given and find ways to develop employees in months rather than decades.

That's the interesting argument advanced by Candice Carpenter, cofounder, chairperson and, until last August, CEO of the women's network iVillage.com. Speaking at a Kennedy Information conference in New York City last November, Carpenter described what she says is "the recruitment imperative."

Employees recognize that their lives may take six or seven major directions that at different times emphasize corporate roles, solo flights, entrepreneurship, family, or community. The question for recruiters and managers is this, Carpenter says: How can we recognize the restlessness of employees and "capture their hearts and minds completely for the time that they are with us"?

The answer, according to Carpenter, is a type of accelerated learning: programs like the "radical mentoring" that iVillage.com offers many of its employees.

On a fast and short track

Carpenter's notion that careers are speeding up is backed by statistics. According to a quarterly survey of 3,000 discharged managers published in November by the New York outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, the average manager-level job tenure has shrunk 36 percent in the last eight quarters, dropping from 11 years to 7. It hasn't been that low since late 1995.

Clearly, all employees realize that an employer might cut short their stay with their company. "Twenty years ago, you had to do something wrong to get fired," Carpenter said. "Now, if you are alive and you have a paycheck, you will get fired."

"People don't have this expectation that they're going to have a lifetime career, so they don't place as much importance on it," says Gerry Ledford, a practice leader at management consultant Sibson & Co. in Los Angeles.

Then what do employees consider important? Recently, 1,218 U.S. workers answered that question in "Rewards of Work: What Employees Value," a study cosponsored by Sibson & Co. and WorldatWork (formerly the American Compensation Association of Scottsdale, Ariz.). Slightly more than half the respondents deemed career rewards -- opportunities for growth and advancement -- an important motivator and a reason to stay with their employer.

"Rewards of Work" ponders whether a self-fulfilling prophecy may insidiously be causing employees to job-hop -- "Since employers expect workers to leave, are their career investments in these same workers lower?" -- and suggests that a company's investments in that area could garner the greatest returns since worker satisfaction is so low.

Bringing people along

One CEO, Mike Kaul of HotDispatch in Mountain View, Calif., jokes that he learned to think in terms of shorter tenures when he asked a standard interview question -- "Where do you envision your career being after five years with the company?" -- and started getting quizzical looks.

Lamenting the primacy of stock options for most candidates, Kaul tries to counteract that pay-me-now attitude with a corporate culture based on values that pay off in the long term. He admits that budgetary and hiring pressures make him less inclined to grant employees time off for training, a known retention incentive. Nor does HotDispatch, a Web marketplace for software developers, have a formal training program. What it does offer is mentoring.

"You need to give people a fun environment and be willing to help them along," Kaul says. "Another CEO told me, 'Over the long haul, we see people with longer tenure in the company are the people who have been brought along and mentored and taken care of.'"

Ledford would agree. "Companies that do something to meet these needs get rewarded," he says. That "something" typically involves training and both peer and supervisor feedback -- concepts, not coincidentally, that are central to Carpenter's radical mentoring program at iVillage.com.

Rules for radical mentoring

In a phone interview, Carpenter explained how the mentoring is done.

First and perhaps most surprising, the program requires daily feedback from mentors. Immediately after a meeting, for example, employees might be told which of their actions did and didn't work. Such feedback can come several times a day. "Like most mentoring, a personal relationship is the center of it," says Carpenter, but the frequency of the feedback requires an even higher level of trust than traditional mentoring. "It's as clear, immediate, and direct as possible," she says.

Participants also consult with mentors about career and life goals. Having identified their dream job, they interview people who actually do that job to get a realistic view of its positives and negatives. A list of perhaps 15 to 20 required skills is developed for each job, and a participant's peers and supervisors rate that person's ability in each area.

Besides giving employees a sense that they are working toward specific goals, the skills-development program has the beneficial effect of encouraging lateral moves to jobs where those skills can best be learned. That helps the company fill important though less glamorous jobs while alleviating pressure on it to provide opportunities at the most senior levels, where jobs are scarcer, Carpenter says.

"We made a sort of contract to say, 'Look, your dream job may or may not be at this company, but you have to agree to deliver in the job that we give you," she says. The company also makes coaches and consultants available to mentors who are stuck on an issue, such as a personality conflict or a psychological hang-ups that is preventing an employee from reaching the next level.

iVillage.com began slowly, with only one mentor-employee relationship at a time, but the company now has several people in the program simultaneously. Carpenter thinks the program has proved its scalability, helped by a multiplier effect in which people who have been mentored become mentors. As for its success, Carpenter mentions several employees who moved on to senior roles at other companies or who have rapidly risen through the company's ranks, some being promoted four or five times in two years. Carpenter has begun to consult for other companies who want to master the new "accelerated workplace," and she is working to develop software to help automate the process.

"We've had a lot of success at iVillage in letting them 'employees' come to something that said, 'Look, you won't be here for 40 years. We all know it. But if you're going to be here for 5 years, let's really make this a great 5 years that sets you up for the next thing that you want to do."

What’s wrong? The new clean desk test
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies