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Time to Have a Heart-To-Heart With Your Employees

Associated Press
Thursday, 12 Jan 2012 | 1:20 PM ET
Peter Dazeley | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

It's natural for small business owners to focus on customers at the start of the year. Owners are looking for new business opportunities and making sure their relationships with existing customers stay strong.

They need to shift some of their focus to their employees. Now is the time for owners to sit down with staffers to discuss what they'll do for them during the coming year. That's right — what owners will do for their workers.

The Labor Department's report on employment during December showed that employers are hiring more workers. The unemployment rate is falling. Your staff is well aware that the job market is showing signs of improvement. And chances are, you have employees who are thinking about their next move — including your best ones, the staffers you don't want to lose.

Time for a chat

Hopefully you've been talking with employees regularly about how the company is doing. And you've talked about how happy they are with their jobs. Smart owners have been having these conversations with workers since the recession began — and actually, even before the economy turned sour. Checking in with workers to see what's going right, and what's going wrong, goes a long way toward helping you keep staffers in any economic climate.

But talks like these often get pushed down an owner's priority list.

"People are always busy doing something but you still need to make the time" to meet with staffers, says Rob Wilson, president of Employco, a Chicago-based human resources outsourcing company.

The talk should be simple: What you're expecting business to be like this year. How that is going to affect your workers in general. And, in each conversation, how this worker will be affected.

You need to listen even more than you talk. Is your staffer happy? What does the employee want, either in terms of work, compensation or hours? If you have plans to hire, is this worker interested in changing assignments or moving up?

If your company is still struggling, Wilson suggests being honest, and saying that the economy hasn't yet turned around in your industry or town. Then, "let them know that you appreciate what they've done," Wilson says.

And you should still ask them what they want. If a staffer is looking for a raise and you can't afford it, "see if you can't be more flexible with work hours or offer them more vacation time," Wilson says.

What if they're looking — or actually leaving?

Let's say you hear via the grapevine that one of your best staffers is looking for a new job. You need to have a talk with that employee right away.

Expect it to be an awkward conversation. The staffer will probably be uncomfortable and may deny it. If he or she says "yes, I'm looking," then you should try to have a frank discussion about what you can do to make things better. And if you succeed in getting the staffer to end the search, you'll need to deliver on any promises you make.

If the staffer says no, "I'm not looking," don't let the conversation end there, Wilson says. Some workers may be afraid to reveal their plans because they fear retaliation. Some haven't decided to leave, but are just looking around. If this staffer is one you want to keep, your reply should start with, "in case you ARE thinking of looking ..." Then tell the staffer what plans you have for the future that will include them. Try to discuss the problems the staffer is having.

And if a staffer actually says, "I'm leaving," you need to ask for them to be honest about their reasons. If they haven't yet accepted an offer, you may be able to turn the situation around by agreeing to a higher salary, advancement or whatever will make working for you a better deal. But you have to follow through on what you agree to do, or you'll definitely lose the staffer next time.

Even if you can't prevent staffers from leaving, take their reasons seriously. Just as you consider a customer's complaint to be valuable marketing information, so are the concerns of your workers.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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